Technology: “A component of a strategy, not a strategy in and of itself.”

By , October 18, 2012

Earlier this month, CBKB convened a group of experts on law enforcement and technology to talk about the use of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) in making decisions about public safety technology. The roundtable covered a lot of ground; you can read about the discussion in greater detail in an upcoming CBKB publication. This post summarizes some of the highlights, starting with a few questions to consider when facing these decisions: First, ask why you think a particular technology may solve the problem at hand. Second, if a technological solution is appropriate, how might CBA or another type of economic analysis help you evaluate your options?

Tom McEwen (left), director of research for the Institute for Law and Justice, Cynthia Lum, and David O’Keefe, at the October roundtable.

A number of roundtable participants said that technology can be seductive, but should be evaluated to determine whether it’s the best use of resources. Doug Dretke, executive director of the Correctional Management Institute of Texas, said that technology can sometimes be an “easy way out” of difficult discussions about staffing or training. Cynthia Lum, deputy director and associate professor at the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University, said she sees a misperception in policing that “We do have to keep up with technology.”

Cabell Cropper, executive director of the National Criminal Justice Association, encapsulated what a number of others alluded to in their comments when he said that technology “is a component of a strategy, not a strategy in and of itself.” In terms of cost, decisions about public safety technology take on even greater importance during economically trying times. As chief warrant officer John Dough of the Essex County Sheriff’s Office in New Jersey said, “When you buy technology… you’re really buying a business process.” If people don’t think through the entire strategy, he cautioned, they end up “married to a process they hate.”

So how do you work CBA into decisions about public safety technology? The answer that was probably most common among the roundtable participants was—carefully—and only under the right circumstances. Meghan Cook, project manager for the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany, State University of New York, talked about distinguishing the “modest, moderate, and elaborate” forms of CBA that government agencies might undertake, and picking the right level of analysis given time, resource, and data constraints. Many participants said that government does not operate using a classic business model and therefore voiced the concern that a strict CBA framework may not always fit. David O’Keefe, chief of the Crime Strategies Unit for the New York County District Attorney’s Office, suggested that something like “cost-effectiveness-plus” analysis might be more appropriate for some government agencies than a full-blown CBA for decisions about technology. Otherwise, he predicted, “It’s kind of like cutting a tomato with a sledgehammer.”

Some roundtable participants said that under certain conditions—such as when an agency has access to quality data and engages in strategic planning that includes a technology planning process—CBA could be used to present more comprehensive information, by representing more perspectives and considering more costs and more benefits than other types of analysis would.  Others said that cost-benefit thinking may contribute to better decisions about public safety technology—and the process itself can help people think about problems differently. According to Doug Dretke, “Much of what we’ve been talking about is actually strategic planning; it’s critical thinking; it’s building a framework [with] which to evaluate something like technology in public safety.” He concluded, “So somehow taking this process and being able to lay a framework to go through the multiplicity of stakeholders, the dynamics, and making good decisions, and then tying it back to what our jurisdictions are really about could have a huge impact.”

This month on the blog we’re focusing on public safety technology and the use of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) in making policy and program decisions. Please comment below or send us your questions or ideas via Twitter or Facebook, or by e-mail to cbkb@cbkb.org.

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