Paperless Office Progress Actually Observed

As a kid at the beach, I became aware, at some point, that although the rising tide can and will come in and soak previously dry ground, it’s usually pretty hard to tell exactly when the tide changes and starts receding. In fact, it seemed to me that the tide level just sort of stayed at the same place for quite a while, before there was any discernable retreat.

115_paperless-officeA recent article by Christopher Mims with the catchy title  Why the Paperless Office Is Finally On Its Way caught my eye. Turns out that, no; it hasn’t been just your imagination: The advent of nearly universal “Paperless Offices” (or, as we like to call it, “Paper On Demand”) has been, shall we say, a bit slower in coming than had been predicted forty years ago, when an article in Business Week predicted that “…paper would be on its way out by 1980, and nearly dead by 1990.” In fact, Mims cites reports that indicate the number of pages printed in offices was increasing until 2007.  Now, we have analysis that 2007 was the high water mark.

Now, what’s interesting to me is not that the Paperless Office didn’t arrive on schedule – we all know that. What’s interesting is that it now looks like the tide has actually turned.

According to Mims’ sources, since 2007, office use of paper has declined a steady rate of 1% to 2% a year.  The article goes on point out a number of reasons for the hitherto slow progress away from paper.  Still, it concludes by predicting that the trend away from paper is gaining momentum; although full transition will clearly take some time.

Here are a few of my observations on these findings.

First and foremost, keep in mind that the “1% to 2%” figure is an aggregate. It could mean that every office has reduced its printing that much. Or, it could mean that 1% or 2% of all offices have reduced their printing to zero; and all the rest still print just as much as they always have.

The reality is somewhere in the middle. I think what you’ve got is a relative handful of offices reducing their printing by far more; and most offices, even when they are utilizing electronic documents, still printing as much as or more than they always did.

One excellent illustration of how this situation occurs involves our old “friend”, the process of printing out a paper for a judge to physically sign. Attorneys filing physical documents (which they had to print), which the court then scans into an electronic document management system, again keeps the “print count” elevated. The answer here, of course, is implementation of E-Signature.

Another all too common example is printing out e-filed documents, then scanning them into an existing, non-integrated DMS. Courts have discovered that, among its many other benefits, implementation of a strategic enterprise content management system will eliminate this huge demand for printing to paper.

When we see progress, such as the announcement that, having launched an e-filing pilot initiative in 2011, the Macomb County, Michigan Courts in July, 2016 report processing more pleading filings via their e-filing system than through the U.S. Postal Service, we are seeing how the tide really is starting to turn.

The statistics and trends noted in Mims’ article indicate that the balance has shifted. Furthermore, for lots of reasons (and we have discussed them here – generational, technological, financial), paper usage is not only dropping, but the rate is accelerating. Those who over the past several years have committed to and invested in moving toward “Paper on Demand” are and will continue to realize greater and greater benefits. Those who have yet to embark on the journey will soon find the pressures to do so building to an irresistible level as the receding tide leaves them alone on the beach.

Stalking the Wily Electronic Documents

I am STILL surprised when I hear that some judges question whether eSignatures can be as trustworthy as “wet-ink” signatures. In law school I somehow missed the course that conferred “expert handwriting analyst” status; but maybe that was just one of my many oversights. I mean, really? Leave aside all other arguments: How many people are even marginally qualified to determine with any level of certainty whether a signature, on its face, is “authentic”? My oft-stated position is that a passable ability to forge signatures that will endure routine scrutiny is a sixth-grade level survival skill, honed through practice on permission slips and potentially embarrassing notes from teachers.

At the October Texas Association of Court Administrators (TACA) Conference, David Slayton[1] gave an excellent presentation on e-filing. Among other things, he showed documents eSigned using “/s/” and using a graphic, hand-drawn eSignature, either of which are acceptable under Texas rules.

David remarked that he occasionally has judges question whether such eSignatures are adequate. He gets remarks like, “Anyone can type “/s/” or paste an image of a signature onto a document.” He says his answer is, “Yes, Judge; but I know EXACTLY where the document came from, and whose profile was used to send it.” Knowing that a document has come from the right place, and knowing whose secure profile was used to send it, constitute security orders of magnitude greater than a written signature on a piece of paper. eSigned documents are simply more secure.

Taking David’s point a step further, in an appropriately implemented Enterprise Content Management (ECM) with workflow system, not only do you know where the document came from, you know where it’s been and where it’s supposed to be going. It’s like Billy’s trail in the Family Circus: it leaves its tracks. It keeps track of who has looked at it and when. It keeps track of what was done to it, by whom, and when. And, unlike Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail, it doesn’t disappear.

91_familycircus

Family Circus – Jeff and Bill Keane

Not to push the Family Circus analogy too far, as there are of course many, many other important aspects of ECM with workflow; but one closely related aspect does bear mentioning. Billy may LIKE to wander all over hither and yon; but if he’s doing it every day (or if everyone is doing it), it may be time to find a more direct path. ECM with workflow will let the court know what route documents are following. If there are unnecessary steps; or if the order in which they are being processed is chaotic (or at least non-optimal), that will show up like Billy’s footprints after walking in mud.

Finally, if Billy takes the same route every day, but one day, even though he ends up in the same place, the trail is different, that’s another flag to apply extra scrutiny. If a filer always files according to a regular pattern, but a purported filing comes in following a non-routine pattern, that will signal the advisability of further checking its veracity. In large courts with many filers, such patterns are probably impossible to keep track of in a paper-based system; but an ECM receiving eFiled documents has considerably greater capabilities in this regard.

Thus, with eSigned documents in a properly implemented ECM with workflow system, not only do we know that the document comes from who it’s supposed to; we know whether or not it’s been altered since it was sent, who has touched it, where it’s been, where it’s heading, whether it’s behavior makes sense, and if not, what would make better sense. Sorry about that, Judge; paper documents with wet-ink signatures just won’t do that.


[1] David Slayton is Administrative Director at the Texas Office of Court Administration. He is currently President of the National Association for Court Management (NACM).

Why Manual Paper Processes in Courts are the Equivalent of a Bad Hair Day

87_bad hair dayBeing follicly challenged (at least on my scalp), I think hair is overrated. Thus I have a limited amount of sympathy when I hear complaints about bad hair days. I like to think I’m not vain. And in that vein (no pun intended), I’m no fashion hound and am usually not critical of the appearance of others.

That being said, I really don’t particularly like looking like a fool. Likewise, I do notice when others look like fools. I assume they must not know how they look, because I assume they don’t like appearing foolish any more than I do. And, when I do look foolish, I appreciate being told.

So there I was, in a very modern hospital, with a loved one who was there for a very modern (indeed, miraculous) procedure – a full joint replacement. Everything just shrieked ultra current. This hospital (rightfully) wins awards for the cutting-edge (sorry – I couldn’t resist) quality of its joint replacement work.

And then we went to check in.

Here is how the check-in process worked:

  1. The patient dutifully gave the extremely solicitous admissions clerk the usual information, which the clerk dutifully checked against the hospital’s computer records and/or entered into the system. OK; standard fare.
  2. The clerk printed out a handful of documents filled with legal-, medical- and techno-babble and handed them to the patient to sign.
  3. The patient signed the papers and returned them.
  4. The clerk scanned every paper back into the system.
  5. The clerk put the papers into a tray labeled “SHRED.”

 

Seriously.

Now, I and many others have written and spoken at length about the waste and inefficiency of such a system. But at least, I assumed, the reasoning was based on some perceived need to retain a hard copy of a wet-ink “original.” Indeed, the efforts have largely focused on either helping people realize the rules really don’t require wet-ink signatures or, where it’s still unclear, modernizing the rules. But to send the papers directly to the shredder – oh, my!

I could – but won’t – go into a diatribe about rising medical costs. However, I think there’s another, perhaps greater, point here; to-wit:

Despite all their good work (and they DO do good work); despite the outstanding quality of their product and outcomes, this up-front, customer-facing process makes them look foolish.

My further point: Doctors and judges MUST foster trust and confidence. Therefore, they in particular cannot afford to look foolish. Those of us who serve them cannot allow them to look foolish. This type of foolish is worse than a cosmetic ruffle. To a public that is coming more and more to expect modern and efficient performance all the time, it looks, well, like it’s way past its use-by date. It makes people wonder if they are safe using it. It has the potential to undermine confidence in the system.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe there is some very good reason why, in the rendering of medical services, printing out documents, getting signatures, then shredding the originals makes sense. But even if it does – EVEN IF IT DOES – it still LOOKS terrible.

I sincerely hope courts are not allowing the same appearance; although I strongly suspect there are still some that do. Again, I can only assume that the judges in those courts are unaware of how it makes them look.

Just as most people appreciate being told if an inopportune button is loose or zipper unzipped without their knowledge, I’d assume judges would like to know if they are unintentionally and unknowingly being made to look foolish. It would be a kindness to point out the advantages of eSignature in this regard. Keeping a hard copy went out of fashion several years ago; time to update the look.

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Signatures

70_eSignature

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I have been a vocal advocate of electronic signatures for a long time; and I will not now unsay a word of my advocacy.  Most statutes, rules and orders are silent or very broad as to HOW an electronic signature must be appended and represented on court documents; and many, if not all, enabling statutes, rules and orders authorizing the use of electronic signatures for courts allow for use of ” /s/ ” followed by the typed name of the signatory.  For some very good reasons, many of which I have previously noted, this approach offers flexibility while still providing the requisite level of authentication.

 That said, I think it’s important to note two aspects of signatures that are definite plusses when they can be provided with no loss of efficiency.

First, while legally a ” /s/ ” and typed name may suffice, there is something more emotionally compelling about a signature that looks like a signature. Of course, “looks like a signature” is somewhat subjective.  My signature, for example, is notoriously illegible. But it IS distinctive. There’s a reason that all U.S. paper currency bears the signature of the Secretary of the Treasury instead of just the printed name. Some documents, particularly court documents, have solemn effects.  Signatures that are clearly hand-drawn contribute to the solemnity of the document.

(At a court conference, a probate judge told me that many of the people who appear before her actually frame their judgments in cases like adoption, change of name, and sometimes estates. She expressed her belief that the hand-drawn signature constituted an important element of the emotional power of the document.)

Second, and related to the first, is the question of permanent inextricability.  If a mason leaves a plaque beside his work, the work will be identified as his as long as the plaque remains in place.  But if he writes his signature into the cement, as long as the cement is there, so is the attribution.  A lad can post a note on a tree declaring his affections, but carving a pair of initials inside a heart into the tree will be seen as a much more enduring statement.

In the same vein, there is a definite benefit to not only electronically signing a document, but permanently and inextricably binding the hand-drawn signature to the document itself. That is, rather than simply overlaying an image of a signature, which could later be removed or substituted, “burning” the hand-drawn signature into the document itself. That way, as your mother used to tell you about tattoos, it will be there forever.

It’s an easy trap to fall into to focus strictly on the mechanistic and legalistic requirements for documents when implementing paper on demand.  Indeed, in the efforts to craft the most efficient technical solutions, many implementers — with the best of intent — overlook the emotional and psychological factors that have been implicitly and explicitly utilized to assure and reinforce the impact of court documents.  The very foundation of the legal system rests on the beliefs of the public over which it asserts authority.  For that reason, it is both legitimate and valuable to continue to utilize hand-drawn signatures, permanently attached to court documents, even as the court moves to a paper on demand module.[1]

[1] TrueSign®, from ImageSoft, provides the capability to burn hand-drawn signature images into documents.

 

Irony

61_irony

Recent headlines concerning inmates who escaped jail using forged documents caused me to look back to my first blog entitled A Judge’s Secret Fear of Electronic Signatures. In it I quoted a senior, highly respected judge expressing his concern about the security of eSignature.  He said, in part,

 “My concern then and now is with the availability of others using the computer for making documents official. With the personal signature, there would have to be a forgery to make the document appear to be an original signature. The availability of a signature stamp can be regulated or precluded; however, once the computer has the signature capability, anyone with the password can access the e-file and create an authorized signature on the document. The ability to establish that this was an unauthorized signature would appear difficult.

“I also have a concern that the security system appears of doubtful reliability to preclude someone from being able to enter the system from the outside and thus be able to alter or create false documents with apparent valid signatures.

“I can envision cases where there is a great deal at risk where it could become worthwhile to prepare a false document with an apparently valid signature to secure the release of a prisoner or to effect some other act to the considerable detriment of others.”

 That discussion occurred three years ago.  Now, it seems, the judge’s fears were realized, albeit in a court in a different state.   But, the recent escape didn’t happen because of e-signatures or electronic documents.  Indeed, it appears that the forgeries purported to be original, wet signatures.

Let’s return to my original blog.  Its point was that the judge was absolutely right to be concerned with security and court managers have an absolute responsibility to demonstrate to their judges that they have addressed and are faithfully managing the technology, policies, processes and procedures to assure their ongoing effectiveness.  That the judge was unaware of the security setup in his court represented a barrier to acceptance that could, and should, easily be remedied through appropriate communication by court management.

Based in part on the judge’s concerns, in my white paper, Legal Considerations of E-Signature, I point out that security is essential in EITHER a paper-based OR a paper-on-demand environment:

“As an analogy: A treasure chest is in a vault at the top of a castle tower surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge. There are multiple safeguards. However, if the drawbridge is down, the gate is open, the tower stairs are unattended and the door to the vault is ajar, then despite all the safeguards, there is little security.

“Contrast this scenario with one in which the chest is guarded day and night by one sentry with a sword. Arguably while there are fewer safeguards, there is more security, but this scenario is problematic. The guard – however loyal and motivated – can fall asleep, be outnumbered, leave his post, and so on. It’s a risky and expensive system.

In a properly configured paper-on-demand court, every interaction with documents and files is recorded.  Anyone reviewing the files with an eye toward effectuating the type of scam that resulted in the recent unauthorized prisoner release would be leaving a trail of evidence.

Ironically, the most catastrophic possibility that the judge feared – forgery of release documentation – turned out to be not even slightly protected through use of wet signatures.

That isn’t to say that e-signature would have, in itself, provided more protection.  It really isn’t that hard to forge an electronically imaged signature either.  The point is that:

“In the paper/wet signature world and the electronic document/electronic signature world, it is critically important to carefully manage the environment, the technology, policies and procedures, and operational responsibility, and to
 audit for compliance. However, it is much harder and more expensive to do it in the paper/wet signature environment.

Foreshadowing
Looking past the irony, something else starts to come into focus.  In the recent release case, apparently all agencies – the court and the corrections division – acted exactly as required by their existing policies and procedures.  So, in a world where production of fakes and duplicates that cannot, as a practical matter, be authenticated or de-authenticated on their face, how can down-stream consumers (like prisons or banks) be certain they are acting in accordance with valid judicial orders?

Stay tuned….


To learn more about the safety and legality of electronic signature, download a free whitepaper by Jeffrey Barlow on The Legal Considerations of eSignature.

After the Dust Settles

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting a couple of courts that have been working with Enterprise Content Management (ECM) for several years.  It is always interesting and informative to see how any new system, and particularly one that involves major paradigm shifts, is working after the “shakedown” phase has passed and the bloom is off the rose, so to speak.

 (Side observation: While some courts embarking on major systems changes document the “before” state, I don’t know of any that  actually record interviews with staff, judges, managers, attorneys, and other court users  or who film operations using the existing systems before implementation.  As one who has seen both the “before” and the “after”, I believe it would be a compelling documentary. )

 In Ottawa County, Michigan the court has been using ECM with eSignature and Workflow for several years.  Many of the staff have never known anything but the new system.  District Court Civil Clerk Laura Catalino is one who was there “before the flood”, back in the pre-ECM days. 

 During my visit, Laura asked me what I would like to know from her.   I told her that I’d like her perspective on how the system has changed the nature of District Court delivery of service. 

 Her first response was to gesture toward her workspace, open her arms wide and exclaim, “Well, for starters, LOOK at my desk”.  I did.  In fact, I took a picture.

Laura Catalino Paperless Desk
Laura Catalino’s Paperless Desk

What DON’T you see here?

Laura began reeling off points so fast that I gave up trying to get them all, losing count after the first four or five.  I pleaded early stage senioritis and asked her if she would send me an email listing them.  She did; and in my considered opinion, there is no chance that I could improve on exactly how she puts it.  So below, I share with you what she wrote:

 Jeff,

 As promised, here is a short outline of the many ways in which ECM and  workflow have improved my job!!!

 1. No paper: My desk is empty of papers/files, etc.

 2. No more lost files: Papers are not lost.  Misfilings can be found electronically!!!

 3. Easy to work share:  Staff from three different geographic locations are able to help one another without having to physically travel from one location to another.     

Staff member at all three court locations have access to one another’s  workflow and can lend a hand  when someone is sick, on vacation, or if one location is a  falling behind and another is slow.  When there is a question, staff can look directly at what has been filed, even from another site, which cuts down on having to transfer callers with questions.

 4. Customer service:  Workflow has made it possible for us to find files and information for customers without having to leave our desks. We can help them directly by looking up the information in [the ECM system], whether they are present or on the phone, and the information is accurate and up-to-date.

 5. Staff morale: The willingness of staff to help other teams. (i.e. teams = civil, criminal, traffic) has greatly improved.

 6. Emailing We are now able to email other courts, attorneys, court officers, process servers, etc.  

 7.   My personal favorite – no need for a typewriter!!!!

 Thanks Laura!  There’s no better testament to the benefits of ECM and workflow, than from one who has experienced them firsthand.

Laura Catalino
Laura Catalino from Ottawa County.

Inside the Department of Redundancy Department: The Waste of Over Processing

Note:  This blog – the sixth installment in a series on the “Seven Wastes of Muda” as they relate to court document management – deals with the first “O” in TIM WOOD: Over Processing.

For a lot of folks “Over Processing” just does not have the same level of intuitively obvious wastefulness as most of the other Wastes. Sure, courts transport lots of stuff (Transportation); pile things up (Inventory); sometimes move like dirvishes (Motion); and hang around (and make others hang around) literally like there’s no tomorrow (Waiting).  But “Over Processing”?  It almost sounds GOOD: If a little bit is good, a lot must be better. 

 And does Over Processing really apply to courts anyway?  The most frequently cited example from manufacturing is “painting on a surface that is covered up”.  Surely courts do nothing analagous to that….

 Well, guess what?  The second most frequent example of Over Processing is maintaining both electronic and paper records.  Welcome to the Department of Redundancy Department, (DORD for short).

 We all know that maintaining dual systems is wasteful and expensive. (The DORD loves the phrase “wasteful and expensive”.)  How expensive?  The Ottawa County, Michigan courts did an extensive study of the additional costs incurred just in having to print documents for wet ink signature, then scan them back into the Enterprise Content Management (ECM) system and maintain the hard copy.  Not surprisingly, the answer was that that cost virtually offset all of the otherwise substantial savings of the ECM system[i]

 Another classic example of the DORD hard at work is checking someone else’s work before performing the next process.  As in, Tom prepared the file and sent it to Mary for scheduling, and Mary reviewed everything Tom did to make sure it really was ready for scheduling, or that nothing has changed in the intervening week since Tom processed it and sent it to her where it waited in her in-basket.  This particular example illustrates one major reason why configurable workflow so drastically slashes time and cost in courts.  Workflow constitutes a double win: the checking is built-in; plus the time lag between steps is eliminated.

 Another type of Over Processing from the manufacturing sector that courts regularly practice is “touching more than once”.   For example, a document that arrives with a payment may be “touched” by an accounting or receipting person, then by a docketing person, then by a filing person.  Here again, eFiling with workflow eliminates those double-touching wastes.

 And there ARE court equivalents of “painting on a surface that is covered up”.  When a trial court has to prepare and send up a case record and file on appeal, generally someone removes any extraneous documents that the appellate court doesn’t want to see.  ECM can eliminate this double touch, on either or both ends.  On the trial court end, the record can be constructed using business rules that govern what material goes and what does not.  On the appellate (receiving) end, ECM can easily provide views that keep the unwanted material out of sight.  No need to paint that covered surface.

 The court Department of Redundancy Department’s operational wing is working and laboring (sorry; couldn’t resist) Over Processing.  But ECM, through eFiling, configurable workflow, eSignature and custom file view capabilities can reduce and lessen (i.e., STOP) the DORD’s involvement.

 

[vii] Recently the Michigan Supreme Court amended the Michigan Court Rules specifically to eliminate this situation.  See Changes to Michigan Court Rules Enable Use of ImageSoft Technology and Improve Court Efficiency; http://www.imagesoftinc.com/media/2012/MI%20Court%20Rules%20Change%20Allows%20TS.pdf.  More on this change in a future post.

The Jevons Paradox

What?  You never heard of the Jevons Paradox?  Well, I expect that, given the current debate regarding the price of gas, you likely will even if economics is not your leisure reading subject of choice.  

The Jevons Paradox, described by 19th century economist William Stanley Jevons (1835-1892), contends that improvements in fuel efficiency (then coal) tend to INCREASE, not decrease, total fuel use.  The translation to today’s debate is that adoption of more fuel-efficient vehicles leads, overall, to greater consumption of gasoline.

There’s a lot of really sexy equations and graphs involved; but I confess that math and arithmetic are three of my weak areas.  In English, the two reasons given are that 1) Because your Prius is more fuel-efficient, you will drive it more; and 2) The net result of the efficiencies creates a form of stimulus to the overall economy, resulting in greater fuel consumption.

It occurs to yours truly that The Jevons Paradox provides a possible explanation for a long-observed phenomenon in the world of court technology.  Consider: Technology-based initiatives, when efficiency-generated savings compose a significant part of the justification, have essentially three potential outcomes.  First, they can fail, in which case they cost a lot of money.  Second, they can succeed as planned, in which case the expected savings are generated and overall cost drops.  Third, they can succeed in ways both expected and unexpected to such an extent that courts dramatically increase the service they provide and the overall effectiveness of the justice system increases.  In the real world, the outcomes are almost always either Number One or Number Three.  Rarely, if ever, do service levels remain the same while costs drop.

You hear about this phenomenon at conferences and when you visit courts that have successfully implemented solutions such as ECM, E-Filing, E-Signature, and E-Certification.  Where you DON’T typically hear about it – at least as a primary justification – is at either the business case development stage or during the requests for appropriations from the funding source (elected legislatures, county commissioners, city councils, etc.) who are laser-like focused on reducing cost.  And, unless you ask (and few do), you don’t hear much of it from vendors, who, while they know the potential, are responding to the immediate, public sector imperative for making the business case based primarily on cost in the context of current and next budget cycles.

One compelling aspect of ECM and related technology initiatives like E-Signature, E-Filing, and E-Certification is that they CAN provide the type of rapid, measurable ROI and early break even that strapped public funding entities crave; and they can provide relief to courts suffering from current and projected staffing cuts.  In other words, the cost-based financial case can easily be made.[i]

Even more, however, successful completion of such an “efficiency” initiative will almost certainly accelerate the effectiveness and importance of the court to its community, its funding body, and its business partners. 

Such change, albeit based on success, has its own challenges and potential pitfalls.  Courts should be prepared to “Ride the Tiger”.   Court planners should create a well-developed strategy, partner with an experienced systems integrator and engage in a fully-committed implementation; AND plan for an INCREASE in use of court services.   A year after implementation, no one will be asking, “What did you save?”  Instead, they’ll be asking how can you ride that tiger even further?


[i] See Short-Term Payback & Long-Term Gain from Transitioning to a Paper-On-Demand Court: How Courts Can Realize Rapid ROI from Paper-On-Demand, Jeffrey N. Barlow, 2011 [http://www.imagesoftinc.com/resources-wp-roi-of-pod-signup.html]