4 Pillars for Successful Court Records Management - Part 1

The First Pillar: A Good Start

Overview

While court managers know that court records management "Best Practices" include implementing Electronic Content Management (ECM), that hardly answers the question of how to leverage ECM to meet a particular court's needs in ways that will result in faster, more efficient, and higher quality court management.

Too often courts succumb to the temptation to start with analysis of the available ECM technology, then work backwards to determine what it could do for the court. They imagine how ECM's capabilities could improve their operations - offloading data entry, e-filing, remote document access, automated workflow, electronic signature, rule-driven and ad-hoc redaction. And clearly those capabilities CAN improve court operations.

However, to take full advantage of the capabilities of ECM and achieve maximum leverage, courts should first examine their current situation - environment, technology, users, business partners, current practices and needs - in a structured and disciplined manner, to lay the groundwork for identification of the areas of greatest opportunity, thereby ensuring that ECM will be implemented in a manner consistent with and calculated to support the court's fundamental strategies and goals.

This article will point out, from a very high level, the areas of inquiry to explore at the outset of its ECM implementation efforts.

The Business Case

To be justifiable any technology should support some particular business need. Key questions the Business Case should answer include:

Why should the court implement ECM?

Ask the question, "What problem(s) are we trying to solve?" In recent years dealing with tight or declining budgets has topped the list. There may be a search for ways to cut costs, develop new revenue streams, or both. ECM has been shown to be one of the greatest areas of opportunity to cut costs by streamlining operations, reducing the costs of document and data capture, retention and improved management through automated, configurable workflow (this is the subject of Part Three in this series).

Immediate pain points may be even more important, with major longer-term budget impact. Quality improvements from ECM - fewer lost files, fewer repeated court appearances, better and faster resolutions, fewer overturned cases on appeal etc. - not only reduce costs over time, they can prevent negative public and political attitudes toward the court.

Likewise, the improved security ECM offers can be "priceless", given that security breaches not only cost money, they compromise the integrity of the justice system. ECM brings a level of security not achievable in a paper-based environment, including, for example, the abilities to ensure file integrity and to secure confidential information with intelligent redaction for public access.

ECM can provide easier, lower cost and appropriate Access to Justice. Through remote access to court records and services, courthouse foot traffic can be slashed, as people no longer need to physically come to court to deliver or access documents and information. Integration with other business partners such as prosecutors, corrections, other justice agencies and courts brings efficiencies across the board, including improved customer service and enhanced coordination within the justice system.

The court should look to its greatest business needs to justify the time, expense, effort and undeniable change involved in moving to ECM. Ask not "Whether ECM would be good for a court"; but "Upon what major business objectives of the court should the ECM implementation focus?" Each court's answer will be different.

Where does ECM implementation rank in the court record management priorities?

For court managers it often feels like Priority One is just getting through the day or week with little time, budget, staff or energy for much else.

Nevertheless, during the Business Planning process, the court should fairly and comprehensively identify and rank all its major priorities. This list will include not only what the court wants for itself (more space, more staff, more equipment, etc.), but also what its constituents and business partners want from the court (more parking, shorter wait times, faster turnaround, more live telephone operators, longer counter hours, faster production of sentencing documents, reduced warrant turnaround time, etc.).

Competing priorities must be taken into account. Perhaps even more important when it comes to ECM, many seemingly disparate priorities can be achieved as ancillary benefits of ECM. In those cases, the task is to articulate those facts and incorporate those other priorities into the overall ECM implementation strategy.

What are the court's long-term Mission and Goals?

Regularly reviewing and updating a master strategic vision, including mission, goals and objectives is a best practice for every court. The court must ensure they are up to date before getting too far down the ECM implementation path. Fully leveraging ECM requires identifying how it will support and advance the court's strategic plans and, equally important, how failure to implement ECM will threaten them.

Who are going to be the key people?

The people who must be involved to maximize the positive impact of ECM implementation will be the very people who are hardest to spare from their ongoing duties. A Business Plan that does not take into account and describe how these resources will be freed up as necessary is incomplete. Simply stated, ECM implementation does not do itself.

On the plus side, they are almost certainly the leaders whose involvement and engagement will inspire the other key stakeholders.

What "Political Capital" will be required?

"Who will bell the cat?" Too often well thought out and beneficial plans fail mainly because they are put forth at a politically inopportune moment. Much of the benefit from ECM results from the profound change it instills in the operational paradigm of the court. Many people and organizations may feel threatened by such changes.

ECM can and should be a win-win-win situation across the board. But that case must be made - and often proven - to established power centers. The Business Case should at the least identify which people and power centers will feel discomfited at the thought of the proposed change and offer an assessment of how to handle generating the necessary political support.

What is the recommended Technology Strategy?

ECM can be implemented using a number of different technical approaches (this will be covered in Part Two of this series). No one technical model is right for every court. The Business Planning process must include consideration of the various available technical approaches, the pros and cons of each, and match them to the identified situation and needs of the court.

While not trivial, this technology assessment exercise is absolutely within the capability of any court. Courts have access to many resources, including organizations such as the National Center for State Courts, other courts, trade groups, and vendors, all of which can help identify the alternatives at the Business Case level in terms understandable by people in non-technical roles.

Remember: the ECM Technical Strategy recommended at the Business Planning level constitutes a political and strategic set of decisions, not a technical specification. Though technologists may help describe the choices, senior political, judicial and managerial decision makers will make these decisions. The business must drive the technical direction, not the other way around.

What is the Estimated Budget?

The estimated budget will be closely tied to the recommended Technology Strategy. At the Business Planning stage, the budget amounts will be only "Order of Magnitude" estimates.

The importance of the suggested budget lies in its philosophy. For example, does it include the use of user fees to offset acquisition and/or operating costs? Will it require funding authorization? What is to be the expected Pay Back or ROI period? The answers are informed and constrained by the business decisions of the court regarding the anticipated use of ECM.

Laying the Groundwork

Of the many critical and diverse aspects to Project Initiation, three deserve special attention in the leveraging of ECM.

Stakeholder Engagement

Effective involvement of the right stakeholders - people, interest groups organizations in all their various combinations - constitutes perhaps the most crucial element to obtaining maximum leveraging of ECM.

Each court will have its own stakeholders, but a number of groups are common to all courts: judges, staff (at diverse levels and areas of focus), funding authorities, direct users (litigants, attorneys, prosecutors, jurors, witnesses), law enforcement, corrections, jail and release offices, etc. In addition, legislative bodies, executive agencies, community service providers, the educational community, and the media, among others, all have their own interests and perspectives.

Because each of these stakeholder groups has its own responsibilities, vested interests, hopes, fears, plans and expectations, all should be involved from the very inception.

Governance

ECM Governance, from implementation and continuing to post-implementation operations and on-going change management, must be carefully crafted and put in place early. The topic of Governance is too large to be tackled in this article except to emphasize its critical importance to fully leveraging ECM and to provide a note on Leadership.

For starters, successful ECM implementation requires both a Project Champion and a Project Owner. Sometimes they might be the same person; most times they are not.

The Project Champion should be someone with lots of status, prestige, political clout and a history of success. A judge, particularly a Presiding Judge, is a terrific candidate. The Project Champion's role is, literally, to champion the ECM project at all times, to all groups, in all forums, particularly with his/her peer power brokers.

The Project Owner is the person that bears ultimate responsibility for success and is as Harry Truman said, where the buck stops. The Project Owner answers directly to the funding authority and must have the authority and creditability to make things happen. Due to its influence and responsibility, the Project Owner should establish and answer to an advisory Steering Committee comprised of the major stakeholder groups to bring their respective constituencies into alignment with the ECM initiative.

Planning For and Shaping the Future

Finally, there's no time like the present to start planning for the future, including elements such as assigning, resourcing, and monitoring responsibility for ongoing communications, user and stakeholder training and customer support.

In addition, major resources should be committed to identify legal, rule and practice areas that will have to change. Existing statutes and court rules will refer to paper-based concepts (eg, "Filings stamped three inches from the right top of the page"). Many will require changes not within the court's power on its own to effect. This effort should be regarded as central, not peripheral, to the governance of ECM.

Human Resource Management, often overlooked and always critical, will be the subject of Part Four of this series. Structure and planning for management of the HR challenges should be addressed as early as possible. ECM implementation will change what is done, how it is done, who does it and how it is all managed. Just about everyone understands the need for staff training. Still, many overlook the fact that the organizational structure, reporting hierarchies, job titles, job descriptions and job qualifications will be markedly changed.

Conclusion

A good start commences with the First Pillar and concludes with the successful implementation and leveraging of ECM. The court should determine and understand its current situation and challenges to identify its business needs: The requirements to fulfill its mission and responsibilities, and where it needs to bolster its capabilities or strengthen its weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The very broad list of those who have an interest in the court must be identified, involved, and their own concerns, desires and expectations understood.

From the outset, the court should begin to establish internal governance and management structures to align its business needs and strategies, the benefits of ECM, and its stakeholders with the various environments - organizational, rule, human resource, law, process - in which it operates.

While not easy, laying this foundation will pay big benefits. Failure to deal with these matters "up front" will inevitably result in the need to go back and do them, usually at greater cost and with negative impact on project schedule, budget, cost and political viability. Skipping this critical step can diminish the ultimate benefits of ECM and even put at risk the success of the entire initiative.

Stayed tuned for the rest of my series on leveraging ECM for successful court management - and for details about attending a webinar on the topic. Click below for an implementation guide to prepare your organization for automated redaction.


About the Author: Jeff Barlow

Jeffrey Barlow has spent over 35 years working with courts, both as an attorney and as an information systems professional. After practicing law for ten years in the private and public sectors, he earned a second bachelor’s degree in computer science and joined the State of Oregon court system’s Information Systems Division. Jeff has participated in and led major court technology development and implementation projects as a Systems Analyst, Business Analyst, Project Manager, Project Office Manager, and Deputy CIO. He also holds an MBA and is certified by the Project Management Institute as a Project Management Professional.