Missouri Courts Showed Dynamic Vision With Their IT Setup

missouriIt was only a few years ago that swift due process in the Missouri courts was threatened by antiquated computer systems and wayward workflow applications. The decision to overrule this inadequate IT architecture came when administrative functions, including brief filings, court records, transcripts of proceedings, motions and judgments, threatened to bury courthouses in reams of paper.

It is taking a massive IT overhaul and airtight project management to tame the unruly setup and balance the scales between IT and court administration. The multipronged re-engineering effort includes standardizing on desktop, database and network technologies. Once that foundation is laid, the state can easily automate document management processes and make public records available electronically over the Web to 3,300 employees, 25,000 attorneys and several state departments.

This large undertaking, done under the supervision of Jim Roggero, project director of the Missouri Court Automation Project and CIO for the Missouri Office of State Courts, in Jefferson City, will unify the independent IT operations of many court systems for the first time in the state’s history.

Over decades, the state’s 120 courts developed their own processes in fact, there wasn’t even a standard identification format for cases and documents. “Those are critical elements,” Roggero said. Further, each court had chosen its telecommunications services; some lacked touch-tone dialing. None were adequately equipped to accomplish what the state wanted to achieve.

In addition, the state was not appropriately staffed to tackle the project. So, consultants were brought in, users were tapped as expert witnesses, the job was broken into manageable pieces and is being measured every step of the way until each court is connected, within the next few years.

Why go to such great lengths? Because if politics is important in corporate IT, it is even more so in state government. The legislature and governor had to agree to the court system’s plans if funding was to be secured. In addition, court proceedings are entwined with other agencies: social services for juvenile justice, arrest records from the Highway Patrol and local police, and the Department of Revenue for motor vehicle registration.

A carefully crafted case

While the re-engineering efforts are well under way, at least one court pilot project is done. With that project came a methodology that had to control implementation, create reports for government officials and synchronize with other agencies. All work was divided into specific areas infrastructure, application rollout and in-house development each with a project manager who, though technically not working for Roggero, reported to him.

For consistency, everyone had to use Microsoft Corp. Project 98 and Lotus Development Corp. Notes. Project was used to track details of the work, while Notes provided not only e-mail but also shared databases.

On top of that, metrics were used to measure how effectively installed systems worked. The metrics included both technical yardsticks, such as network performance and uptime for public Web sites, and procedural measures, such as how quickly documents are processed and the number of cases handled in a given amount of time.

Armed with that information, Roggero compiled formal reports, which were presented to the Missouri Court Automation Committee, an oversight body that includes legislators, members of the administration, judges and attorneys. Supplementing the reports were weekly meetings with the administrative head of the court system and a combination of daily phone and e-mail conversations with the state chief justice.

Then there is the Information Technology Advisory Board, 35 state IT managers who meet monthly to decide on technology standards. The board helps departments develop compatible infrastructures and gives Missouri more leverage in negotiations with vendors throughout the project.

Even with all of that counsel, however, Roggero realized he still needed help.

To get project planning off on the right foot, Chicago-based Andersen Consulting was retained to bring its experience with other court projects to bear. Andersen suggested technology and business approaches, developed requests for proposals and continues to consult on implementation.

The state also enlisted the aid of its employees through user groups. Each group provided insight on how the members’ individual courts work and how workflow must be customized for each. They also helped design document templates for standard letters and forms.

Based on the information obtained from the user groups, Andersen recommended widespread implementation of Banner Courts software from SCT Corp.’s government division, in Lexington, Ky. This package, which uses Oracle Corp.’s Oracle8 relational database management system, is case management software a court equivalent of office automation ranging from workflow and document management to resource allotment and forecasting and even financial functions.

But before the new workflow applications can be deployed, massive infrastructure changes from the desktop to the network have to be made in all of the courts.

All court workers are to be given a minimum of a 200MHz Pentium system running Windows NT with 32MB of RAM and a 2GB hard drive. Judges will receive laptops, so that they can respond to questions after-hours. Then will come extensive changes in telecommunication in the form of frame relay services from Sprint Corp.

In the pilot project, there was a lag between upgrading basic facilities and installing the Banner software. Although the intention was to install the software 90 days after the infrastructure changes, the time turned into six to seven months. “Everything isn’t roses we have our difficulties. [But] if we didn’t use the metrics … we wouldn’t be able to find the problems,” Roggero said.

This illustrates the importance of a well-planned strategy in the courtroom. Despite the delays, project management has brought the first yearlong pilot project to fully live status and is ensuring that residents will have something even more important than technology: timely justice.

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