Northern Courts Reject Massive IT Project in Answers From California Auditor's Survey


     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California's northern counties show profound skepticism toward a new IT system being pushed by central court administrators, in survey answers recently obtained by Courthouse News. The northern trial courts describe the new system as slow, complex and not worth the money. They complain the project has been poorly managed while their current systems are faster, simpler, and work just fine.
     "We're very satisfied with our current system and are not eager to migrate to a slower, more complex, and much more expensive system," said the answer from Yuba County.
     The answers come from a survey of California's trial courts conducted by state auditor Elaine Howle who conducted an audit of the flagship project pushed by the judiciary's central administrators based in San Francisco. That audit, published earlier this year, blistered the expenses and the management of the project by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
     But the underlying survey answers were released only recently in a response to a request by Courthouse News. A central concern in the answers from 28 trial courts in northern California is the cost of the IT project, called the Court Case Management System. It is now projected to cost at least $1.9 billion, at a time when the state and individual courts are facing severe cuts to their operations.
      Central Valley courts blasted the system in an article on this page last week, with the northern counties voicing similar rejection here, in the second of a series of articles on the views of California's courts regarding the central administrators and their handling of the IT project.
     "In concept, the court does not object to a statewide case management system such as CCMS," said the answer from Amador County's trial court. "However, the court believes the CCMS project has been poorly managed, the scope of the project not well-defined and the costs of the project (both actual and projected) excessive."
     The Gold Country court adds, "In 2002 the AOC was directed to develop a case management system for statewide implementation as soon as possible. It is now almost nine years later and the product is not yet completed. Hundreds of millions of dollars that could have otherwise been used for court operations have been spent on a system that may never be deployed due to a lack of funding."
     Siskiyou County observes that the AOC had been funding the project with money set aside to keep courtrooms open, particularly from the Trial Court Trust Fund. "Our concern about CCMS has continued as we realize that CCMS, which has already taken a significant portion of scarce TCTF may require an ever increasing portion of TCTF at a time when all courts are downsizing and some are experiencing layoffs."
     Of the 28 northern courts, 20 say their current IT systems work just fine and should serve them "for the foreseeable future."
     Yolo County Superior Court responds, "Our current case management system satisfies our business needs and is very cost effective." They add, "There are little to no benefits to our trial court in converting from our inexpensive case management system to a statewide CCMS."
     Yuba County echoes Yolo, writing, "Although there are some benefits to having connectivity from court to court, it is not worth the trade-off. Our first and foremost responsibility is to provide efficient, timely customer service. If our efforts are thwarted by a cumbersome, unreliable system, it is a step back for us, not a step forward."
     Other courts are concerned that the proposed centralized court computer system is too massive, and employes too many features to accommodate the needs of small courts.
     Said Butte, "the design was primarily driven by the largest courts in the state. As a result, there is an extensive array of complex features and functionality that may be unnecessary for smaller courts and will certainly be challenging and costly for the small and extra small courts to effectively deploy."
     Siskiyou's response is similarly skeptical. "The AOC has support in its continuation of CCMS from some of the larger courts-- San Diego, Orange and Ventura-- that depend on this system. It also appears there are likely a greater number of courts that either do not support CCMS as it is currently constituted due to cost, function or other concerns, or have serious reservations for the same reasons."
     Sierra County Superior responds fatalistically, "We are not confident that the CCMS V4 will comfortably accommodate small court venues such as ours, but recognize that we will be ultimately be required to participate in a state-wide solution."
     One county bucked the 27-county trend. Lake County, a wine-growing region east of Mendocino with largest freshwater lake in the state, praised the vision and competence of the central administrators.
      "I support the AOC's vision for CCMS," said the answer apparently written by the court's chief clerk. "We all know how difficult it is for govenment agencies to implement computer systems, they are far from perfect and they cost way too much money. But after 20 plus years working in the courts and with the AOC, I think they can actually pull this off."
     Returning to the views from the overwhelming majority of the northern courts, Amador County says the AOC did not give them a chance to speak.
      "The decision to go forward with a statewide solution was made without soliciting input from the court. The AOC never gave the court the opportunity to provide input on the size or scope of the CCMS project or the issue of whether the purported benefits of the system justify its costs," said Amador.
     Nevada County Superior says the AOC only sought input from smaller courts after the IT project was well under way. "The AOC told us how this was going to be developed and implemented without soliciting our input. Well into the system development process, the AOC agreed to establish a 'Small Courts Consortium' to gain input on the sustainability of the system to small courts."
     Glenn County Superior says it tried to set up a meeting with the AOC to address some of its concerns about the size and scope of the project, to no avail, writing that for example, Glenn County asks if it is "fact or fiction" that a single clerk will have to spend seven minutes entering information for a single case into the new system.
      "If fact, it will not work, considering that a clerk may have a large number of cases to enter and seven minutes per case could bring court operations to a halt," said Glenn. "In addition, while L.A., San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and other large jurisdictions may have hundreds of employees to serve a single function, mid sized and small courts do not. Several inquiries were made to follow up relating to a meeting data but we received no such date/response. This does not build confidence for court executive officers as to CCMS and the process used thus far."
     Yuba County's court shows similar reservations about the new system's functionality.
     "We have been told by other courts who have installed CCMS that it takes longer to enter information and work through the innumerable screens, it is slower, and it is not geared toward smaller courts where each clerks performs many tasks in a day."
     In Yolo County, where the court is reluctant to migrate to a new computer system from one that is already paid for and suits them perfectly well, another concern is local control of case information.
     "The court is concerned with governance issues surrounding the loss of local control of its case management system and data," Yolo County Superior Court says, regarding the AOC's plan to store the data of every court at a centralized server in Arizona.
      "Data stored outside court control (and outside state lines- as is the case with CCMS) is contrary to existing statutory authority which vests primary control of court records with the presiding judge and the clerk of the court," said the court's answer. "The presiding judge and clerk of the court must maintain full authority and control of the court record to properly maintain and easily (and quickly) access the data contained therein as well as carry out their daily affairs."
     Nevada County's response shows similar doubts about handing over control to the agency. "A court's case management system is their most central mission-critical application. Centralization with the inherent single point of failure causes us great concern."