Courts Develop Plans for 2020

California's courts developed strategic plans to take them into a coordinated technological future.

by / February 28, 1997
California's judicial system -- with 170 courts spread over 158,000 square miles in 58 counties -- dwarfs that of many countries in size and complexity. Since this sprawling system costs California more than $1.5 billion a year, even small increases in efficiency can mean tremendous savings. And efficiency was a problem.

A 1991 report by the Commission on the Future of the California Courts pointed out many problems inherent in this cumbersome system and said that technology would be the key to improving it. "The courts have it within their power to transform their relationship with technology," said the report. "If they do not, their inefficiency will at best frustrate the public. At worst, disputants will seek out private dispute resolution forums ...."

Since then, the state has taken some major steps to establishing a statewide judicial information infrastructure. As with most technology projects, good planning and design are important, and California placed its emphasis on laying a firm foundation.

In December 1991, the Judicial Council, the administrative arm of the courts, formed the Commission on the Future of the California Courts. According to the commission's final report, its method of operation was a "planning process fairly novel in the nation's courts at the time, one known as 'alternative futures planning.'" This method was designed to embrace "conventional forecasting, trend analysis and scenario construction" to help decision makers "anticipate what the future might be in order to propose what it should be."

"The commission looked into the court system and where we should be in the year 2020," said Justice Gary Hastings of the California Court of Appeal, 2nd District. "One result of the commission was a report that suggested a body be set up to address where technology should be."

The Judicial Council accepted the 2020 report and established the Court Technology Task Force (CTECH) for the purpose of formulating the "design, charge and process for a permanent governing body that would oversee the planning for and implementation of technology in California's trial and appellate courts."

According to Ron Titus, manager of the Office of Court Technology and Information (OCTI) for the Judicial Council, who is also principle staff of the task force, "Our first effort was to try to get a handle on the level of technology. We went to the National Center for State Courts and asked for good courts to go see. There were little pockets of technology in California, but the state as a whole wasn't very advanced."

Members of CTECH traveled to other states -- including Utah and Washington -- to study successful court technology systems and management practices. They did short courses at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and MIT, and attended seminars and trade shows.

The result was a report containing general strategic guidelines for the courts as well as specific tasks and goals. Then, Judicial Council Rule 1033 was issued in November 1994, which established the Court Technology Standing Advisory Committee, chaired by Justice Hastings. The committee is charged with achieving the objectives defined by the task force.

It soon became apparent, however, that in order to make further progress, the committee needed to know more about the existing state of technology in the courts. At the same time, the courts in each county were facing a deadline imposed by the Judicial Council's Rule 991 which mandated that by Sept. 1, 1996, "the trial courts within each county shall develop a common plan for countywide implementation of information and other technologies." The council allocated $2 million to help counties develop those plans.

"We had no idea what courts had what technology," noted Hastings. "We figured there would be no way to allocate [technology] between the counties, and decided that if we held the money and provided services to them, we could probably get more bang for the buck."

A project, consisting of three phases, was developed and went to bid. The first phase was to hold five regional workshops to help explain the purpose and duties of the committee and the state's technology goals to county leaders. The second phase was to visit each court to asses the technology already in place. The final phase was to visit officials in each county and focus on a strategic plan.

Tech Prose, a relatively small Walnut Creek, Calif.-based firm, won the contract.

Meryl Natchez, Tech Prose president, gave the workshop presentations. All but two counties participated, and the workshops received high marks from attendees. This helped to set the groundwork for the survey of existing technology.

The court visits and technology surveys found a remarkably wide range of technology. As expected, the more densely populated, affluent counties had the better technology. But the average age of existing technology was seven years, and 30 of the 58 counties were running systems more than 10 years old. Nineteen counties had two or fewer staff in charge of data processing -- not just for the courts, but for the entire county. Eleven counties had no one in charge of data processing -- in those cases either court administrators or vendors were making the decisions.

"We were surprised how many didn't even have their own fax machine," said Jolly Young, Tech Prose's Project Manager for the Courts Project. "We'd bring out our own printers. A lot of them have obstacles you wouldn't even think of, historical things like you couldn't put wiring in the building [because it was a historical site]."

One county shared the town hall with a local social group. This usually worked okay, except for one month when there was a scheduling mix up and they ended up holding court in the parking lot.

According to Young, the courts were generally very receptive to the surveying, especially once they realized it was intended to help them get their strategic plans together. The surveying phase also became more than merely gathering information -- surveyors were able to relate the experiences from one county to officials from other counties, thereby helping to "cross-pollinate" ideas.

All the survey information was transferred to a database and made available for officials to see what was being done where and by whom. The database also contains information on satisfaction levels with specific software and plans for new installations. This helped counties evaluate their own software and expansion plans.

"Planners were sent out into the counties to talk with the courts and begin to develop a strategic plan," said Titus. "We provided a template as to what we wanted to develop. It was very successful in terms of providing a service from a state level to the local level." Based on the template, each county did develop and file its own strategic plan by the Sept. 1, 1996 deadline.

"All the counties have filed their reports," said Hastings. "They have their own plans they have signed off to. We now have a $4.6 million project to help the courts implement those plans. Any requests they make must be consistent with their long-range and short-range plans."

The project seems to have put California in a good position to move forward. The central court administrators have a strategic plan which describes where the state should be in the next century and local officials have a clear view of where they stand and what they must do to bring their county up to the goals listed in the strategic plan.

Although there remains a tremendous amount of work to accomplish the overall goals and the specific county plans, at least the state knows where it stands and where it wants to go. Instead of issuing unreal targets to overloaded county officials, the state has put itself into a position where state and local officials can work together to achieve mutually agreed upon goals.


PROBLEM/SITUATION: California courts needed a coherent technology plan.

SOLUTION: A project surveyed existing court technology and helped develop strategic plans for each county.


VENDOR: Tech Prose.

CONTACT: Court Technology Hotline, 415/396-9315. An organizational diagram of the courts may be seen at: .

David Aden
David Aden is a writer from Washington, D.C.