Understanding processes and improving processes to work smarter can result in lower costs, better outcomes, and less friction between participants. This is true with projects involving websites and SEO, and it’s true with most businesses. As an SEO, there are a lot of things I work upon to try to make a website better. That tends to bleed over into other things as well.
I was thinking back to some changes at the court I worked a few years ago which provide some good examples of how focusing upon improving processes which can bring about positive changes.
Where’s the Bail Money?
Back when I was an employee of one of the Courts of Delaware, a number of Courts and State Agencies joined together to bring a new case management software system to the State’s Courts that would help to:
- Make moving cases from one court to another easier
- Significantly reduce data entry for cases
- Reduce paperwork in managing cases by the Courts
- Improve the management of cases for everyone in the Criminal Justice System
- Allow for easier entry of information for people in court
- Ease the creation and collection of actionable data about court cases
- Share Information with other computer systems, such as those run by the State Police, the Attorney General’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Department of Corrections, and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The software we were updating to wouldn’t do this by itself, and it took the cooperation of many people from different courts to study and change Court Rules and State Laws, analyze the tasks of people performing different jobs, reach out to the greater justice community for information and assistance, and understand the flow of paper and other materials between the Courts. This effort towards improving processes reduced workloads and complexity, saved time and money, and made it easier for people posting bail.
I was one of a small number of representatives from my Court, which was the highest level Trial Court in the State involving criminal and civil cases. Before we began this adventure, each of the courts had what amounted to their own isolated computerized case management systems. One of our goals was to tie the courts together with the same system. Here’s an example of how our processes began to change with this effort.
Someone is arrested on felony charges and brought to the closest open court – usually a Justice of the Peace Court. They are brought before a magistrate who tells them what the charges are, sets a bail amount (in most cases), and schedules a date for a preliminary hearing at the next highest level trial court – the Court of Common Pleas. The clerks in the JP court collect information such as name, address, charges, and what happened in the Court. If the person charged pays bail, the money is deposited in the State General Fund. The information is saved on paper and entered into the court computer system.
The case is transferred to the Court of Common Pleas, and the person accused can attend a preliminary hearing where a judge determines if there is enough probable cause to go forward with the case. A preliminary hearing might be waived by the defendant, in which case they might receive discovery information about the case. Or the defendant might be indicted by the Grand Jury. The court clerks take the paperwork from the Justice of the Peace Court, and types that information into their computer system. They take a check sent to them from the Justice of the Peace Court for bail and deposit it into the State General Fund.
If the case is indicted, it goes to the Superior Court, and the clerk gets all the paperwork and a check for the bail money from the Court of Common Pleas. For the third time, the bail money is deposited into the State General Fund. Some of the information about the case is transferred from the Court of Common Pleas computer system to the Superior Court Computer system, though charges may have changed during indictment, and case/charge numbers may have changed as well.
Overall, there’s a lot of redundant data entry going on between the three courts. Even worse, instead of a simple voucher being sent to the State General Fund and the Courts involving the transfer of the bail money, new checks are being written and transferred from one court to another. There are a number of additional nuances involved in getting a case through the three courts, and the process is an ugly one that takes up a lot of time, expenses, and resources.
The new case management system makes it easier to move and manage data, but changes like switching from checks between Courts to a voucher system cut out some significant costs, process steps, and participants. Our efforts toward improving processes made a difference.
Commitments and Releases
When someone was sentenced in my court, the courtroom clerk would create a worksheet indicating the sentence handed out by a Judge. Most of the time when someone was sentenced, the clerk would hand a threefold copy to a Department of Corrections (DOC) officer, who would walk a defendant through public hallways to my office which was at least a couple of floors away. One copy was for the defendant, one for the DOC, and one for the Clerk’s Office. The DOC Officer would hand the commitment or release to a court clerk in my office, with the defendant usually chained with shackles, and wait while a sentencing clerk would type up an official commitment or release.
At some point, a change was made that allowed the three-ply worksheet created by the courtroom clerk to act as an official commitment or release, and it didn’t need to be walked down public hallways to the clerk’s office anymore, or typed up as an “official” commitment or release. The DOC officer could bring the paperwork to the detention center directly, except for the copy for the Court, which was kept by the Courtroom clerk until all sentencing might be finished for a day.
That helped save work and time and created a safer environment for the public and the employees of the Court.
Sending Faster Subpoenas
I was visiting the offices of a friend, watching him send out invoices one day, and how long it took to fold each invoice and stick it into a windowed enveloped. He had an office supply catalog nearby, and I was leafing through it and noticed electronic paper folders, so I joked that he should get one. He agreed and sent off for one right then and there. I guess he was tired of folding.
Jump forward a couple of months, and he told me the letter folder was one of the best purchases he ever made.
I was supervising a handful of clerks at the time, and they had to send out a number of subpoenas every week, so I asked for an electronic letter folder for them. The task of spending 45 minutes to an hour 3-4 times a week turned into something that took less than 10 minutes each time. The letter folder paid for itself the first week. The subpoenas looked more professional, and the time saved could be spent on other work.
After a few experiences at the court where even small changes in how we worked made big differences in our work flow and our ability to manage tasks, it was something that I’ve kept an eye out for ever since. A bar code system for court files made it much less likely that a file might be misplaced (I was pushing for Radio Frequency Tags for files at the time, but they were too costly). After the bar code system was installed, the times we had to search for case files diminished considerably.
We faced hiring freezes and budget cuts and responded to them by finding ways to do more with fewer people and less money. Sending out large amounts of paper copies daily of court schedules to the Public Defender’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office and 22 other destinations was replaced with electronic copies that could be emailed. I created electronic databases for fictitious names for businesses so that people didn’t have to search through paper copies. We set up computers in Courtrooms for Judges so that they could connect to our computer system while Court was in session.
Improving Processes in Business
After I left the Court, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a large number of processes involving making business processes easier and better. A tool like the Screaming Frog Web Crawler made creating content inventories a task that took considerably less time to do.
Learning that keyword research can become easier and better if it’s delivered after doing a deep dive site audit instead of simultaneously with an audit was something worth exploring. Spending a significant amount of time with a site provides time to think about a site’s objectives, their audience, and the value that they provide to that audience.
Simple changes, like giving deliverable documents more descriptive file names can make organization much easier for both the person creating them and the people receiving them. The same is true with better subject lines for emails. Small changes in processes can have big impacts. Even electronic letter folders.
You just have to look at them like the opportunities that they are.