California’s long-running courts’ IT project faces final verdict

By David Bicknell

If there was one place in the world you’d think might be able to get an IT project to improve courts’ systems right, it would be California, the home of Silicon Valley.

Unfortunately not. According to the San Jose Mercury News, there is a risk of the plug being pulled on a proposed system which was intended to link courts to each other and the state’s Department of Justice, and which would replace paper court files with electronic documents, allowing judges ‘with a click of a mouse’ to check everything from criminal histories to child support payments around the state.

But the 10-year project, which has so far cost $560m is running out of money. And now California, which as a state is strapped for cash, and is imposing budget cuts that are closing courthouses, is ready to pull the plug on the project altogether. 

The state’s Judicial Council, which is the court system’s policy arm, will tomorrow weigh up its options and make a decision whether to continue with the Court Case Management System (CCMS) or end the project.

A state audit last year made a catalogue of complaints against the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts for its lack of lack of oversight. It said that the AOC had: 

  • Inadequately planned for the statewide case management project and did not analyse whether the project would be a cost-beneficial solution to the superior courts’ needs.
  • Was unable to provide contemporaneous analysis and documentation supporting key decisions on the project’s scope and direction.
  • Did not structure the development vendor’s contract to adequately control cost and scope—over the course of seven years, the AOC entered into 102 amendments and increased the cost from $33 million to $310 million.
  • Failed to develop accurate cost estimates—in 2004 the cost estimate was $260 million and by 2010 the estimated cost was $1.9 billion.
  • Had not obtained the funding needed for statewide deployment and without full deployment to the 58 superior courts, the value of the project is diminished.
  • Must gain better support from the superior courts for the project—the superior courts of Los Angeles and Sacramento counties asserted that they will not adopt the system unless their concerns are resolved.
  • Did not contract for independent verification and validation (IV&V) of the statewide case management project until 2004 and independent project oversight services until 2007. The level of IV&V oversight was limited in scope and duration.
  • The statewide case management project may be at substantial risk of future quality problems as a result of the AOC’s failure to address certain of the consulting firm’s concerns.

In a telling quote, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the Judicial Council’s chairwoman,  is reported to have said it may be time to reconsider the project, comparing it to having “a Ferrari in the garage, but we can’t afford the gas.”

The San Jose Mercury News reported that state lawmakers are now growing increasingly sceptical of paying for CCMS, with one committee last week voting unanimously to put most of the system upgrade on hold.

“Eight presiding judges, including those from trial courts in San Francisco, San Mateo and Los Angeles, last week urged the council to pull the plug,” the San Jose Mercury News said. 

When it was first approved more than a decade ago, the project was an ambitious one.  Its goal was to create one unified system for all of California’s trial courts. The upgrade had widespread support, including from the state’s then Governor Gray Davis, and California was flush with cash to pay for the project.

But as the project progressed, its cost increased, and it has since became a ‘lightning rod’ for California judges who have been absorbing more than $600 million in budget cuts over the past three years.

Now, the state wants to cut the judiciary’s losses and find less expensive ways to improve court technology, by, for example, allowing local judges to pick their own IT upgrades.

“Anyone will tell you, if you’re stuck in a hole, stop digging,” said Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard, a leader in the Alliance of California Judges, a CCMS critic. “We’ve spent 10 years on this project. It needs to be declared dead.”

However, the end of the project is not necessarily a forgone conclusion, proving the old adage that no failing IT project can easily be killed off. Now a separate audit released last week has suggested three more options:

  • Deploy the full CCMS program in one test county, San Luis Obispo, which would cost more than $20 million; or  
  • Install it in 10 counties, including Alameda, Marin and Santa Cruz, and wait for the end of the recession before taking it state-wide; or  
  • End the project now. 

The audit has however pointed out that with or without CCMS, many trial courts need technology upgrades that will cost some amounts of money. And it has projected that, by 2017, CCMS would save the state about $33 million a year by cutting the cost of everything from collecting fines to transferring court files from one county to another.

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