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Digital Citizens Deserve Digital Courts (Contributed)

Digital services have made tasks like depositing checks easy to complete online. Doing the same for notoriously slow-moving court processes would improve usability for both citizens and government alike.

empty jury box
It’s no secret that serving for jury duty can have a bad reputation. Inflexible hours, long wait times, minimal pay and sluggish court procedures have all combined to make jury duty a nightmare for busy citizens. But it’s not just America’s jurors who have reason to complain. From manually checking juror attendance to handling mountains of paperwork for court documents, government court employees waste countless hours on inefficient and needlessly time-consuming tasks. The court system is ready for change. 

That change is powered by new digital technology. No one today expects to have to wait in line at the airport to make travel plans or to visit a bank just to deposit a check. Digital technology has made these everyday processes easier, faster and more convenient; along the way, it has also empowered individuals to manage their time on their own terms and expect immediate results. Why not bring the same quality-of-life improvements to the way citizens interact with the court system? Using the right digital technology, we are transforming court systems into something just as efficient, streamlined and empowering as mobile banking or online travel booking. 

Imagine if the process of registering for jury duty was as simple as signing into an app on your phone. Imagine if government employees and citizens alike could access every legal document or piece of information they need from the same online portal. Or if jurors could get paid for their jury duty through an app like Venmo or Zelle? 

Not only does digital transformation of the court system make the legal process easier, it also increases access to jury duty. Many citizens today are unable or unwilling to participate fully in jury duty because of how the current court system creates conflicts with their schooling, job or financial situation. A lengthy trial could easily spell financial disaster for the poor and underprivileged, who often cannot afford to take weeks off from work while waiting for the slow turnaround on jury duty pay. This, in turn, creates racial inequalities in jury representation, as people of color are more likely to be vulnerable to financial hardship. A digitized, streamlined court system eliminates at least some of these burdens and inefficiencies, allowing more people to participate and creating fairer and more representative juries across the country. 

Bringing the court system online also gives citizens and governments newfound flexibility. That’s because, unlike manual processes, digital technology is enormously adaptable and capable of changing to meet evolving needs. A digital portal for the court system could allow for a variety of different app plug-ins to tailor the online experience to specific desires and needs. And a digital court solution enables courts to provide a public-facing experience for jurors while having a single point of entry and access to document and case information — features that are increasingly important as we seek to adapt to a new normal with COVID-19. 

Government, of course, is no stranger to the call for digital transformation. For years now, digital technology has defined the standard of modern good governance, from automated revenue management to data-driven analytics and digital information processing. But many of these changes have focused on the administrative back office, things like using digital technology to make government’s internal processes more efficient or cost-effective. Digitizing and streamlining the court system shifts the focus from the back office of government administration to the front office, where citizens and governments meet. 

The time is right for such a shift in focus. Citizens today demand from government new digital and online services that directly benefit them. A recent survey by Accenture found that citizens today want from government the same kind of quick, easy and online options that they get from the private sector; 67 percent of survey respondents said that ease of use was the most important factor when interacting with digital government services. And 56 percent of respondents said they would trust their government more if it better communicated how it was using new technology to make their lives better. 

The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated this trend and made the need for a front office digital transformation of the court system all the more urgent. According to a new Granicus survey, 54 percent of citizens today expect more government services to be available online because of the pandemic. That’s in part because online services have proven more reliable and efficient during the workplace disruptions incurred by the coronavirus. But it’s also because digital services empower citizens to take their health and safety into their own hands. Nobody wanted to have to wait around in a court office before the pandemic; now, citizens recognize that they deserve the option not to and that there are more efficient and convenient ways to operate. 

For all of these reasons, digitization is defining the future of the court system. An online portal for accessing every aspect of the court would bring the efficiency, ease of use and safety of contactless platforms to one of America’s most important, but least accessible, public institutions. Governments interested in embracing the cutting edge of digital governance should invest today in bringing digital technology to bear upon their courts. 

Keith Ellery is the Justice Solutions leader at Avenu.

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