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.

Confronting Court Document Retention Policy in the Era of Electronic Content

88_document retentionIn Animal House (one of my favorite movies), the trial scene has its own instructive moral. The Dean, through his smarmy hench-students, hauls the fun-loving and rule-oblivious Delta brothers into Student Court to answer for their “too numerous to name” peccadillos. The allegations are (or would be, if allowed to be heard) supported by extensive evidence, for the simple reason that most are true.

The “defense,” if it could be called that, consists of asserting that the charges REALLY constitute an attack on the American way of life.

Sounds ridiculous; and it is. Except… who hasn’t been involved in a discussion where, just as the group begins to close in on a solution, someone attaches an almost completely unrelated set of concerns and insists that those must be resolved before moving forward?

This principle came to mind as I listened to an excellent presentation at a court conference on revising and implementing policies and procedures for purging documents and files as courts move to paper on demand.

Consider: Most “legacy” record retention policies (and most record retention policies today are legacy) were promulgated at a time when the primary concern was storage space, or more accurately, the cost and lack thereof. The policies were primarily intended to make sure that records that might one day be needed again not be prematurely discarded. Indeed, most policies required that important records be indefinitely, if not permanently, retained.

Also, there is a stark difference between records retention in the commercial world and the courts, and the lines are often mistakenly blurred. In the commercial world information can be a discoverable liability, and in many cases should be purged as soon as possible. In the courts: justice, public safety and service are the primary goals, and purging is often an inhibitor.

Tellingly, there was little or no “requirement” to purge (absent case-specific court orders).

Most courts, in my experience, only embarked on purging documents when space constraints forced the issue. Otherwise, little, if anything, was ever actually destroyed. Instead, documents and files were moved into increasingly difficult to access deep storage. Generally, the difficulty was thought to be the effort required to actually go through the documents and files, identify (and confirm) what is eligible for purge, physically remove them and then securely dispose of them.

Fast forward to the present. For starters, the question of physical space is no longer an issue to paper on demand courts. Granted, there are cost and process issues with long-term content storage; but they are most certainly NOT the kind of current constraint and the level of expense providing physical space to store paper.

More importantly, using paper on demand with configurable workflow, all the identification, verification and actual purging problems can be managed in a relatively straightforward, efficient, flexible (in case rules change) and economical manner.

So, problem solved, right?

Hah! If you believe that, then I’ve got this great deal on Alaska gold mining stock, if you’re interested….

Thanks for solving the problems; but it now turns out those aren’t the problems that are at the top of anyone’s list these days. What do you MEAN you can afford to keep everything forever? People have a RIGHT to have old matters go away…

In fact, one of the many consequences of loss of the “effective inaccessibility” of paper documents is a fundamental conflict between those with an interest in keeping access to everything permanently and those with an interest in making the information as inaccessible as possible, as soon as possible.

One (fairly standard, I’ll bet) interim policy is to “publicly” delete, but internally retain (for those with authorization). Let the Rule Drafting begin for THAT one!

So, on this subject, I line up with the Deltas: We’re probably having the wrong discussion. Document “retention” and “purging” are really anachronistic concepts in an era of electronic documents and ECM. What would be far more constructive, in my humble opinion, would be to discuss how to appropriately manage all aspects of content lifecycle – including the “post-active” phases – in a paper on demand world, develop appropriate policies and design the enabling systems to allow ongoing management of content lifecycles using modern tools.

 

 

Armor Up: Electronic Court Tools for Judges

SONY DSC

Recently I saw an exhibit of a fully equipped Roman Legionnaire from the early Roman Empire. All that stuff – armor, sword, shield, spear – sure looked heavy. Interesting enough in itself; but later that day, I happened to see a picture of a fully outfitted American soldier in battle gear.

And I thought, “Hmmm…”

So I did some Googling and came up with an interesting little factoid. The average weight a Roman Legionnaire carried two thousand years ago was about 80 pounds.   A modern day American soldier carries — you guessed it — about 80 pounds.

A pessimist might say, gee, all the advances we’ve made; but the poor foot soldier is still carrying the same load. What a surprise.

But what matters is that the 80 pounds should be the best equipment for the mission. And what is the best available equipment for the mission has changed plenty in two millennia.

Which brings me to an observation concerning the current move toward Enterprise Content Management (ECM)-enabled judicial workbenches. Judges need tools and supplies in the form of information to accomplish their mission. They need access to information about the matters before them and to related matters; they need access to the applicable legal authorities and so on.

What is true with judges, just as with foot soldiers, is that there is a limit to how much they can carry and still operate. The advent of judicial workbenches powered by ECM with configurable workflow is fundamentally changing how much and what kind of work judges can accomplish during their limited available time. Because what has NOT expanded is the amount of time available to a judge.

Judges have always needed access to information. In paper-based systems, either the judge or someone on behalf of the judge had to locate the information in paper documents and files. Their instructions and decisions had to be committed to paper documents, which had to be routed and physically transported. To be signed, documents had to be physically available to the judge.

When legal authorities were cited, the judge had to access the appropriate volumes of statutes, case law or other authority, so physical proximity to these (often voluminous) sources was a real advantage, but it came with great overhead. Likewise, access to related files and documents, often necessary, required physically tracking down, pulling and delivering the appropriate paper files.

Today, a judge can use an electronic or paper-on-demand judicial workbench that uses ECM with configurable workflow to streamline and integrate all these activities and more. Such a workbench can integrate the court’s documents and files, case management systems and related agency systems, such as inmate tracking and warrant tracking, into a single, easy-to-use tool for the judge. Such a tool can provide, for example,

  • Intuitive, multi-touch interface with gesture-based commands
  • A docket-based system that is both judge-driven and clerk-driven in the courtroom
  • The ability to view relevant documents specific to a hearing
  • Easy-to-use electronic case files with colored-coded folder tabs
  • The capability to securely sign documents quickly and easily
  • Include judge’s notes, permanent markups, under advisement

and much more.

Just as with the foot soldier, none of this should be expected to make a judge’s life easier in the sense of working less hard. Eighty pounds is eighty pounds. However, with tools such as these at their disposal, judges can accomplish far more than in the olden days, with the same amount of effort; generally, everything they’ve got.

Progress

One of the interesting factoids about progress is that in the nineteenth century, ninety-seven percent of the population was engaged in producing and distributing food for everybody.  By the mid-twentieth century, the figure was down around three percent.  Note that the population during that time had more than quadrupled.   However you look at it, an enormous amount of resources have been re-directed from the basic task of feeding the population.

There are many ways to look at and value (or decry) this phenomenon.  Here is one:  Those resources have been freed up for other things, including space exploration, medical advances, increased education, individual family housing, more flavors of ice cream, and on and on.  Granted, the world today faces serious challenges.  Nevertheless, it is indisputable that overall quality of life and standard of living have improved during that time across the board.  And, we don’t have ninety-seven percent of the population as unemployed farmers.

I make this observation as I consider today’s courts and related justice systems as they move toward transformation from physical documents and manual record management to Electronic Content Management (ECM) and a paper-on-demand court model.

Historically, a huge proportion of court resources have been dedicated to document and record management.   There have always been many more record clerks than judges in most courts.  Skill requirements included document processing, file creation and assembly, file storage, file retrieval, file transportation, copying, file security, etc.

As courts move forward, they are finding less and less need for those basic, manual skill sets.  More and more, ECM systems free up the resources to undertake higher-order tasks such as direct judicial support, customer service and specialty court functions.  As time goes by, this trend will only accelerate.

None of this is to say that the path is either straightforward or easy. Generally speaking, when courts make the transformation from paper documents to ECM, they must initially do so largely within the context of existing resources and infrastructure.  That means that the courthouses, offices and often related justice agencies, are usually designed and located with physical document management in mind.   A significant number, if not a majority, of the support staff are primarily trained and experienced in dealing with and managing paper documents and files.   While internal processes can often be adjusted as part of the implementation, in many cases inter-agency or customer-facing processes must remain or at least “imitate” the old, paper-centric processes.

Following initial implementation, however, these “legacy” resources and infrastructure will, over time, give way to resources that are positioned to fully utilize the capabilities of the new systems.  Staff previously trained in processing of paper documents and files will be re-trained and re-assigned.  Work spaces and physical plant will be re-located and re-furnished; and eventually, as new facilities are built, they will be appropriately designed without the encumbrances of the old systems.  Newly recruited staff will bring skill sets directed toward the higher-order activities.

As any veteran of paradigm-changing technology implementations knows, the down-stream adjustment is neither straightforward nor easy.  As much as it seems that once the seriously challenging effort to implement a new system is completed the organization should be able to sit back and coast, that just isn’t the way life works.

So, for those who expected all rainbows and lollipops, sorry to disillusion you.  But I don’t bring this point up just to be a “Debbie Downer”.    The point is that it is really easy to get caught up in the intensity and immediacy of implementation and be sorely tempted to use whatever workarounds are expedient, without considering the longer-range world into which you are moving.   When planning for and working through initial implementation, time and effort taken to look beyond the immediate “sturm und drang” to plan for the future, when the relics of the old paradigm have finally been replaced will pay big dividends.

Once this process has run its course, the level of service provided by the courts and wider justice system will be considerably greater than anything possible in the old, paper-centric world.   Future generations will be astounded when they stumble across figures showing the percentage of resources courts used to devote to document management in “the old days”.

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Gazing Into the Crystal Ball Part 2: Some Longer Range Implications of Universal Implementation of Paper-On-Demand Courts

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Survey questions from a group looking past the next few years, beyond when Paper On Demand becomes ubiquitous in courts and the justice community have prompted me to embark on a fearless foray into mid-term prognostication (twelve years out, to 2025).  Here are a few of the survey questions, along with my answers:

Question: In what ways can you see courts managing information in 2025 that even the most advanced courts don’t do now?

 Answer:

  •  Courts will handle only a small fraction of the number of documents they do today.  For example, why have a document for a Motion to Continue?  Or an Order to Continue?  People obligate themselves for great amounts of money; undertake extremely serious commitments, make the most solemn pledges, all without creating documents.  The lack of a document does not make a commitment (traditionally thought of as “signing”) less enforceable.  In the rare instances when something akin to today’s document (however rendered – electronically, physically, or whatever) is required, it will be handled as an exception.

True, certain processes may always produce documents; but those will be exceptional processes.  Generally, information (primary and metadata) will be handled in ways that maximize their integrity, security, and usability.   Always remember: ECM stands for Electronic Content Management.   A document is just one type of container or vehicle for content – one which I predict will decline in importance and use as electronic information management becomes more seamless.

  • Virtually all performance and memorialization of binding acts (today known as “signature”) will involve a hard biometric connection.  Many technologies are coming on line to make this capability seamless; it remains to be seen which ones will become standard.
  • A consequence of ubiquitous adoption of the technology will be standardization, which, together with “shrinking world” pressures,  will be enormously accelerate trans-jurisdictional intercourse.  These trends will result in a level of trans-jurisdictional business standards (court rules and procedural law) approaching if not exceeding that of the federal courts.   

Question: Can you see any societal implications of courts using “paperless” technology as much as we think they will in 2025?

 Answer:

  •  Courts will no longer be able to remain as remote as they have historically been, because they will be connected to the rest of government and society at a much deeper and broader level.  This fact will create a major identity crisis for the judicial branch.
  • Many court actions will approach “real time” effectiveness, with both positive and negative consequences.  An obvious example is an arrest warrant for failure to appear being executed on a defendant who is passing through court security on his way to his hearing, but who is held up because of the long line at the door.

Question: Can you see necessary changes to the court’s physical plant to accommodate “paperless courts”?

Answer:

  • The obvious include less storage and elimination of need to take physical document transport into account in facility design and placement.
  • Coupled with and partially enabled by the migration to Paper On Demand,  revolutionization of jurisdictional and functional boundaries, vast preference for virtual/remote communications resulting in need for far fewer physical courts, even greater reduction in physical trips to courts, and outsourcing and/or centralization of a very large portion of court work (because electronic documents need not be processed locally), will result in  greatly reduced need for physical courts in many locations and reduced size and radically different configuration for the rest.
  • Alternative input mechanisms such as voice, motion, and – most dramatically in 12 years – brain/machine interface (BMI), together with wearable (Google Glass and much more effective successors) or direct retinal receptors will greatly alter the need for and configuration of desktop workstations.  Few people will still be working with either keyboards or monitors.

I included only a couple of examples for each question; but that hopefully will be enough to provoke some reactions.  Others will have their own answers; some, no doubt, exactly opposite my own.  That’s one of the things that makes this type of exercise fun.  The other thing, of course, is that no one can prove that you’re wrong (at least, not yet).

Gazing Into the Crystal Ball

The Swami

I recently responded to a survey that asked, among other things, what drivers might affect Paper On Demand becoming close to universal in courts by the year 2025. Given the difficulty of predicting what is likely to happen next week, attempting to make predictions over ten years out seems to be hypothetical in the extreme. Nevertheless, the exercise has some very useful attributes.

For one thing, it allows consideration of what happens after today’s current problems and challenges have been overcome. Quite naturally, we tend to focus on immediate, existing, and short-term barriers (and benefits). Things like anachronistic court rules, implementation expense, resistance to change, and so on dominate our planning.

Likewise, short term benefits – one of the most urgent being financial – tend to be the major areas of focus. Longer- term benefits, such as improved public service, also get attention. All of these factors are motivators that powerfully support the case for migration to paper on demand.

But the existence of good reasons does not always translate to the obvious result. In this case, beyond the known benefits, what reasons, if any, exist that make us believe that paper on demand might be ubiquitous in courts by 2025?

Donning my Swami turban, I came up with the following points:

• Laws and public expectations regarding access, searchability, selective and flexible redaction, and security (both existential and content) of public records will force courts – and all governmental (and most private) entities to maintain all records, including documents, electronically.

• Cost advantages, which are currently arithmetical (up to double the cost of implementation), are rapidly being realized to be geometric (several times the cost of implementation). In the very near future, they will be seen to be exponential (ten times or more of the cost of implementation). Others may disagree with this prediction; I would point out that the savings continue indefinitely into the future. Also, I believe that the changes will be that significant. In fact, I think every current estimate of savings will prove to be too conservative; but we’ll see.

The key driver here will be automated workflow, which is simply not practical with physical documents at anything like the scale of electronic documents. The efficiencies enabled by electronic document management with workflow will be disproportionately due to operational efficiencies made possible versus direct, document-related savings (like storage space, materials, labor-free access, etc.).

• Existent and emergent technologies will increasingly require electronic documents in order to be used, in the same way that online banking requires internet access or printers require electricity. A court still utilizing physical documents in 2025 will be like a court with no electricity in 1940, or a court with no telephones in 1970, or a court with no internet in 2013. It won’t be acceptable.

• Standards, already coalescing, will be mature and ubiquitous.

This list could easily be much longer. And, much as I’d like to think I will have a perfect prediction record, one or more of them may well be wrong. The great thing about surveys like this is that they generate disparate opinions and allow for reasoned discussion and debate. The point of speculating on the farther-out future is not to know in advance what will happen (other than death and taxes, generally impossible) but to get a sense for where things are headed. I for one will be very interested to see the opinions across the community. The consensus will be interesting; and I’m guessing that most will agree the question is not “Whether”, but “When and How” courts become universally paper on demand. As far as the drivers are concerned (as well as the longer-term implications, which I’ll discuss in a future post), if the past is any indication, the more outrageous the prediction, the more likely it is to come true.

How Paper-On-Demand Can Provide Judges with Documents That Work “Better Than Paper” (Part Four – Electronic Signature)

I conclude my overview of what judges should require from an Electronic Content Management (ECM) interface by considering the functionality judges need to effectively, efficiently, and appropriately sign documents in a timely manner.

For reasons covered at length elsewhere , requiring judges to manually affix wet signatures to documents that are otherwise electronically stored and managed results in greatly increased cost, effort, overhead and opportunity for error. Moreover, from a judicial convenience standpoint, the ability to sign documents when they are ready, from anywhere (without waiting for them to be fetched) and having them immediately forwarded to whoever conducts the next step(s) in their processing saves immense amounts of judicial time and effort.

Briefly, some of the key reasons E-Signature benefits judges include

• Paving the Last Mile – Printing out a hard copy, getting a wet signature, then re-scanning the signed document greatly reduces the efficiency, and therefore the financial benefits, from the new system. Moreover, from a judge’s perspective, it also opens up a large and unnecessary area where mistakes, errors and security breaches can occur, all of which add up to judge’s time and effort.

This is analogous to having a one-mile stretch of unpaved road in the middle of a superhighway. Everything slows to a crawl and the potential for problems escalates. For this reason the adoption of the use of electronic signatures often constitutes “Paving the last mile on the road to a paper-on-demand court”.

• Simple and Easy to Use – The system has to be simple and easy to learn and use. The judge should be able to easily review the document, then go right to where the signature is required and apply it.

• Markup and Revision Control – E-signature with Markup Control allows judges to make changes to a document submitted for signature and then sign the revised document, secure in the knowledge that the system will track the revision, including when, where and by whom the change was made.

• Anywhere, Any Time – With paper documents, either the document has to get to the judge, or the judge has to get to the document. With ECM, the document can be available to the judge anywhere, any time.

• External Notifications – Once the judge is done with the document, the workflow component of the ECM system will route the document (with changes, signature, etc. as applicable) to wherever and whomever it needs to go. So, if the judge reviews a proposed order, makes changes, and wants to distribute it to the parties for review and approval, the system will handle it. If it should be diaried to be reviewed at some future date, the system will do that.

In summary, judges should not have to assume that moving to Electronic Content Management will require them to give up the document and file functionality so important to the effective performance of their judicial duties. They should, however, be pro-active in insisting that their requirements be clearly stated and understood. Those requirements typically include

• Instant accessibility
• Fast, Accurate, and Intuitive Navigation to the Needed File, Document, and Page
• Easy to Read
• Easy to Physically Manipulate
• Easy, Secure, Flexible Signature Capability

Judges should insist that the ECM system as implemented satisfies those requirements, not just to the standard of paper, but to a standard that is better than paper.

How Paper-On-Demand Provides Judges with Documents that Work “Better than Paper”

One of the biggest limitations of physical documents and files is that they are, well, physical.   They exist in a particular place.  They are subject to Newton’s Laws – mainly that they stay where they are put until they are moved  (except, of course, those that I am working on and just had on my desk and now can’t, for the life of me, find).  And moving them requires energy.   Also, if more than one person wants to use one of them at the same time, the two people have to get very close together.  Or one of them waits.  And they don’t put themselves away when you’re done with them.

Electronic Content Management (ECM) system makes files and documents

  • Instantly Accessible
  • From Anywhere
  • At Any Time
  • By Multiple People At the Same Time

And, as an added bonus, with workflow, it takes them to where they should be (in a virtual sense) when you are done with them.

Fast, Accurate, and Intuitive Navigation to the Needed File, Document, and Page

Judges need to be able to identify the documents and files they want, get them when they want them, and once they’ve got them, be able to find the information within them that they want. 

Now, everyone has systems and processes in place to do this with paper.  The bottom line is that with paper files and documents, the only way for the judge to see them is either go to where they all are and look through them; have some subset (like all of Joe Blow’s DUII files) fetched; or have someone else look at them and hopefully find the right one. 

Of course, if the judge is on the bench or away, none of those things are choices anyway; so he or she proceeds as best as possible; usually without the needed file or documents.

In a paper-on-demand court, the correct file or document can be quickly located in a number ways. 

  • Files. One of the really powerful things about files in an ECM system is that, unlike physical files, they can be ordered and accessed in many different ways.  Major “index” types include
    • Individual name
    • Family group
    • Common incident/subject
    • Significant dates (Filing, Hearing, Disposition)
    • Related files – This is a very powerful one, because a file can, of course, be related in many different ways.  Joe Blow may have his own group of cases, but he may also be part of the Blow family.  And he may also be part of the “Occupy Blowville” movement.  And so on.  With ECM, these relationships can be either dynamically created, or created through workflow business rules or, as is most common, a combination of workflow and staff review and verification.

 

  • Documents.  Once you have located the files that contain what you want, how do you get to the particular information you want?  Again, in the paper world, we all have developed ways to find information in files.  And worst case, you thumb through the documents one by one.

With ECM, there are a number of additional tools available to make it much easier and faster to locate documents and the information within them.  Those most used by judges include:

–     Intuitive and custom tabbing – Again, with paper documents, it’s hard to arrange them in more than one way.  You can have them chronologically or by document type; but it’s difficult to do both.  ECM solves that problem.  You can have tabs by date, by document type – for example, a Motions tab, a Judgments tab, a Financial tab, and so on.  And, judges can define their own tabs, depending on how they prefer to have things arranged.

–     Word search – The ability to locate not just documents, but information within documents – either within a file or across all files – is a game-changer.  To the extent Google has changed research forever, Word Search has forever changed how judges will access information in court documents and files. 

–     Work flow  Think “Staging”.  When files are brought to the judge, staff often “set them up” by marking or bringing to the front the documents the judge will need to review and deal with.   Automated workflow can provide total staging support.  And it does not require lead time.   Late-breaking matters can be staged instantly for judicial action.

In the next post we’ll look at document Readability, Manipulation, and Signature requirements and how a Paper-On-Demand court can provide them for judges.