I remember when I settled on my document management software choice. The happiness I felt in finding a solution that could solve our problems was replaced by fear. It was the biggest single investment in technology that my agency had ever made and the decision was left up to me. What if I picked the wrong one? A minor moment of paralysis set in. I feel like today’s courts are in the same place and I would like to offer some questions and thoughts to help, one formerly scared government worker to another.
There are a number of technology companies working on small solutions to help our courts live through their never-ending, always growing caseloads. From their facilities to their file cabinets, our court systems were not set up for the demands of today’s world and while new buildings have been built and more file cabinets have been bought, there is still many places to help out these entities.
The transition to electronic case files, web access, automation, eFiling, eDiscovery, video arraignment, electronic signatures is underway. Niche players are developing great pieces of an overall solution, but the sheer scope of so much potential change and the fear of picking the wrong thing can result in paralysis, the inability to pick even as your file cabinets are bursting and your staff is being reduced.
With so many technologies that can help, how can you pick?
This would be hard for any governmental entity, let alone the courts, where so much that is important and significant about our country is protected and put into practice every day. Here’s some things to consider and hopefully, the answers will help you move forward to address today’s needs while preparing you to take on more technology improvements as they are vetted and embraced by our legal system.
First, what’s at your core? This is important. I am a gadget person, I love new software and I love new technology toys. But, no matter what new eFiling tool emerges, you still have documents you need to secure, store and take care of. This means that you need a solid, secure, enterprise class document management system for courts. Documents are and will remain at the core of your work, whether they originate as an electronic document or not. In courts, our paradigm is documents and our mission is securing the documents so that they are immediately available to make the hard and important decisions that courts make. Storing and controlling access is different than a new method for presenting or ingesting documents, as eFiling represents. It makes great sense to take in documents electronically and eFiling is important, but where does it go once you have it electronically? This is the important question and one that holds for many of the new technologies available to our courts.
What does overall solution mean?
This is important too. Another fear-inducing line of discussion! But, I would offer that you can walk through your day-to-day operations to see how the work is done and to find technology tools that support your processes. When you see your process in this way, you know that your solution includes a court case management software, a document management software and an automation tool. Chances are you already have a court case management solution, so what’s next?
Where is most of your time spent? And, therefore, what solution do you need to put into place first, because right now, you need to make a big impact and meet reduced staff and budgets realities? Again, courts face huge challenges because of the volume of documents they handle, work with, and store. Putting a document management system into place first makes sense because it captures and addresses the largest challenge courts face today.
But what about an overall solution? This is important, document management is just one big piece, others may be needed, now or in the future. We want tools that blend together, that are easy and intuitive for our users, not a series of disparate pieces produced by multiple vendors that have no interest in making their product fit into an overall solution that includes other vendors’ products.
The key to making the document management selection is picking an application that has a good track record of being able to integrate easily, effectively and sustainably with your court case management system and your future technology tools like eFiling, or electronic signatures. Integration opportunities and track record has to be one of the first questions courts ask as they try to move forward to address their current needs without buying something that can’t scale, can’t automate or can’t “talk to” their other investments.
Automation. Another scary thought. I think that in general, the volume of work has shown the advantages of having documents automatically move to those who need them and the struggle to meet our own due process has shown the benefits of workflow timers, reminders and notifications that help us keep on top of our hearings and rules. As we embrace automation, courts need to pick a document management software that has a strong automation component as a part of its core. That way, as the courts move into the ECM world, they have a workflow tool that can grow with them and can easily access the electronic documents they store.
Workflow is a beautiful thing but as courts consider a product, they need flexibility, and they need a product that doesn’t require consistent years of custom code services costs. More than one government deployment has failed because no one considered whether their own staff could continue to develop the solution themselves. Turns out that some of the document management companies make their money on the services after they sell you the software. And that turns a brilliant choice into a failed deployment because government budgets ebb and flow. So, your total cost of ownership and importantly, whether you can manage and expand it yourself has to be a decision point for your selection. Otherwise, the solution you pick may not keep up with the technology you will pick in the future.
Finally, one thing that worried me was the type of company I was dealing with. The perils of trying to create a solution and then have my work be undermined by a new corporate focus, acquisition or sale scared me. So, as you consider an investment for your court, find out the focus, scope and track record of the companies you are considering. Are they profitable? What is their focus? Who is using their software? Is the software developed or is it “in development”?
Try to figure out what it will be like for your staff while you make the transition. Visit a user and find out how they deployed the software, and how they kept their work going as they deployed their software. How long did it take to deploy? How long do customers use the software? What is the maintenance renewal rate?
The bottom line. Courts do important work and they need to use technology to keep up. This can be a scary moment because there seem to be so many things to pick from and so many things in motion. However, there are technology tools like document management that can provide relief for today’s challenges and with the right document management software, it will grow and fill the gaps to help courts position themselves for meaningful solutions for today and maximum flexibility for tomorrow’s new innovation. That’s how to pick when the technology target is always moving!