Childhood’s End

Notice anything different about this post?

The difference is probably hard to spot. The difference is ––I’m dictating directly into my word processor. 131_voiceactivation

Now, that may not seem very different to you; but I guarantee you, it’s really different for me. Sure, I used to dictate all the time when I was practicing law. I even dictated quite a bit when we were developing and deploying court computer systems. I’ve dictated documentation, help text, process and procedure descriptions and instructions, and, of course, correspondence.

And, of course, Siri and I are chat pals.

However, the experience of dictating and see the words appear on screen in my document is (for me, at least) totally unlike dictating to either a live stenographer or a dictation unit.

I regard this activity as preparation for direct Brain Machine Interface.

Oh, you don’t believe that BMI is coming anytime soon? Well, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re probably the comfortable majority.

Among those not in the comfortable majority are Mark Zuckerberg, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and Google, to name a few. Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking is already doing it. Granted, it is currently very expensive and requires invasive surgery. But Facebook, DARPA, and Google are betting that changes in a big way in the next five or so years.

You don’t have to believe BMI it is possible; but you should be thinking about the implications if it is. Because, whether ubiquitous BMI is just around the corner or not, capabilities that are mighty close are already here.

Like dictation directly into a standard word processor, email, and, most directly, text messaging.

How do you think voice activation will enter court technology?

e-Courts 2016 Quick Review

e-Courts 2016 is “in the books”, as they say. My understanding is that video of the sessions is or will soon be available online. Check the e-Courts 2016 website for information. I strongly suggest viewing those sessions in which you have an interest when they become available.

120_conferenceStarting with Gary Marchant’s Keynote, attendees confronted the evidence that technological changes in society at large have started to overwhelm the justice system; and courts, by and large, are not prepared for it. From body camera data to genetic data to virtual reality evidence, Marchant described how new technologies are overwhelming the ability of governing institutions – including the Justice System – to cope within existing customs, laws, ethical guidelines, rules, processes, and economic models. While much of government may simply refuse to act – pass laws, promulgate regulations, etc. – courts have no choice. They are confronted with the dilemmas created; but have little to no relevant guidance from either the statutory/regulatory framework or prior experience.

Moreover, the shear size of the quantity, and variety of incoming data has begun to overwhelm the infrastructure. For example, how to handle the exploding increase in body-camera data? Not only is the amount huge; but the formats are not standardized; the courts do not have the capability to display all formats, and efforts to convert to “standard” formats constitute alteration of evidence. The need for the technology to manage the technology is manifest.

Meanwhile, as Tom Clarke, Vice President of Research & Technology, pointed out, surveys starkly reveal that the public regards the courts as extremely out of step with what are considered the minimal standards of technological competence for today’s world. In what was possibly the most memorable line of the conference, Clarke described the public’s attitude toward court technological prowess as “Bringing the public yesterday’s technology tomorrow”.

Pretty rough stuff. Still, I thought e-Courts 2016 was far and away the most HOPEFUL court technology conference I’ve ever attended. What to me was most striking was not the fact that speakers were talking about the judicial system being left in the dust. It was that most people were staying to hear it, and ask “So, where do we go from here?”

The very first session, Embracing the Accelerating Pace of Technology Change, observed that courts have moved from a place where a very few are willing to embrace newer technologies to the place where very few are still actively resisting. The session provide insights on how court managers and technologists can affirmatively advance their courts’ ability and willingness to adopt a culture that thrives on constant change.

The Courthack sessions were extremely well received – something I question would have been the case five or ten years ago. Very bright, very energetic youngsters come together to conceive of, design, and build “outside the box” (potentially disruptive of current practices and procedures) applications intended to improve the court customer experience and court product quality.

The JTC – Improving the Administration of Justice Through Technology session laid out the current major initiatives of the Joint Technology Committee – a collaborative effort of COSCA, NACM, and NCSC – to provide practical assistance for dealing with technology change . These include technology standards development, process improvement, technology training for court leaders, and dialog within and among the justice community on technology matters.

Courts disrupted (which Tom Clarke hastened to point out was way too big a topic for a single session) identified some major disconnects in the way courts may perceive their business and what their business really is. For example, the actual mix of case types varies dramatically from what courts are designed to handle. Just one example: cases involving lawyers constitute a small fraction of the total case load.

Fittingly, Good Public Policy for Innovation: Open vs. Closed Ecosystem concluded the conference. I will have more to say on this topic later. The very practical question, in facing the upheavals and the technology choices, is whether to integrate “Best of Breed” components on the one hand (“Open” ecosystem); or to build or acquire a single system that does everything (“Closed” ecosystem). The panelists did a very nice job of identifying the issues involved, the relative advantages and disadvantages.

Again, I strongly encourage you to check the e-Courts website and view some, or all the sessions. And I look forward to future conferences, white papers, and educational opportunities that build on the material presented at this conference to provide practical assistance to court leaders in the facing today’s profound changes.


Countdown to e-Courts 2016

I’m looking forward to e-Courts 2016 in a couple of weeks; and not just because it’s in Las Vegas and likely to be sunnier and warmer than the December cold and gray at home. e-Courts and CTC conferences stand well on their own in that they are rich in information, networking and exposure to the latest technological innovations. The e-Courts experience, being court-centric, “lessons learned” as well as future planning makes it all that more relevant.

Beyond all that, for those of us fortunate enough to have attended a number of these conferences over the years, the cumulative “arc”, if you will, of the conferences provides an interesting view of where court technology has been and where it is headed. Each conference has its own special vibe or theme (sometimes more than one); and while there are definite similarities from conference to conference, the differences reflect the advances in the technology and their effects on courts.

118_e-courtsA glance at this year’s agenda provides immediate insight into this year’s theme. All past conferences, of course, have dealt with changing technology. This year, from Gary Marchant’s Keynote Address  through sessions with titles like Embracing the Accelerating Pace of Technology Change and Courts Disrupted, the pattern seems to be identifying and describing not only the technologies, but also discussing how courts can deal with the accelerating rate of change for which technology is a major causal factor. Because, while each new technology in of itself engenders change, the cumulative effect of the myriad of technological, societal, environmental, medical, pedagogical and other tsunami-like changes are altering the very face of the justice system.

One area I hope gets some discussion at and following the conference (while not necessarily under this label) is Complexity Theory. (Several years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog on Complexity Theory, also known as Chaos Theory. The editors mercifully elected not to publish it.) The particular point I made in that piece that should be considered is determining whether, in a very dynamic (that is, rapidly changing) environment, organizations can maneuver more effectively with one large, tightly integrated system, or with multiple smaller, integrated but interchangeable systems. In a broad sense, the answer, of course, is “It Depends.”

I hope there is some discussion of what it depends upon. For one thing, it depends on where the court is coming from. If the court has a tightly integrated system that handles CMS, DMS, work flow, judge’s work bench, public access, web portal, and so on, no doubt there will be real advantages with staying with that model. If, on the other hand, each (or at least many) different functions are handled by separate systems, the answer may be very different. In cases where there is NO current system for certain functions, like Content Management, Workflow, Judges’ Workbench, it’s a serious question whether to try to expand an existing system like a CMS or go with a Best of Breed system that can be elegantly integrated with the existing systems.

The Complexity, or Chaos Theory reference pertains to a characteristic with which we are all familiar but rarely articulate, and for which there is some truly incomprehensible math. Since I am not real sharp with math, here’s an example: If you want to pave an area, are you better off paving it as one section, or as a bunch of smaller sections fitted together (like squares in a sidewalk)? Or, should you have one large single-pane window, or a set of smaller window panes that together form a large viewing area?

While the single area may be easier overall to put in, there are a couple drawbacks. One is that you must be able to do it all at once. Another is that one crack, anywhere, destroys the integrity of the whole thing. Thus, when there is the prospect of variability (like heat changes winter to summer) or instability (like ground tremors) that can damage the window, builders go with the smaller, sectioned design.

I think there’s a real analogy here to the situation courts find themselves in as the gale winds of change blow over them. The Pyramids could withstand a lot of weather. But even they were made of individual building blocks. Yes, we’re all finding new functions we want to migrate onto electronic platforms. everyone should carefully consider not just what works best; but what model will best withstand the certainty of future uncertainty.

Black Belt: Learning to Learn

113_black-beltThe term “Martial Arts” may seem strange to those who have never pursued them. To those who have, however, the term makes perfect sense. Karate, judo, tai-chi, kung-fu, and myriad others, are indeed arts, requiring years of dedicated study and practice to master.

That’s not to say that there is no benefit at the front end. Beginners can pick up the rudiments of self-defense in a relatively short order. Indeed, a lot of folks look no further, in the same way that tourists can pick up enough of a foreign language to get by on a vacation, although they cannot be said to “speak the language”. And, there are a lot of benefits that accrue at the outset: improved fitness, enhanced self-awareness, increased self-confidence, and so on.

Most of those reasons are why people take up a martial art in the first place. When they start, even achieving Green Belt status seems almost impossibly remote. Mastery requires internalizing a complex and non-intuitive set of reflexes that permeate every action and every thought. And there’s just no way to do that without investing a lot of time and effort. Thus, to novices (White Belts), the Green Belts appear to be outstanding, the Brown Belts appear to be perfect practitioners; and the Black Belts are practically gods.

So, here’s a bit of a surprise: A First Degree Black Belt, achieved after years of effort, does not mean that the person has learned all are there is to know. Yes, he or she has become highly proficient, both in the Martial Art and in life in most aspects of life in general. But achievement of First Degree Black Belt status means, within the Martial Arts community, that the recipient is finally qualified and ready to begin learning.

In that regard, the recent announcement that Macomb County, Michigan Circuit Court now processes more documents through its E-Filing System than are received in paper format caused me to reflect that Macomb County and others who have been diligently working on ECM for years are approaching new thresholds. Yes, the ECM systems long ago began providing significant savings, efficiencies, and improved customer service, much as a White Belt realizes great benefits from the first several years of training. But as the courts leave the old paradigm behind – shedding its old skin, as it were – after significant time, effort, and learning, they are positioned to begin leveraging ECM by fully shifting to information management paradigms unencumbered by the limitations of the old world. Things like automatic redaction, fully automated document lifecycle control, rich and detailed metrics of all kinds, real-time data aggregation, and much, much more will be just the beginning.

In fact, no one knows the nature and extent of the capabilities that will be emerging, because unlike martial arts, there are not generations of high-level Black Belts who have been here before. The currently emerging ECM-cognizant courts are the first generation.

The next several years will be interesting and fraught with possibility. Organization, including courts, have to “learn to learn”, just as people do. Many of those who embarked on the ECM journey years ago are, after years of effort and experience, becoming comfortable with Change Management at levels never before possible or even contemplated. For adults set in their ways (and courts, as we know, have been very set in their ways), learning a second language is usually pretty challenging. But learning a new language makes learning yet another language much, much easier. Likewise, fully internalizing a new technology paradigm such as ECM makes identification of and transition to even better operations significantly smoother and less traumatic.

Macomb County Circuit Court and its peers have come a long ways. More exciting, they are in much better position to move forward with each passing step. Tipping to a majority of e-filed documents is a big one. Moving up to the darker-colored belt. Congratulations; I look forward to watching as the journey continues.


Data-Centric eFiling

This is Part 6 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 5 here.

It’s easy to think of the key differentiating feature between traditional, paper document filing and eFiling as relating primarily to the method whereby the document is transported and received. That is, physically in traditional filing, and electronically in eFiling. And, of course, that is a key differentiating feature; but only one of many.

Beyond how the document is delivered, consider what is delivered. At the most primitive level, imaged documents – basically, pictures – can be delivered. PDF documents containing image and text are marginally better. Yes, these documents are electronic; but it’s like playing “Where’s Waldo” to find the relevant information on the page. eFiling documents in this way is referred to as “Document-centric eFiling”.

At the other end of the spectrum, there may be no document at all. Data is entered by the sender, validated, transmitted and stored by the eFiling system. Virtually all commerce on the Internet is done using a data-centric approach. The important point is that the focus is on the data, not on any particular document – and once you have validated data in a computer many other efficiencies are possible.

So why do many eFiling systems still use a document-centric approach? The answer lies in tradition. Courts are steeped in it, and the rules were developed before computers existed – so the paper document has reliably served the role as the primary communication vehicle for centuries.

Traditional documents still serve many functions. Most married couples would rather frame their wedding certificate than a URL, for instance. But where a document exists to be a vehicle for transmission and/or a repository of the data, it is simply in the way. So data-centric systems produce documents on-the-fly, when needed.

In addition, there are some very important side benefits to a Court or Prosecutor in adopting a data-centric model: 1) The recipient has reduced data entry costs (and less data entry errors), 2) The filer provides more complete data – because the eFiling system prompts and validates data along the way, 3) cases flow faster with less exceptions, 4) searching and managing cases is more productive, and many other benefits.

The spectrum from most primitive (playing “Where’s Waldo on a screen”) to most sophisticated (totally data-centric) has been labeled the eCourts Maturity Model.  The National Center provides an excellent overview by Bob Roper and Jorge Basta.  Using this model, courts can determine where they fall on the maturity spectrum.

The Maturity Model has two dimensions: First, how closely is data capture, transmission, and storage tied to documents (called the Forms/Documents Migration Dimension); and second, what is the business and technological environment of the court (called the System Characteristics dimension).


eFiling Maturity Model
Bob Roper and Jorge Basta, eCourts Maturity Model, eCourts 2012, December 10, 2013

Along the Forms/Document Migration dimension, the spectrum runs from scanned paper (image based forms) to static PDFs  (static forms) to fixed PDF based forms with data fields (dynamic forms) to wizard-like data entry, where forms are generated later as needed (forms-free).

The Systems Characteristics include factors such as who is filing, what can the eFiling system do (what are its functions and features), how well does it integrate with other systems, how is the system designed (including whether it is based on standards), and how well can the court adapt its culture and business processes to include the new ways of doing things.

With the tremendous strides in the technological power and sophistication of not just eFiling but all court supporting technology, the real question for a court today has shifted  to where the court wants to be. While few may want to be stuck in the lower left corner, not every court is necessarily anxious to try to move all the way to the upper right (see, for example, In Praise of Tortoises). Is the court ready to let go of the paper and wet signatures? Does the court itself, or its partners, have the systems and infrastructure in place to support true forms-free filing?

The point here is that there is a long way to go on the eFiling journey. For lots of reasons, many of them covered in past pieces here, moving to pure data-centric eFiling offers profound benefits. But it takes planning, work, and commitment.  Using the eCourts Maturity Model as one tool can help structure these efforts.

Coming up next: Blog 7 of 10: eFiling Blog Series – Criminal Cases

Funding eFiling: Calculating the Cost

This is the conclusion of Part 3 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series. Check out the first half of Part 3 here.

fundingefiling2Handling of indigents in an eFiling system will be profoundly affected by the chosen funding model. In a fully court-funded model with no user-based fees, it’s simple: indigents can be handled the same as any other filers. However, any model deriving funding from user fees or service charges, both policy and procedural considerations are highly significant. On the policy side, there are access to justice considerations. Any model basing fees on total cost divided by number of filings must, in order to avoid major underestimation of real revenue, fully account for the portion of eFiling attributable to indigents.

A number of courts have made the mistake of calculating costs based on number of filings, only to later realize that filings by indigents comprise a large portion of the totals; and those must be “carried” by the rest. Then, the system must be able to identify and appropriately process those who are exempt from fee payments (which may occur in many places during the filing process; not simply where “filing fees” are typically collected).

In any event, any system that is collecting fees from filers (whether eFiling fees, or other statutory fees) should have a mechanism to handle indigents. The most common mechanism is to allow the user to file an “application for waiver” document which the court can approve on a case by case basis and thereafter the user can file to that case without cost.

A major consideration with Pro Se litigants, particularly in a “mandatory” eFiling system, is making the system easy to use for those who have never used it before. Consider: in the paper world, one could mail a document to the court. Courts didn’t have to help people figure out how to use the postal service. With eFiling, people are in a completely new and unfamiliar world. Will the interfaces be simple enough; and how much will the support (including real-time, “live” personnel) cost? A related topic is the “morphing of what used to be court law libraries into staffed media centers which, among other things, can support pro-se litigants.

Again, aside from a fully court-funded model, a seminal question is “What ARE other government agencies?” Clearly prosecutors, but how about indigent defense providers? Executive agencies? Private contractors on government contract? And so on. Then, how and how much should each various class pay?  And to whom? In the paper world, the court never bore the cost of postage for incoming filings; does this imply the court should have no responsibility for the cost to submit a document to a private filing portal? Politically, the court’s partners will undoubtedly notice the cost if they are required to bear it, even if the actual “filing convenience fee” is waived. Models could include, for example, a “purpose-built” EFSP for use by partner agencies to streamline the filing process.

Refer back to Rule 1. eFiling is NOT free. For example, because we are not used to thinking of credit card processing fees as an additional “cost” when we shop, we forget that the merchant has to “eat” those costs. With eFiling, the court is the merchant.

Up front and on-going user support can be easily overlooked or, worse, vastly underestimated. Pro-se litigants (not to mention out of town attorneys, occasional users, and so on) will need support; and a court underestimates the amount and cost at its peril.

Depending on the implementation and strategy, there are any number of cost and expenses that are not obvious. Absent rigorous due diligence, many of the costs may be overlooked until too late.

Two key points to remember about filer payment systems, be they credit card, escrow accounts, billings, or other system: 1) Every payment collection system has a cost; and 2) Someone is going to pay that cost. A related point is that avoidance by the court of the costs (say, for example, by arranging for “face amount” payment by a credit card processor) may very well result in substantially higher costs to the filer than if the court simply figured the credit card processing fee into the amount it sets as the charge.

eFiling entails costs for both implementation and ongoing operation. Some costs are direct and obvious; others are indirect and/or not easy to spot. A number of different strategies exist for funding these costs. Determination of both the nature of the costs and the funding model, as well as the nature and type of ongoing responsibilities the court and its partners must assume requires rigorous due diligence to develop and execute a solid, cost-effective, sufficiently funded eFiling system.

The good news is that an experienced eFiling vendor can help identify analyze the court’s situation, the available opportunities, the true costs, and the realistic choices, enabling the court to build its eFiling solution using a solid financial model.

Coming up next: Blog 4  of 10: eFiling Blog Series – CMS Integration

Living with “The Law”

Courts have an interesting relationship with the law. On one hand, they have little or no control over what laws are put in place, yet they must deal with those that are enacted, whether they like them or not.

So it is with Moore’s Law which states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years. What Moore’s Law means is that the raw power of information technology – the engine that drives it – is doubling every two years.

An ancient tale illustrates the implications of Moore’s Law. The tale is that a king, being grateful to a man for some service, offers him “anything he wants.” The man produces a chessboard and tells the king he wants one grain of rice on the first day on the first square; double that (two grains) on the second day on the second square, double that (four grains) on the third day, and so on, through the 64 squares on the board. 93_chessboard_rice

For the first couple weeks, the man got hardly enough rice for a few spoonfuls. Assuming approximately 7,500 grains to a cup, he finally got nearly a cup after about two weeks (13 doublings). In another week though, he was entitled to over 55 pounds THAT DAY. By Day 27, his entitlement was 1.75 TONS of rice.

And he wasn’t even half done.

Much has been written about the implications of Moore’s Law in all facets of life. When one considers that the fundamental activity and purpose of courts is to process information, a couple things become clear.

One: Extrapolating backwards, Year Zero of Moore’s Law is about 1960. That means that as of 2014, we’ve been through about 27 doublings. Information processing power has increased over 67 million times since Dwight Eisenhower left office – from a single grain of rice to almost two tons.

What matters is not the number. What matters is what that increase in information processing power has meant – from space travel to smartphones to the Internet to ankle bracelet prisoner monitoring to “Paperless” courts to shirts that know when they need to be washed and tell the washing machine at what temperature to wash them.

Two: The other thing that matters is that, if we were talking about grains of rice, after the 27th doubling we’d have several tons. A lot to pile on a chessboard; yet we can still comprehend it. But between the 27th and 32 doublings – that is, the next ten years – the rate starts to really matter. In terms of rice, that’s around 56 TONS.

So we come to the really important point: Despite everything that’s happened with regard to technology and change in the courts over the past 55 years, THE REAL IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY HAS NOT YET STARTED TO HIT THE COURTS. Our descendants will, in all likelihood, look back on the late 20th and early 21st Centuries as the “early” stage of information technology development.

Technology, of course, doesn’t comprise the total universe of change. Laws, for example, change at a rate far less dramatic than transistors on a circuit. Nevertheless, technology is driving up the rate of change of just about everything, INCLUDING laws. We can easily expect to see as much change in the next five years as we have experienced in the past 20 years. To understand what that means, consider that 20 years ago, almost no one knew what the Internet was.

The slope of an asymptotic curve becomes increasingly slippery as it approaches vertical. Courts and their political jurisdictions to whom they are responsible should be making ongoing rule-making, process re-engineering, and change management a top priority, not an afterthought.




Courts and the Network of Everything

80_social mediaThis month’s NACM Annual Conference had excellent presentations and conversations regarding where courts are heading given current and emerging technological, demographic, political, financial and social trends. Big players among the trends discussed included both networking and social media. One result for me was a couple of either epiphanies or mild mental episodes (hard to tell the difference sometimes).

NACM Keynote Speaker Seth Mattison[1] made the point that the post-baby boom generations have grown up in a totally different information, social and structural paradigm than boomers and their ancestors. Up through boomers, the paradigm was hierarchical, linear and flat. Mattison used the example of the Org Chart, top-down information, power and status flow.


For post-boomers, the paradigm is network. The very term “peer to peer” is completely antithetical to a hierarchical structure. Millennials don’t reflexively look for channels to go through—they go directly to the end target. Boomers are appalled that the “youngsters” (now in their 30s and early 40s) don’t get it. Meanwhile, Mattison points out, those “kids” grew up being the family CIO.

Regarding social media, much discussion centered around:

a) How do courts control it, and
b) How can courts use it?

Both are interesting and complex topics. IMHO[2], those aren’t the most important questions. Most important is not what social media does or how it works or who is using it. Rather, most important is that today’s social media is symptomatic of the very paradigm change that Mattison discussed.

Question: What does your preference in, say, music have in common with the Taj Mahal? My Answer: They’re both nodes on The Network of Everything.

What’s going on with social media is that information and records, to paraphrase Karl Heckart, Arizona Judicial Branch CIO, in his excellent NACM presentation, are “shifting from Analog to Digital”. The Internet arms race is expanding the population of network nodes –people, places, things, thoughts, relationships and more – at a rate and through dimensions inconceivable even five years ago. And the rate is exponentially accelerating.

The social media technology that’s driving the Internet has unstoppable momentum, and your court has no choice but to embrace it in order to manage it. If you don’t, your data will find its way into the social media realm without your control.

What does this portend for courts and the content that needs to be managed? Part of me answers honestly, “Darned if I know.” So much is unknown. Yet, another part of me thinks, here are a few things we can say with some certainty:

  • Paper documents as containers for information may be a current challenge; but in ten years, they’ll likely be as relevant as drawings on the side of a cave in Madagascar. To the extent the informational elements in documents cannot be integrated to the Network of Everything, they’ll become irrelevant.
  • The very concept of a document, in a fully networked universe, becomes quite different than what we use today. For example, in a paper-centric world, the defendant’s name or the charge may be part of many documents in a case file, from the Complaint to the Judgment. Yet in a digital, fully networked world, the defendant’s name is more correctly understood as a data element that is part of a number of associated groups of elements. Some of those groups might be loosely analogous to documents; others will not. Certain external parties and events will continue to require the reproduction of a document, but this will occur from data, on demand (a key component of “Paper on Demand,” about which I’ve previously written).
  • Heck, social media has ALWAYS existed: The back fence, the telephone, surreptitious notes in class, gossip columns, TV and radio. The fundamental shift is in the mechanism of data transport. What’s changing so fast now is the relationships of people to one another and to the elements of the universe in which they live, enabled by technology that becomes increasingly transparent.
  • Soon, we’ll likely see a continued expansion of the meaning and scope of Electronic Content Management. Already, it bears noting that ECM is about far more than managing electronic content. It’s about managing the relationships among an almost infinite variety of things that are networked, including documents, people, events, courts, responsibilities, rights… and more.
  • But what about the “Process”? Because of the explosion of content, a key way to make sense of information in the Network of Everything paradigm will be – and probably already is – workflow technology. Workflow won’t just be AN important thing – it will be THE important thing, because content and people are all nodes on THE SAME NETWORK. Workflow is what makes their relationships to one another have useful and/or rational meaning.

So that’s what I think is facing the courts. Part of it, anyway. More later.

[2] In My Humble Opinion

A Brief Memo from the Future

79_brief memo

Like Billy Pilgrim, in Kurt Vonnegutt’s Slaughterhouse Five, I sometimes become “unstuck in time.” So it was that I recently came across an article I wrote in early 2019. Oops, that’s five years from now. I really need to clean up my filing system… Still, it did catch my attention, and since it deals with courts of the future, which is also the theme of this week’s NACM conference, I thought it would be a timely blog topic.

In the 2019 piece, I was looking back, reflecting on the time when just about everyone involved in court document and record management assumed that there was no way court documents and records would ever be stored largely “in the Cloud”:

Back in those days [2014], it went without saying that there was no level of security that could be high enough to justify putting critical, sensitive court documents and records “at risk” in some virtual, remote “place.” In fact, a lot of courts didn’t even have to consider it because their statutes and regulations required physical storage within the geographical jurisdiction.

In 2019, it’s as hard for people to understand how anyone could have ever considered “local” storage and management of court documents and records to be more secure as it had been in 2014 to believe that anyone ever thought that courts were the only viable source of court systems software development.   Both, of course, were making the same mistake.

Those involved in court technology management in 2014 sometimes failed to appreciate that the technologies and products then available and required for state-of-the-art court systems software HAD NOT BEEN AVAILABLE 20 or even 10 years earlier. For that reason, in the 1980s and 1990s, in-house court software development was, in many cases, the best practice. By 2014, though, it had become technically, financially and politically difficult and risky for courts to attempt in-house software development and maintenance.

Likewise, in 2019, people often forget what the security landscape looked like in the first decade of the millennium. The Internet often resembled the 19th century Wild West. The safest place to keep your data was completely separate.

Of course, over the not-so-long haul, that method worked about as well as keeping your money safe by stuffing it in the mattress. In order for the information to actually be useful, it couldn’t be kept totally separate. So much for security based on isolation.

In 2019, of course, everyone understands that the ONLY real security for court data is in the Cloud. Nowhere else are the tools, infrastructure and oversight either sophisticated enough or cost-effective enough to adequately protect critical, sensitive information. Five to 10 years ago, those tools and that infrastructure were still in development, which is why court record managers of the time could be forgiven for trying variations of mattress-stuffing. Today, in 2019, we are thankfully past all that and our court records are all the more secure for it.

Now, the reason this little piece caught my eye (even though I shouldn’t have seen it for another five or six years) is  the part about statutes and regulations requiring local storage of court records. Technology and security aside, there are some pretty compelling arguments (and certainly a lot of emotional desire) for requiring records and data to be locally stored. Fortunately, even today, that is no barrier to cloud storage. Robust Enterprise Content Management (ECM) systems already provide the capability to specify storage in close geographical proximity to courts anywhere in the country.

As courts implement their ECM solutions in good ol’ 2014, they probably ought to pay attention to whether their solution could, one day in the future, be migrated to the Cloud. Not that anyone’s suggesting it, mind you! Just sayin’.


Background Buzz (More reflections from NACM)

73_background buzz

Despite the undisputed convenience and lower cost of online and virtual conferences, there will always be hard to replicate benefits from live conferences. Good conferences, in addition to the material presented, include networking and information exchanges that occur outside of and ancillary to the formal sessions. Moreover, I have found that most court conferences (and all the good ones) have a “buzz.”

I think the buzz from last fall’s Court Technology Conference and this winter’s NACM Mid-Year Conference have an interesting sub-theme of a major change in the wind.

Ever since the onset of the tsunami that now goes by name of “The Great Recession,” the background buzz at court technology conferences has been centered around catastrophically shrinking budgets and the dilemma of the need to invest in technology to meet the budget crisis, with no money to invest. My sense, from this year’s conferences, is that, while courts aren’t out of the budgetary woods yet (and probably will never be entirely), the focus of the conversation has changed. There’s still lots of discussion about cost benefits and how to best finance Information Technology infrastructure, but the attitude is, it’s happening and it’s going to continue to happen at an ever-increasing rate. So the buzz has now morphed to, “What does that mean? What’s going to happen? How do we ride this tiger and not become lunch?”

A not-so-secret fact of life for IT folks for the past few decades has been that one major (unacknowledged) strategy of a lot senior executives and judges regarding technology planning was to make certain that actual implementation would occur sometime AFTER their own retirement. In many ways, The Great Recession played right into that strategy.

No more. Most of the managers at CTC and NACM realize the change is going to occur on THEIR watch, and indeed is already under way.

In some ways, it feels like waking up from a long dream. True, some courts have pressed forward during the hard times. Still, many others have had to either postpone or greatly reduce their efforts, creating a huge, pent-up backlog of projects. Justice system pressures that were stressing court IT infrastructure five years ago are now past critical.

One result is that some questions from five years ago are simply not relevant today. For example, how tightly should document management be integrated with the Case Management System?

Courts are increasingly finding that CMS systems that provide “bolt-on” document management that allows documents to be stored with the case, as opposed to full-featured ECM, seriously limit the flexibility, leverage, systems integration and scalability required in today’s – and tomorrow’s – integrated justice system environment.

Likewise, is it better to start with ECM implementation first, then move to e-filing or vice-versa? Today, it’s pretty widely understood that courts need both; they need them universally and they need them yesterday. Attempts to implement ECM without e-filing run head-first into painful tradeoffs and limitations. Attempts to implement e-filing absent tight integration into a robust ECM with court-centric configurable workflow feel like building an airport on an island with no bridges to the mainland: passengers arrive; but they have nowhere to go.

So the talk seems to be turning to emerging Best Practices. Some of them include paper on demand, make e-filing mandatory, plan for and implement configurable workflow with your first (not last) implementation phase, and get in front of legislative and rule changes through ongoing and committed efforts across the justice system.

My guess is that the pace and penetration of ECM implementation in courts will continue to accelerate. The reason for the “What does it mean?” buzz is that people are realizing that, however implementation happens, it’s either occurred, occurring, or about to occur, and the planning for court life in the new IT paradigm, the vanguard of which is now ECM, is far from complete.

Exciting times.