When Resolution Systems Institute received a grant from the Illinois Attorney General to develop foreclosure mediation programs across the state, it was our opportunity to practice what we preach. From RSI’s inception, we’ve been telling courts that they need to monitor and evaluate their mediation programs to ensure that they’re providing quality services to those who come to them to resolve disputes. We’ve also been urging them to incorporate the development of a monitoring and evaluation system into their program design process. Too often, courts have decided against doing this, or have settled for a system that collects minimal data, such as number of mediations and number of settlements. The main problem has been lack of staff and money to develop and maintain such a system, as well as, perhaps, a lack of understanding of what it could provide.
So, when RSI applied for the Attorney General grant, we made sure to ask for money to put where our mouth was. The funds we requested would provide the resources we needed to develop an online system from the outset that would collect data for monitoring and evaluation purposes. With the funding, we set out to develop an online system for use by ten programs around Illinois that would not only manage cases, but also would create monitoring reports and collect data for evaluation purposes. Our plan was to use the data for a statewide evaluation program that would use uniform variables to compare programs and their different models
Our experience with other programs was that the amount of staff time required to enter data was a major impediment to programs developing or maintaining a monitoring and evaluation system. So, in order to reduce the amount of time needed for staff to enter data, we decided to do three things. First, we would take two systems that generally remain separate – case management and program monitoring – and pull them together into one seamless system. This would reduce the need for redundant entries by having some case management entries provide the data for the monitoring system. Second, we would create reports that mediators and housing counselors could complete online, eliminating the need to enter data from paper copies of mediator reports. Third, we would develop scannable participant surveys that could be uploaded in minutes so that staff wouldn’t have to key in survey responses. What was more, we wanted to do it while accommodating several different service delivery models. To make matters more complicated, these models included housing counseling or other pre-mediation services to assist the parties prior to mediation. As you might imagine, working with ten programs providing different services was the trickiest part. We had to create a system that was both flexible enough to accommodate their distinct needs and uniform enough that direct comparisons could be made across programs.
The foundation for our system is Caseload Manager, a highly capable case management program. We worked with the folks at Caseload Manager (Resourceful Internet Solutions, Inc., which also runs Mediate.com), to tailor the case management aspects to fit our programs’ needs and to beef up the reports the system could generate. The system now captures:
- demographic information on homeowners, which will show the courts who the programs are serving and provide data on homeowners for a statewide evaluation
- the time it takes for cases to move through the program and reasons for delays, which will give insight into any bottlenecks that keep cases from progressing
- reasons why cases return to court prior to mediation, which will provide information on why homeowners are dropping out of the program
- outcomes of each stage (e.g., housing counseling stage and mediation stage) and overall how many homeowners reach agreement to either retain or gracefully exit their homes
- satisfaction data from all participants.
The system is now up and and being used by three programs with very different needs. So far, the launch has been pretty smooth. What has made it successful was months of detailed planning of what we wanted and how the system could work for ten different programs. The planning process included multiple meetings with program administrators and judges to get their input and several refinements of the concept before any software programming even began. Success has also required continual communication with program staff, and good collaboration with the folks at Caseload Manager to ensure that our vision was translated into reality. Caseload Manager and I also conducted multiple trainings of program staff on how to use the system to ensure correct entry of data. Even after all the planning, we still had to remain open to the need to tweak the program once it was being used on real cases.
With this project, we’ve proven that a system that integrates case management and in-depth reporting can be developed, and can be developed relatively easily if it’s done for only one program. In our case, almost all the complexity of the program and almost all of the funding required was caused by the need to accommodate the different program models. Our other takeaway is that almost all of the work is done upfront. As the programs come online, the development work has dropped dramatically and the time staff spends entering data for the reports is negligible. The cost is now just a small monthly maintenance fee for each court. It’s been a sometimes frustrating project to head up, but very rewarding. Now that the system is done, I’m looking forward to the next phase: using the data to understand how well the mediation programs are working.