Digitizing the Paper Trail
Content Management system helps IACHR guard against human rights abuses.
by Tara Swords, November 2011
In recent decades, many of the 35 countries in the Americas have made progress toward establishing or improving democracies. Nonetheless, human rights violations abound. A simple search of recent news reveals dozens of alleged abuses: migrant workers wrongfully imprisoned or tortured, citizens punished for self-expression, communities threatened by toxic waste, laws banning the use of common fertility treatments. Even when governments may not provide adequate protections to their own citizens, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) can step in.
All 35 countries voluntarily belong to the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional intergovernmental body committed to promoting and protecting democratic principles. The IACHR, created in 1959, is a principal organ of the OAS that devotes special attention to human rights issues. It investigates, litigates, and works to prevent human rights abuses anywhere in the Americas. During the 1970s and 1980s, that meant investigating the mass killings that took place under notorious dictatorships. Today, it more often means investigating due process violations and discrimination against minority groups.
“It’s a consequence of the return to democracy in many of the countries in Latin America,” says Santiago Canton, executive secretary of the IACHR. “People not only complain about the issues that were more common during the dictatorships, but also they’re expecting the right to enjoy a better life.”
Today, technology plays a starring role in the IACHR’s efforts to protect petitioners. Using an Oracle-based content management system, the organization has moved away from manual, paper-based processes to a state-of-the-art solution that ensures lawyers can provide petitioners with the respect and timely attention they need.
No matter the alleged violation, the IACHR is committed to responding to every person who asks for help. In principle, that commitment is noble. In practice, it’s nobler still: just 25 attorneys are currently handling more than 8,500 active cases.
Of those cases, 7,500 are petitions from individuals who claim that their rights have been violated. The other 1,000 are known as “requests for precautionary measures,” which are urgent pleas for protection in anticipation of a violation. For instance, a journalist who may fear that her life is in danger can request that immediate precautionary measures be taken to protect her. The IACHR can also take the matter before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica and seek an injunction to protect the journalist.
Petitions can remain open for as long as a decade, while precautionary measures require intervention within hours or days. In either instance, the IACHR’s success—and a petitioner’s life and liberties—hinges on the commission’s ability to efficiently manage case materials through a complex system of 17 possible workflows and more than 100 security roles. Previously the IACHR was using a largely manual system that simply could not operate quickly or securely enough to maximize the organization’s impact.
“If we want to have a direct impact on the people, it would be stupid not to think about finding ways in which we can do things faster, more professionally, and in a more organized way,” Canton says. “The way to do that these days is through working with IT.”
The IACHR’s movement toward a modern content management system happened in phases. In 2003, IT Project Manager Carolina Franco led a multidisciplinary team that implemented a system to manage the workflow of petitions from a central repository. The system provided a place to store every petition received, but ensuring security and managing the documentation related to each petition remained an issue. “These documents often contain highly sensitive information about people at risk of harm, and it is fundamental to store them and manage them through a system that provides a high level of security and eliminates the impulse to keep files on individual computers,” says Franco, now a senior IT manager with the IACHR.
The new petition and case management system (PCMS) provided a central repository for storing information related to petitions and cases. It helped the IACHR standardize procedures and routed petitions through the proper workflow. The PCMS satisfied the IACHR’s needs for a few years, until several factors began to exploit weaknesses in the system.
The existing system managed petitions and their workflows but not all of the associated documentation that accrues over the months or years. And all that documentation—whether a phone call, a video, a handwritten letter, or a box full of paper—must be stored and retained permanently.
“If the petitioner is so desperate that they send a letter by mail, by e-mail, and by fax, and then they call—that’s the same information,” Franco says. “And we’re not allowed to discard any of it. So that’s four documents in the system.” This situation became a burden for the IACHR, because it lacked a way to store unstructured data in a single place.
Every communication from every petitioner must receive a response. Even when a petitioner complains about something that isn’t a human rights violation, the IACHR is committed to acknowledging receipt of the communication. With an influx of about 200 new communications every day, the IACHR clearly had a huge document-management challenge. Adding to the complexity, those documents lived in scattered locations: on lawyers’ computer hard drives, on servers, in 10-inch stacks of paper stored in physical boxes.
These complications were exacerbated by the fact that the initial step of receiving communications and inserting them into the workflow slowed down the rest of the process. A single person was responsible for receiving and opening a new communication, determining who among the 25 lawyers should receive it, and walking to that person’s physical mailbox to drop off the item.
Finally, IACHR management reorganized the way staff distributed cases. Different groups of lawyers would be responsible for cases originating in different regions or countries. That meant the system needed to enforce new rules for which people could access which documents.
It was obvious to the IACHR management team that the system required a significant overhaul. They turned to the IACHR’s Department of Information and Technology Services for the supporting technology.
Speed and Focus
Using the requirements defined by the IACHR, the Department of Information and Technology Services benchmarked three potential content management solutions. Department members created a decision matrix with more than 100 weighted criteria and decided they would require a solution that could meet at least 85 percent of those criteria. After two months of work, the final figures led to the determination that the IACHR would implement Oracle WebCenter—a platform within Oracle Fusion Middleware that promotes collaboration through the use of intuitive portals and composite applications—for enterprise content management.
Next the IACHR’s IT project team created a demo to give a better idea of how the system would look and function.
“When we went live, there would be a lot of security issues and confidential information that we would have to deal with,” says Juan José Goldschtein, CIO of the OAS. “When we decided on the tool to be used, one of the factors that we had to take into account was the need to pick a tool that would guarantee us a really a strong platform that we could count on at the moment that we went online.”
Two years and three proofs of concept later, the IACHR switched to the new content management system. Today, that system annually manages more than 130,000 documents through 17 workflows that support four languages.
The system has completely changed the way cases travel through the organization. Everything moves faster, and determining the status of a case—even if many people are involved and the case has been ongoing for years—takes just a moment.
“Lawyers were losing a lot of time with tracking and searching documents,” Franco says. “The system now includes a search engine, so they can search for keywords, they can search by country or date—everything is right there.”
Anything that helps the lawyers operate more efficiently also helps petitioners. Victor Madrigal-Borloz, an IACHR lawyer who is also responsible for case management and liaising with the IT department, says the ability to provide an immediate status update is invaluable to a petitioner in a desperate situation.
“You must take into account that almost a fifth of our petitions actually refer to people who are deprived of liberty,” Madrigal-Borloz says. “Another amount of petitions refer to people that have to walk miles to actually go to a telephone. So to be able to call up the information and to say not only ‘I can see your case in the system,’ but ‘I see your piece of paper came in and it is with us,’ is an incredible difference. We won’t explain to him, ‘That’s because we have a lovely new system,’ but we know it’s because of that.”
That single view of a case prevents things from falling through the cracks.
“Right now people just log in to the system and they see they have a new letter,” Franco says, adding that the user interface looks similar to an e-mail program, displaying a list of all the new correspondences that are pending for review. “You have many different documents to review, and for each document, you can see all the metadata and whether it’s flowing through a workflow. We’ve seen a great improvement.”
The organization’s leaders are aware of the time improvement because Oracle WebCenter’s reporting tools enable them to quickly generate rich reports—something they couldn’t do before.
“We know we are on the right path because when we started this process of systematization, we had a number of months that cases took on average, and we know we are progressing toward fewer and fewer months,” Madrigal-Borloz says.
The new system has also helped the IACHR staff embrace new technologies. In the past, when Canton would arrive in the office every day he would find a stack of paper two feet high. He had to review every paper that day to deliver it to the appropriate lawyer or add his signature when necessary. But because Canton must travel to member countries fairly often, reviewing and signing paper documents was sometimes impossible.
Now, he simply connects to the content management system (CMS) by logging into the corporate network using his iPad.
“Right now, of course, there’s no paper, so we save a lot of trees and I can sign with a computer, whatever country I’m in,” Canton says. “Even when I’m traveling, I can sign all the letters and take a look at all the files, which in the past I couldn’t do. So it’s really much more efficient and much more professional.”
A Culture Change
The system has been a technological success since it went live in May 2010. But the biggest challenge to implementation wasn’t technology; it was the extraordinary culture shift that the organization underwent. IACHR employees had to recognize—first at the top, then down through the ranks—that the new system would not be a nuisance but a critical partner in the organization’s mission. As such, it deserved their time.
“It’s not that we didn’t want to pay attention to what IT was doing,” Canton says. “It’s just that we were so overwhelmed with work that sometimes it’s difficult to step aside and take a look into other issues.”
In addition, the IT department and the lawyers had to learn to work closely in pursuit of a common goal. To that end, they designated certain lawyers and IT staff to learn about the other side and act as something like translators. That way, the IT staff would better understand how the lawyers needed the system to work, and the lawyers would better understand what IT was trying to accomplish.
When the day came to fully switch over to the new CMS, a few staff members resisted the change. To some, it seemed that the learning curve was little more than an obstacle to getting their work done. But management insisted that everyone get onboard and provide feedback so the system would evolve to be exactly what they needed.
“They understand that the system is not going to be frozen in time,” Madrigal-Borloz says. “They understand that of course within reason—and following the processes that we can—we are able to continue custom-making this process. It will continue adapting to our needs in the way where people feel that they’re shaping it every day.”
After just a few months, the time to move a correspondence forward decreased significantly. Lawyers could work faster and with better visibility into all of their cases. And they’re starting to see IT as an enabler. “I think right now, most of the people are very aware how IT has changed their daily lives at work, and they’re giving more and more importance and attention to their IT needs,” Franco says. “Now they come across me in the halls of the office, and they say, ‘Oh, I need a reporting tool.’ Before that, nobody would even think that could be solved with an IT kind of system.”
In the end, Madrigal-Borloz says, the lawyers have come to view the system as a partner in their work. “I think we understand better how something that maybe we used to see as a cold thing—a system—can actually contribute to something that is of very substantial value in terms of human rights. Not a week goes by without five or six lawyers coming to my office and saying, ‘We should have the system doing this.’ I think the great thing that has changed in the mentality is people know that the systems are there to actually serve as vehicles for good processes.”
Goldschtein says the system isn’t just a partner; it has become a point of pride and a tremendous monument to the virtues of teamwork and perseverance even when the road is bumpy.
“When the system turned a year old, a cake was brought into the kitchen and people sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to it,” Madrigal-Borloz laughs. “I’m not making that up. We have pictures to remember it.”
The IACHR calls on member states to operate more transparently. Soon, its lawyers will be able to provide that same kind of transparency to the outside world.
Using the new CMS, a Web application that will enable petitioners from across the Americas to log in and instantly see the status of their case is being built. The new portal, to launch toward the end of 2011, is yet another step in the culture change that has swept through the IACHR.
“At the end of the day,” Canton says, “the issue of human rights and the work of IT come together.”
For More Information
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Tara Swords is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.