Boondoggle

     A particularly perceptive judge in Los Angeles Superior Court said to me a couple years ago that advances in technology are supposed to make access to information better not worse. A simple and obvious proposition, and yet one that is often lost on court officials.
     So take this behemoth of a computer project taken on the by California’s judiciary authority, a project that has cost at least $1.3 billion and continues to drain funds from the deficit-laden judicial budget.
     It is not supposed to make things more difficult. It should make the process of opening up a case faster and easier, and it should improve access to information. In fact it does none of those things.
     Judges have repeatedly said the new computer system is substantially more complex and time-consuming than the old systems used for setting up new cases. The new system, among other things, requires that a lot more “screens” be opened and filled in with typed information.
     A group of judges frustrated with the state court leadership have been vociferous in their criticism, a willingness to publically chastise the court’s leadership that I have not seen in the entire time I have covered news in California.
     The implementation of the new, fancy computer system has also been accompanied by a sharp deterioration in press access, in the few courts that are using the new system, called CCMS for California Case Management System.
     A long-delayed dawn in my brain started yesterday when I saw a memo talking about the “lead courts” in the new system. Three of those lead courts are big ones, San Diego, Orange County and Sacramento.
     I realized that it is precisely in those courts where press access is bad. And it is precisely in those courts where we have hit a wall of obduracy in our efforts to speed up access. In all of them, access to news is delayed by 24-48 hours most of the time and often much longer.
     If you compare those court to the big courts in California that are not “lead courts,” the courts that have not jumped onto the CCMS bandwagon — and those big outliers are Los Angeles and San Francisco — lo and behold you find same-day, old-school press access that is first-rate.
     This is a case where advances in technology, and I think it is fair to call them “alleged” advances, have gone hand in hand with a diminution in the quality of access to information.
     That is the very opposite effect of that which was touted by the court’s statewide leadership: that this new CCMS deal would improve access to information.
     The price tag on the big computer project is another matter, and, to use the words of a trial judge quoted in an earlier CNS news article, “it is an absolute scandal.”
     Those are not the only choice words used by judges in their description of the new computer system paid for and promoted by the Administrative Office of the Courts. They have also called the system “substandard,” “grossly inflated,” and “wasteful government spending at its worst.”
     A statewide audit looms over the whole project, and may bring some explanation for the outlandish expense of an over-engineered system. But we at CNS have dealt with related programs in other states over the years. Press access can normally be accommodated by new computer case management systems and the projects cost nothing close to a billion dollars.
      Minnesota, for example, which provides top-rung press access, was able to design and implement a new, statewide, case management system for $30 million. And even that figure seems awful high, when we are talking about what experts concede is fairly simple computer programming.
     Courts like those in Pittsburgh have simply hired programmers to design a system for case management and electronic filing. The federal courts have also designed a nationwide system of data base management for court cases without enormous expense.
     What California has done is rely on private consultants. It should be little surprise that the bill just goes up and up and up. If and when the system is actually finished, it will require almost $80 million a year simply to maintain, nearly three times what Minnesota spent to build its entire system.
     I have noted in another context — where judges hand over their data base management to private publishers — that judges are much better at the law than they are at business. And they often get taken to the cleaners by salesmen selling a bird in a bush, claiming the new systems will improve efficiency and reduce labor costs.
     There is nothing new and modern about salesmen selling you something you don’t need. That trick comes in a million guises.
     But here they had one of the biggest customers of all in the California courts, and the courts got sold an over-priced system that, in the guise of technological advance, has created more work for court employees while serving as the pretext if not the cause for a sharp degradation in press access.

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