5 best practices for IT project management in corrections

Managing IT projects requires a tremendous amount of attention to detail and strong communications skills

Article updated on May 23, 2018

Information technology projects take time to roll out. From identifying the correctional facility’s need for a solution to going live, a correctional facility IT project is often implemented in one to two years or longer. Throughout the process, from concept to go live, there is often someone assigned to oversee the project management aspect of the facility’s new initiative.  

Managing IT projects takes a significant amount of organization, an understanding of business analysis and systems integration, the ability to work with end users and senior leadership and the ability to correlate any project change to the timeline or personnel with the project’s budget. 

Regular communications during every phase of the IT project is the key to its success. (Photo/Pixabay)
Regular communications during every phase of the IT project is the key to its success. (Photo/Pixabay)

I’ve worked on a number of local, state and federal technology projects – including projects supporting the Arizona Department of Corrections. These opportunities inspired me to share five lessons learned and best practices for IT project management. The five things listed below will keep your IT project moving forward (good) and help prevent the bad or ugly from occurring

1. communicate often

Regular communications during every phase of the IT project is the key to its success. Project communications include regular core team member meetings, additional meetings with the vendor and regular status reports to your project team and possibly your vendor, project champion, leadership and possible funding source. Poor communications with the team and the vendor may result in project delays or failure, and that may cost your agency thousands or even millions of dollars depending on the size of your project. 

It is also important to recognize that everyone communicates differently. For example, emailing an action item to your vendor does not mean the message is received because you hit the send button. As the project manager, you need to make sure you follow up on that action item you assigned. Find out what communication methods works best for you, the team, the vendor and everyone else and adjust accordingly to ensure that the project you’re responsible for does not fail. 

2. develop a written project plan

The project plan is a living document throughout the project as changes are made, risks are identified and the technology implementation is completed. A written project plan typically includes the following:

  • A project scope statement.
  • The project’s purpose. 
  • The project champion (e.g. generally the warden, deputy warden or CIO).
  • A list or table of the core team members with contact information and their role within the project. 
  • A list of external stakeholders with contact information and their role within the project.
  • A financial section that includes the project’s overall budget.
  • A change management section, the process in which a suggested change is reviewed, adopted or rejected. 
  • A risk management section which includes a risk register and mitigation strategies.
  • A communications plan. 
  • A legislative analysis section, which includes any existing or pending legislation,  that may impact your project. 
  • Key milestones or high-level list derived from your project schedule. 

Once the project plan is developed, it must be shared with the core team members for input and buy-in. For version control, simply document the version number on the cover page as updates are made. Every time an update is made, send out the new version to the core team members and set up a meeting to review and discuss the changes. The project plan is typically developed using MS Word or in an online document that is always up-to-date and has editing and sharing controls.  

3. create a project schedule

A project schedule includes project phases, key tasks, deliverables, milestones, critical paths and assignments. The project schedule is essentially a timeline that documents each task, when each task will be completed and who is responsible. 

There is no way to predict the future, but you must build out a project schedule based on well-thought out assumptions. The project schedule should be frequently reviewed and adjusted. 

Changes are to be expected along the way. This is important to communicate to your core team members and external stakeholders so no one is caught off guard when there is a shift in the timeline. For projects that are longer than one year in scope and have multiple phases, more robust software tools like MS Project, Basecamp, Trello or JIRA should be considered. For less complicated projects, MS Excel will work for creating a timeline.

4. Expect legal or political concerns 

All IT project managers and IT team members need to expect legal or political issues to occur and when they do, it is important to communicate the issue to your project champion and let him or her manage the issue. Be sure to inform the project champion about the implications the issue may have on your project schedule and major milestones. 

5. Expect to create new agency policy and training

In theory, the policy for the new technology should be created before the project goes live. The policy, like the project plan and project schedule, will likely be amended throughout the first year of a project as new issues surface. Plan accordingly for these changes.

Managing IT projects requires a tremendous amount of attention to detail and strong communications skills. Every correctional IT project has risks from procurement to implementation. It’s never as easy as it may seem, and there are often issues beyond your control. But a good project manager will be informed about those issues, communicate them and seek out strategies to resolve so the agency will be able to fully implement and train its COs on the new technology.  

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