Two Trial Courts Warn Bureaucrats of ‘Extreme Risk,’ ‘Threat to Branch’

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – In answers to the state auditor, two huge Southern California trial courts issued dire warnings to the judiciary’s central bureaucrats if they continue to push a monolithic IT system onto the courts, characterizing the situation as one of “extreme risk” that “may cripple the judicial branch.”

      Those stark warnings from Los Angeles and Orange County are contained in answers to a state auditor’s survey, recently released at the request of Courthouse News. The survey answers from Southern California also show that Ventura remains a cheerleader for the project while Riverside would like to be the last county in the state to get involved.
     As shown by the auditor’s survey, a large majority of the trial courts throughout California have rejected the new and extremely expensive case-tracking system pushed by the bureaucrats from the Administrative Office of the Courts in San Francisco and developed by Deloitte Consulting.
     “Increased data entry time and longer customer wait lines,” was the answer from Los Angeles when asked by the state auditor about the impact of the new Court Case Management System. As a result, Los Angeles, a county with a population of 10.3 million people and roughly 500 judges, has limited the new software system to one small claims courtroom.
     In the muffled language of report writing, Los Angeles takes the central administrators to task for their grand appeal to ideals and common goals while neglecting to perform the nitty-gritty tasks of defining practical goals, keeping it simple and looking at the trade-offs.
     More fundamentally, the Los Angeles courts staunchly declared their independence from the 1,000-person, San Francisco-based bureaucracy that oversees the state-court system.
     “The 58 California trial courts are not branches of either the Administrative Office of the Courts or the Judicial Council,” Los Angeles says, referring to the two top governing bodies just under the chief justice, “but are instead entities independently created by the California Constitution.”
     That position is not surprising to observers, given L.A.’s longstanding and fully expressed objections to the overarching IT system being pushed onto the trial courts. But what has surprised judicial observers are the survey answers from Orange County, long seen as an acolyte of the central administrators and their big project.
     Orange County’s head administrator, for example, has been a tireless advocate for the system, often repeating that it “works.” Officials from the court were effusive in praising the new software at a Judicial Council meeting in February and in legislative hearings last year on government accountability.
     And yet in the quiet of answering questions from the Bureau of State Audits, Orange is much more nuanced and critical of the system, revealing a deep concern with the project’s direction and management.
     Writing in clear, straightforward language, the author of the Orange answers says the new software has been heavily adapted by the trial court’s IT department, and that is the main reason why it works. The writer recounts a series of run-ins with the central administrators and notes the irony in the fact that the central bureaucrats now point to Orange as a shining success story.
     “The trial courts are the customer,” Orange says. “In the real world, the customer has the ultimate decision making authority by voting with their pocket book. That is not possible for the trial courts; CCMS use is mandated. We can have any color we want as long as it’s black!”
     “This,” Orange adds with understatement, “does not engender confidence or support and adds unnecessary challenges to the project’s success.”
     Orange County goes on at length in its answer to buttress the argument for a local server as opposed to using the new system’s central server, which is located in Arizona, despite California’s strength in the computer and programming field. The central administrators have fought the trial courts on that issue, most recently nixing a push by the Sacramento courts to get off the central server.
     Sounding like an enthusiastic pitchman, Orange shouts the advantages of a local server: speed, lack of interruptions in service, accountability for problems, flexibility in design, agility in response to local problems, technical control and lower cost.
      “All of this (accountability, flexibility, agility, control) fuels innovation,” according to the answer, which is unsigned but written with the language and humor an IT director would use. “The life expectancy of a case management system is about 10 years. Over that period of time, the underlying technology stack changes so dramatically that you have to change (lest you be saddled with a mainframe-based Cobol system equivalent in the future). ‘Shift happens’.”
     But the 800-pound gorilla of California’s trial courts, Los Angeles Superior Court, simply hammers the new software, saying it puts the court at the mercy of a private contractor and the central bureaucrats, strongly suggesting it has faith in neither.
     Los Angeles’ response echoes the findings of State Auditor Elaine Howle who concluded, based partly on survey answers, that the IT project has been grossly mismanaged by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
     The answers from L.A. point to the big project’s lack of both a budget plan and a realistic installation schedule, leading the court to conclude that its existing software is a better bet.
     The behemoth of the California courts adds that the benefits from the new software seem to run to the administrative office in San Francisco rather than the trial courts of California.
     “Indeed, many of the benefits accrue to the AOC, not the courts,” Los Angeles says. “The risks to each court, by contrast, are clear, material and experienced directly by local court leadership; poor case management system performance wastes scarce labor; inability to respond to local court user needs damages the public’s trust and confidence in the court; implementation delays create uncertainty for judges and staff; dependence upon vendors or county government is replaced with dependence upon the AOC and Deloitte.”
     Moving east into the desert from Los Angeles, the fourth largest county in the state with 2.1 million people, Riverside County reveals through its answers a deep reluctance to get on board with the new system. It says it has a computer system of its own that works fine “and does not feel an urgency to move to another case management system.”
     “The court’s existing case management system has fulfilled the needs of the court for many years and continues to be modified to keep up with the functions required by the court,” the court adds. “The system works well.”
     In its concluding remarks, Riverside appears to defer to the other trial courts that have bigger problems with their case management system. “Those courts should be converted first,” Riverside says. “The court would like to be one of the last courts converted.”
     Given that Los Angeles and a host of other courts are unlikely to ever switch over, Riverside is saying in politic terms that it will not be adopting the new IT system any time soon.
     Only four courts in California have fully adopted the new software system, and three are in Southern California: Ventura, Orange and San Diego. The fourth is Sacramento where the judges who lead the court have been outspoken in their criticism of the system and the bureaucratic machinery behind it.
      Orange County is the third largest in California, with 3.14 million people, and is nearly a twin in size to its southern neighbor, San Diego, the second largest with 3.17 million people. Like the court officials from Orange, those from San Diego have also been public cheerleaders for the new IT system.
     Although less outspoken than Orange in its survey answers, San Diego‘s appraisal of the new software is also more mixed than its public stance would have suggested.
     The court has spent $980,000 for its own outside consultant to manage the implementation of the software, according to its survey answers, separate and apart form the hundreds of millions the state has paid Deloitte Consulting. San Diego has also spent $872,000 on maintenance costs for the new software, in addition to increased day-to-day labor costs.
     “Data turned out to be more labor intensive and we did not realize the full benefit immediately through e-filing or document imaging,” the court says. “This additional data entry time can add significantly to the processing of cases.”
     It also shares Orange County’s aversion to an Arizona-based, central server.
     “San Diego survived the deployments because of our ability to manage the system in ways that made sense for San Diego,” says the writer, listing the many advantages to a local server, including better staff dedication, more flexibility, faster service and more reliability.
     San Diego says it will only switch over to the Arizona server if there is “good reason to do so.”
     The third Southern California court to use the new system is in Ventura County and it is undeniably pro-CCMS.
     In its survey answers, the court system for a county of 830,000 people proclaims loyalty to the central bureaucracy and its project. “The Ventura Superior Court has supported the CCMS project from its inception,” Ventura says. “Despite the complexities and challenges of consolidating many existing case management systems into a single system, they are outweighed by the many benefits that experience has demonstrated.”
     Ventura’s cheery view puts it well outside the dark assessment from the other Southern California trial courts.
     The most controversial aspect of the CCMS system is its cost, now projected at $1.9 billion. The funds to pay for it have largely come at the expense of the trial courts, while they have been forced to lay off hundreds of staff and close their doors on some days to deal with a shortage of money.
     One advantage to a heavy local adaptation of the new software is that it cuts down on costs, Orange says.
     “For example, when Deloitte responded with a $700K quote to build a multi-document viewing tool in CCMS (that OC would have to pay for), we respectfully declined and built it ourselves at a fraction of the cost,” the court adds. “We are able to do this because we had complete access to our data, and a competent engineering staff made up of court employees.”
     On a closely related issue, both Los Angeles and Orange reject the uniformity being pushed by the central administrators in San Francisco.
     “County voters are the public to whom superior court judges are accountable,” Los Angeles writes. “It is a fruitless hope that one size will fit all, or that one can create one system with a myriad features. A better strategy is to create the capacity within local courts to modify their own case management systems as needed.”
      Orange says it believes in the “vision” of a common core system statewide that would allow innovation and variation at the local court level. That belief comes with a big dose of doubt.
     “We are not particularly sanguine about the AOC’s ability to execute the vision. The AOC’s current stance is one of overly centralized control and relatively little support for innovation at a local level. On numerous occasions our Court has been asked to ‘slow down’ to let CCMS ‘catch up’.”
      From there, Orange goes down a list and methodically rips the central bureaucrats on accountability, cost, scope, governance and leadership.
     On accountability: “The AOC has a problematic track record in managing CCMS development and achieving delivery dates. They directed courts to stop investing in their legacy case management systems because they were going to rollout a statewide solution in 2008, then 2009, then 2010, then then 2011, then 2012, then 2014, then 2015, then 20??. They have forced courts into using an inferior product (Sustain) in a manner that gives the local trial courts virtually no real-time access to THEIR data.”
     “They are fixated on a single solution, using overly complex and expensive technology (Tibco, the non data-base parts of Oracle),” said the writer, providing an earful on accountability. “They have not once demonstrated the ability to operate and modify the software without the assistance of Deloitte.”
     On cost: “The cost of the project has skyrocketed and they continue to march on. CCMS is very expensive. The numbers are more plausible now that they started identifying the true cost of the project.” However, local costs tied to data entry and conversion are still not included.
     On governance: “CCMS is supposed to be the primary tool that trial courts use to effectively and efficiently administer justice – their core business. The new governance structure seems to assume this has been delivered, yet the system [referring to fourth and supposedly final version of the software] is not working yet in a single court.”
     On perhaps the most significant item on the list — leadership — Orange tells a story.
     “In the zeal to centrally control things, project management bristles at any notion of trial court innovation. In 2008, OC advocated for opening up CCMS ever so slightly so that on any CCMS screen a court controlled web-site could be invoked to allow local innovation. This was referred to as the ‘magic button.’ The AOC’s response was emphatically ‘no.'”
     The writer recounts that the presiding judge and the chief technical officer traveled to San Francisco to argue with the bureaucrats for the ability to make local adaptations to the main software.
     “When OC sent the PJ and the CTO up to San Francisco to request these extensions, the response was something to the effect of ‘We know OC will be able to innovate and optimize for YOUR purpose but we have to build a solution that has all 58 counties working the same way.’ Ironically, at this stage, the AOC regularly refers courts to OC’s experience in an effort to show that CCMS could do, and what life could be like after CCMS is running everywhere.”
     A frequent trial-court criticism of administrative office and Judicial Council officials is to describe them as “dreamers” who do not know the reality of running a trial court. That clash of mindsets let to a “revolt” in 2008 by the local courts, according to Orange, and the central officials backed down.
     “There have been examples of the lack of AOC understanding about what actually occurs in a trial court and what functionality is needed,” Orange said. “When the trial courts were insisting on functional changes, we were met with resistance until we all revolted in April of 2008. At that point, concessions were made to allow the system to be modified in ways that were beneficial to the trial courts. It should never have come to this.”
     The surprisingly expansive writer for Orange also gives vivid expression to a frustration in other courts with what they describe as the arrogance of bureaucrats who ignore expertise developed at the local level.
     “From a pure technical point of view, the AOC is not fully tapping into their most valuable resource – local court IT and operations professionals. Those folks have a wealth of knowledge on how to make things happen. The AOC has made clear that the local CIO’s have NO DECISION MAKING authority in technical decisions. For a while they held ‘CIO Briefings’ for the lead courts, but these were quickly stopped when it was clear that the tough questions were being asked.”
     Using the survey as a messenger, both Los Angeles and Orange chose the opportunity to deliver a dire warning.
     “The AOC’s plan has been overly ambitious,” the Los Angeles writer said. “This costly project has not wanted for calls for team spirit and idealism. Nor recently has it wanted for that we must continue because CCMS is too big to fail.”
     “What CCMS has lacked and continues to lack above all is a mature underlying product and program management strategy and a corresponding sold business case and resource model to ensure its achievement,” Los Angeles said.
     “In the absence of these,” the Los Angeles writer concludes, “risk is extreme.”
     But Orange County again manages to top L.A., with brisk writing and a more broad and powerful warning.
     “The decision makers appear to lack the sophistication and experience to run a program of this size and scale,” the Orange County writer says. “Yet, they manipulate the message to imply that everything is great and they are quick to deflect blame onto the trial courts when the system does not operate correctly.”
     On the final page of its answer, Orange says the central bureaucracy is not fixing the problems but is instead now making them worse. The bureaucrats remain focused on a monolithic system with a single server, and they are now catering to law-enforcement agencies at the expense of the trial courts.
     On the final line of the final page, the writer warns: “The Administrative Office of the Courts remains singularly focused on a solution that may cripple the judicial branch.”

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