The Content Below – Connecting with the Buried Business Information

By Jeffrey N. Barlow

126_content below“The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above…”

A Horse With No Name
America, 1971

The classic line from America’s forty-five year old classic would be just as true (though nowhere near as hauntingly beautiful and descriptive) if you substituted “file system” or “document repository” for “desert” in the above lyric lines. A pre-ECM/DMS (paper) document management system bore about as much relation to the information within the documents as a table of contents or index bears to the contents of a book. They were “pointers”; like a marine chart telling you where the deep water is. There was little to no information about the water itself, much less what’s in it, and what the things in it are doing. To get to the fish, or the information, you’re on your own.

The thing is, there’s a lot more room below the surface; so you can fit a lot more stuff. Plus, it’s three-dimensional (richer). Historically, though, getting to it has been a real challenge.

Today, the very nature of information is changing. We used to talk about “structured data” and “blobs”.  Structured data could be used, manipulated, measured, monitored, and so on. Information in the “blob” – that is, things like freeform text, audio, or video – had to be read, heard, or viewed to get any information from within.

Modern analytics engines feast on unstructured information.  For example, companies, law enforcement, governments, and who knows who else, monitor the twittersphere to keep track of what is currently of interest to people, what people are doing or planning to do, what people think about products or shows or political candidates or the weather, and on and on. Courts and those interested in courts are starting to realize that plugging more deeply into their “underwater” information can provide both real-time intelligence (for example, to assist judges on the bench) as well as a plethora of management information.

Across the business and government landscape, enterprises have been (proactively or under duress) reexamining the role that information management plays in their pursuit of their core missions. In many cases, and certainly in the case of the Justice System, the answer is that information management is what they do.

All of which calls into question the historic separation of the constituent “systems”: “Case Management Systems “, “Content Management Systems”, “Business Practices”, “Workflow”, “Jury Systems”, “Inmate Tracking Systems”, “Court Reporting”, “Accounting”, etc. While at the physical level there may be many systems, some of which are “electronically” integrated and some which are integrated through paper or people (affectionately known as “fleshware”), in the primary business sense, they are all components of one Information Management System.

Today, the “desert” (surface) is one or more interfaces with the “ocean” below. The conceptual distinction between a Case Management System and the other systems has meaning only when the technical separation imposes constraints. As a result, look for more and more transparent integration, at the user interface level, of the component systems; because the distinctions are just getting in the way.

For all these reasons, modern Case Management Systems can’t just sit on top of the desert. They have to have rich, fast, and flexible access to the ocean of vibrant informational life below the surface. For while the operations and activities of the courts have long sat firmly on top of that informational foundation, the courts’ relationship with it has fundamentally changed.

 

To Wade In Or Jump?

“Big Bang” Or “Staged” Change and the “Open” Versus “Closed” Technology Ecosystem

Everyone who has ever approached a cool lake, stream, surf, or pool knows the conundrum: Enter the water slowly to get acclimated; or take the plunge and endure the shock. Is there a “correct” answer? Maybe; but the truth is, there are disadvantages to each.

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Courts face the same dilemma when it comes to embarking on change, which often includes the prospect of immersion in some new technology. As the desired end-result is to be “in the water” no matter the technique used to get wet, the decision may be reduced to a basic tactical question, “What’s the best way to get the new technology in place?”.

I confess that I may have taken that position on occasion. Yet a strong argument can be made that the decision on how to get there is more strategic than tactical. Consider this statement from a recent Forbes article:

Smart organizations learn quickly enough that if they place efficiency above a smooth organizational transformation, they may find their automation efforts fail to improve their companies’ performance.

My take on this observation is that in this era of constant disruption, the ability of an organization to handle change (including introduction of new technology) constitutes a strategic imperative; not just a tactical choice.


Download a white paper on the business case for a paper-on-demand court.

Given that many courts have a finite capacity to absorb change without breaking some really important things, the “Big Bang” approach may have the dual unfortunate consequences of failing to achieve the objective and unintentionally degrading (or missing an opportunity to improve) the court’s capacity to constructively embrace change.

Moreover, in some ways, these considerations permeate the current discussions in court technology circles regarding the relative advantages of “Open” versus “Closed” technology ecosystems.

At e-Courts 2016, in the session Good Public Policy for Innovation: Open vs. Closed Eco-System , California Court of Appeals Justice Terry Bruniers, Orange County Superior Court CEO Alan Carlson, and Santa Clara County Superior Court CIA  Robert Oyung discussed the plusses and minuses of each approach.

The “traditional”, which is to say, legacy, approach using a “Closed” ecosystem was, to a great degree, forced upon courts in the early days of court case and records management technology. Through the ’70’s, ’80’s, and ’90’s, there was little in the way of standards, the consequence of which was that a system developed for one court could rarely be ported to other courts. The overall large court and state court market was, in a business sense, not large enough to attract big players to develop systems that could be built once and resold (usually after expensive rewriting and customization) many times.

The panelists identified a number of advantages of the “Closed” model, based on their experiences: Ease of management, level of control, easier (and more local) governance, and the ability to “have it my way”. And, since many if not most larger courts and systems “grew up” with the “Closed” model, they are at least culturally used to it.

Nevertheless, the panel unanimously concluded that, on the whole, the “Open” ecosystem model today provides considerably greater advantages. Today’s technical landscape, in contrast to the relatively monolithic and sparsely populated landscape of decades past, provides courts with much greater choice and flexibility across CMS, DMS, e-filing, workflow, judicial workbench, cross-system integration, etc.

Panelists felt that “Open” ecosystems offer increased nimbleness and agility to deal with the rapidly changing environment in which courts must operate and plan today. They spoke of the increased power through availability of “Best of Breed” solutions.

And, in line with the strategic nature of the organization’s ability to adapt to and embrace change, they spoke of the advantages offered by partnering with vendors. One observation was that vendors in many ways are more public-facing, and may know and understand the court’s customers in ways that the court itself does not.

Whatever the choice – staged versus “Big Bang”; “Closed” ecosystem versus “Open” ecosystem – courts should base their decisions on more than what, in the moment, feels like the best tactical reason. The changes involve the body, heart, and soul of the court – so the decisions should be strategically aligned with the court’s longer term considerations.

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.

Bippity Boppity Boo – ECM, Workflow, and Magic

117_fairies
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable for magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke

Walt Disney was a man way ahead of his time. Yes, long before anyone coined the term, ole’ Walt managed to embed a major plug for advanced Electronic Content Management with configurable workflow into his 1959 classic, Sleeping Beauty. This feat was remarkable, even for Disney, considering that it would be decades before ECM would be invented.

Don’t just take my word for it; go watch the movie. Now, I’ll grant you he didn’t use the terms “ECM”, “configurable”, or “workflow”. No, futurist that he was, Walt cleverly used code words and allegorical situations. But, when you see the scenes in which the Fairy Godmothers try to manage their “household” WITHOUT workflow (they use the code-word “magic” instead; but, clearly, it’s configurable workflow), things are a hot mess. Once they return to using workflow – ok; call it “magic” if you insist – everything settles right in and works like, ahem, a charm.

Yes, the dishes put themselves away. The cake not only puts itself together, but it’s quality is without compare. That doesn’t mean the ladies don’t create the cake. They decide what the result should be and fashion a masterpiece. But there’s no muss, no fuss, and absolutely no wasted effort, duplication, errors, or sloppy work. Materials, ingredients, pots and pans, utensils – all arrive just when needed, then clean themselves and put themselves away.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a practically perfect illustration of the power of ECM with workflow. For those who have implemented it, the thought of doing without it, however briefly, is no less terrifying than the thought of cooking and cleaning without magic was to the Fairy Godmothers. For those who have not implemented it, the purported benefits sound like, well, magic.

Consider: Not only did the cake get baked; but all the ancillary prep work and cleanup were automatically executed as fully integrated functions. Suppose holding a court hearing operated the same way. No gathering documents and files; that’s done. No arranging the materials for the judge; that’s done, too. The judge can hold the hearing, the output (order, hearing, warrant, whatever) can be generated with a flick of the wand — uh, or the proper command issued by the proper person (there’s a difference between this and magic?).

Afterwards, the files and documents can hie themselves to their proper next places, be it “storage” or the next step in the process; notices can generate themselves, and so on. Moreover, for those who like to keep track of what’s been done (that is, every court manager who ever lived) all the proper recordings of what has been done, who was involved, and so on will be made without even asking. Want the answer to  any type of statistical or historical question? Just ask.

Walt even foresaw one of the less obvious considerations with using magic; at least, less obvious until the first time you get burned. That is, the need for security. Fortunately for today’s courts, they’re not the first ones to try using magic in the heart of the woods with Maleficent on the prowl. Today’s systems come with robust security; and staff awareness and training are among the highest priorities of professional court managers. Courts have gotten very good about keeping their windows and chimneys shut, so to speak.

And then, there’s the final scene. As the Princess and The Prince dance into Happily Ever After, the Fairy Godmothers each change the color of the Princess’s gown to conform to their different fashion tastes. What a concept: Configurable display, to suit the needs, wants, and preferences of each particular user. Guess what? Your wish is granted.

Bippity Boppity Boo.

Happy Halloween

116_men-in-blackOne of the great motifs of the “Men in Black” movies is the human disguises used by aliens. A perfectly normal looking human turns out to be a sort of robot or exo-skin for some alien inside who is driving the apparatus. The allure of being able to wear a young, buff, fully-coifed humanoid exterior could in fact appeal to me; but that’s another story. For an alien, life in a human-suit draws a lot less attention. It’s like Halloween every day.

How many judges, court managers, court staff, and court records users live most of their lives in a snappy, graphic, touch-screen electronic world, only to have to deal with an ancient (if venerable) Court Management System (CMS) that is monochromatic, text-only, keyboard-driven and is based on codes that only the long-time insiders can decipher? It’s not that the information management function provided by the old CMS isn’t vital. It is. It’s just not very attractive, very accessible, very easy to use, or very extensible by modern standards. Worst of all, it almost certainly doesn’t handle ALL the information management functions; things like document management, E-Commerce, workflow, and so on.

One solution, of course, would be to replace that old CMS with a spiffy new one that has all the new bells and whistles. Frankly, that’s not a bad idea. However, that’s sometimes not practical. Barriers like cost, process change, technical support staff, to name a few, litter the real world of court managers.

Imagine if the old CMS could look like, act like, and (to some extent) change like a much more full-featured, modern system. Sort of like the alien deep inside the “Human” costume.

Integrating a legacy CMS with a full-featured E-Filing solution can provide this type of leverage. Here’s some of how it could work:

The E-Filing System can extract necessary data from the legacy CMS and store a copy in a much faster, much more accessible repository that is updated at regular intervals. Because the updating involves only changes, regular updating itself is fast.

When dealing with users – for viewing, for data entry, for communications – the E-Filing System provides the interface. Of course, incoming and outgoing documents comprise a large part of the changes anyway; so in fact what is happening is that the E-Filing System is updating the legacy CMS, saving redundant data entry while providing a much more elegant interface.

Likewise, users seeking to view court information, whether it be documents, CMS data such as the Case Register or Judgment Docket, things like attorney names and addresses, and so on, all can do so through the interface provided by the E-Filing System.

Much more extended uses, including E-Commerce (where users pay for court information), and secure E-Notification can also run off the E-Filing engine, all the while using back-end information from the CMS and in turn updating the CMS with the relevant transactional data and metadata.

Another major new “face” made possible by an integrated E-Filing System can be a customizable “Judicial View”. The E-Filing System can be configured to provide judges with views and access to exactly the information they need, whether on the bench, in chambers, or on the go. The E-Filing System will collect the variety of information from the disparate back-end systems in which the information resides, such as the court CMS, the Jail Log, the Court Docket, the Document Management System, and so on, and present it the way each judge chooses to have it presented.

Perhaps best of all, when the time comes to actually replace the legacy CMS, the impact on the end users can be considerably lessened. After all, what they will see probably won’t change much – because they will be used to dealing with the E-Filing System’s front end.

So, as everyone dresses up for Halloween, consider whether your old creature might not be a whole lot easier to deal with if it were “wearing” a full-featured E-Filing suit.

Happy Halloween.

Justice Summit Reflection: From Case Management to Information Management

Experiencing June’s Justice Summit in Grand Rapids as usual felt like drinking from a fire hose.  Sadly, I have yet to master the trick of sitting in on three sessions at once, so will have to content myself with reviewing the materials and watching the videos of the sessions I missed when they are posted to the conference website.

IMG_1273I chose to follow the Case Management track, which Jim McMillan set up with his keynote on current developments in utilizing the plethora of data flowing from all forms of Electronic Content Management systems to enhance Case Management and Decision Support. From the fire hose I came away with, among other things, the following observation.

The justice system, often led by the courts, is approaching or at a “tipping point” in the management of information.  As I listened to how modern systems incorporate, integrate, and internally leverage the three traditional informational pillars – Case Metadata (Case Tracking Systems), Content (Document and Content Management Systems), and Process (workflow) – I realized that the improvements have gone beyond evolutionary to revolutionary.

Here’s what I mean.

The original electronic Case Management Systems (CMS) automated the systems previously kept in large files or books, typically called The Register of Actions, The Judgment Docket, and The Court Docket, or some similar terms.  Thus the DNA, or “lizard brain” of even the most sophisticated of early CMS were electronic “direct descendants” of the old, physical record. As such, they are of course “case-based”.

Likewise, Electronic Document Management Systems (EDMS) automated what had previously been physical case files. Again, they were direct descendants. So, for example, the electronic documents “of course” had “page numbers”, for instance.  And perhaps “Title Pages”. And, also of course, they tend to be very “document” and “file based”.

Workflow systems were a little different.  While their antecedent was written or institutional process information, generally they came into being either with or following implementation of EDMS and began with “smart” routing of documents through the process cycle. As such, they really were not different just in form (electronic versus paper based), but also in function, from their great, great grandparent, the Routing Slip. From the start they were able to take advantage of the electronic information contained in or accompanying the very documents they were tasked to route.

As time has gone by, Electronic Case Management, Electronic Content Management, and Electronic Workflow have become more tightly integrated and cross-leveraged. This trend has led to much of the almost incredible new capabilities of modern systems to impact

What I began to notice, from Jim’s Keynote through the various sessions on Case Management, is that the newest systems are starting to leave some of the old DNA behind. Instead, they start from ground zero and are designed to capture, store, utilize, disseminate, exchange, secure, manipulate, manage, and control information electronically from end to end, without resort to “lizard brain” limitations imposed by the physical limitations of previous ages. Concepts such as “case”, “file”, “person”, and so forth can be dynamically formed and utilized as needed, without imposing design or performance trade-offs necessary in bygone days. Furthermore, they are not so much “integrated” as they are reformed into a new, more complete, flexible, and robust whole.

What is emerging is a new type of system that is designed, from the ground up, to holistically handle all types of information – meta data, content, institutional knowledge and rules, security – without regard for system boundaries imposed by either information type or historical format limitations.

For those aficionados of Arthur C. Clark, what I think we are seeing is a Childhood’s End moment. The first wave of automated systems got us to where we are today. Now courts and the wider justice system are poised to move to a new level of Information Management, the successor to Case Management.

eFiling: Audit Trail and Confidentiality

This is Part 10 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 9 here.

To conclude this eFiling series, let’s look back at a few pieces posted in the past that dealt with the enhancement of both the audit trail and the control over confidentiality offered by eFiling.

Audit Trail

One of the fun pieces I wrote, inspired by a presentation David Slayton, included an explanation of the audit trail provided by a good eFiling system.

[David] says … “… 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…

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.

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…. [I]n 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.

Stalking the Wily Electronic Documents, January 12, 2015

In another piece, I got to use one of my favorite pieces of doggerel (“Last night I saw upon the stair/ A little man who wasn’t there…”) to illustrate how a well-designed ECM system provides auditable Record Integrity:

A reliable document Chain of Custody in the paper world is merely a means of attempting to protect the Principal of Integrity. (Albeit an expensive, labor-intensive, highly unreliable, almost-never-completely followed means). Even with special viewing areas and monitors, do courts control ALL access by ALL staff, ALL attorneys, and ALL judges, not to mention cleaning and security staff? Not usually.

ECM provides a built-in mechanism for maintaining an audit trail of the Chain of Custody for court documents, providing end-to-end assurance of document integrity. ECM users view documents on screen and don’t come in contact with the physical file. From identity and signature authentication (when needed) at the front end, through tracking who accesses each document and when, to ”locking out changes” to prevent tampering, ECM absolutely protects document integrity…

Proving the Negative, October 3, 2011

Confidentiality

Confidentiality has several aspects. There’s things like judge’s notes, intended only for the judge or designated persons. Then there’s confidential information, like Social Security Numbers, minors’ names, abuse victims’ addresses, and so on, contained in otherwise public documents. There are totally confidential documents, like Secret Indictments. There are confidential case types, like some juvenile matters or adoptions, where the entire case is confidential.

eFiling and ECM provide greater control of confidential information, at all levels of granularity – from individual data element to entire case. Who can see what can be tightly controlled and administered. So, for example, attorneys on confidential juvenile cases can see their clients’ files, but no others. Court employees and judges with clearance can see confidential data that has been redacted using automated, workflow-enabled tools making it invisible to unauthorized persons.

However, as I noted in the March 14, 2012 posting,

This does not mean courts should not carefully review and, if required, modify rules and statutes to make certain there are no unpleasant surprises … The paper-on-demand court environment IS different than the hard-copy environment. The area of Public Records discoverability has wrinkles in the paper-on-demand environment that never arise in the paper world…

… Recommended best practice:

1) Ensure that disclosure rules call out both electronic and paper work product as their own non-disclosable category of information;

2) Maintain the non-disclosable work product documents in separate document types from formal court records, with security configuration that prevents viewing by unauthorized system users; and

3) Support electronic document annotations that don’t technically alter the original document and have their own security distinct from the document

Assuring Judicial Work Product Confidentiality in a Paper-On-Demand Court, March 12, 2012

While the business case for eFiling generally emphasizes the savings, convenience, work process streamlining, and quality improvements, the benefits of having a robust, easily managed audit trail and greatly enhanced control over confidentiality certainly should not be overlooked as additional “low-hanging fruit” when moving to eFiling and ECM.

Workflow – The Life of a Document After Review

This is Part 5 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 4.

flintstonesAn image I use to describe eFiling without automated workflow is Fred Flintstone’s car: it looks automated; but somehow the driver is still doing all the work. From the filer’s perspective, once a document is filed, electronically or otherwise, the “processing” fun is over. But from the court’s perspective, receipt and acceptance of the document initiates an interconnected flow of activities, including identification, recording, and routing it across tasks, processes, and procedures through its lifecycle. This flow of activities is generally known as “workflow”.

Each workflow step has three basic parts. First, what it is. Second, decide what to do with it. Third, transport it to where the next step must be performed. With electronic documents, the third step obviously gets a lot easier, since the document need not be physically transported. But what about the first and second steps?

Consider for a moment the distinction between “Discretionary” and “Ministerial” decision-making. Discretionary decisions are those where the decision maker weighs the information and, based on his or her knowledge, experience, and authority choses which outcome or action would be most appropriate. Ministerial decisions, on the other hand, are those where the outcome is to be decided based on a set of rules known to the decision maker. A judge’s bail decision is discretionary. A traffic court referee’s determination of a fine amount, being based on a formula, is ministerial.

Discretionary decisions made by qualified people provide the “value added” in knowledge-based service industries like courts. In other words, that’s what the public is willing to pay for: well reasoned decisions.

When it comes to ministerial “decisions”, like where to send a document for the next step in a business process, while the rules may be complicated, following them does not require judgment; only knowledge of the rules.

Paradoxically, the more complicated the rules are, generally the more qualified is the person who must make the “decision”, both because that person is more likely to know the rules and because that person may be deemed more trustworthy to correctly follow them.

The result is that courts generally expend an enormous amount of their most valuable human resources on ministerial tasks that could be performed by anyone sufficiently versed in the rules. Meanwhile, those resources are considerably less available to provide the much higher value-added activities for which they are qualified. Indeed, in most courts, more time and effort goes into figuring out what to do with documents than is spent actually working with them.

Implementing eFiling, with or without also implementing automated workflow, certainly confers major benefits on the filers. From the court’s perspective, though, all other benefits pale before the benefits from implementing automated workflow.  A few years ago I wrote in a white paper:

“Where potential workflow improvements stand out, they tend to stand out impressively. Filing incoming mail, for instance, is a critical task requiring a high level of business knowledge. The individual performing this task must know how to “route” each incoming item (and often several items in one submission must be dis-aggregated and routed to separate locations), sort them into piles, then assure they are accurately fed into whatever distribution process is used to physically move them. In a system with properly implemented workflow, the document (usually self-identifying), once entered into the ECM system, will be automatically routed to the correct place.

“The first key savings is the time of the knowledgeable staff who no longer have to individually assess and route each document. Next is Elapsed Time savings: delivery can go from days or weeks to minutes. Then there is the savings not only of the reduction of lost and misrouted documents to near zero, but the elimination of the need for redundancies and safeguards that are commonly in place to deal with those errors when they inevitably happen in the paper document world.”

Short-Term Payback and Long Term Gain from Transitioning to a Paper-On-Demand Court, Jeffrey N. Barlow, 2011.

Yes; eFiling can be implemented without automating workflow. But it makes no sense.

Coming up next: Blog 6 of 10: eFiling Blog Series – Data Centric eFiling

 

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.

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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).

The Back End of eFiling

Make no mistake: I have been an avid proponent of eFiling for decades. In fact, my enthusiasm for eFiling and mandatory eFiling at that, predated eFiling’s actual readiness for prime time by more than a few years. It would be a total mistake to take anything I say here as a criticism of eFiling.

With given that disclaimer, it doesn’t take a genius to know that the strongest they can and will cut you. If you are surrounded by sharp knives, you have little choice but to learn and practice that care and respect.

eFiling has taken off in a big way. To the public, or anyone outside the court, it looks bright, shiny, modern and efficient. Some courts, however, may be feeling surrounded.

90_Back EndI’m reminded of the Post Office scene from Men In Black II. In the back room, all the spiffy office equipment is humming along neatly in an apparently total automated system. Then all the panels fall from all the equipment, and inside it’s being run manually by a legion of inter-galactic worker bees.

The discussion regarding eFiling has evolved considerably over the past several years. As recently as five years ago, or even a little less, a couple of the serious questions were 1) Should eFiling be mandatory as soon as possible after implementation; and 2) Should it precede, be concurrent with, or follow implementation of ECM with workflow in the court?

Today, question one has been pretty resoundingly answered by everyone who has walked the road: It has to be mandatory. Until it is, the court is in for pain, expense, and a lot of extra work.

Question two is trickier. Just about everyone knows that having Enterprise Content Management (ECM) with workflow precede or be concurrent with eFiling is optimum. Nevertheless, real world pressures are resulting in an uneven landscape. There’s a real benefit to mandating eFiling at a State or Judicial District level. Unfortunately, not all the courts may have a good way to connect the bright, shiny, eFiled electronic documents to their internal procedures and back-end systems.

Such courts have to deal with the non-optimum solution. Electronically received documents may be printed out; workflow will continue to be physical paper and file-centric, and manual data entry may be required to populate the back-end Case Management and other court systems. Many, many worker bees are working behind the scenes. Plus, they have to deal with their old systems, for which they barely had enough time anyway, and the NEW system makes additional demands on the court’s limited resources.

Courts caught in or facing this conundrum should seriously consider implementing an intermediate system to handle incoming eFiled documents. A web service interface coupled with ECM with workflow can accomplish a number of things.

  • Route for clerk review
  • Automate data entry to the CMS
  • Route for judge signature
  • Provide automated redaction of public-facing documents
  • Automatically publish to the court, city, county or other appropriate website for public view
  • Provide high-level visibility into the process and metrics on document data.

Five years ago, meaningful discussions considered whether eFiling was worthwhile. Today, that verdict is in: From a public and a legal system perspective, it’s a necessity. Furthermore, it has to be made universal and mandatory as soon as possible after implementation.

The second verdict, even if it hasn’t been announced, is already in the envelope. Once a court starts receiving eFiled documents, it’s going to have to connect them to its back-end systems and processes, and it will need to implement ECM with workflow. The longer it waits, the more pain, confusion and expense it will have to endure.