Paving the Cowpath
Last week I started my first class of the Institute for Court Management’s Court Management Program II course. Our instructor gave us some sage advice: “Don’t pave the cowpath.” I had heard the phrase, “You can’t put lipstick on a pig” before, but this was a barnyard euphemism I was unfamiliar with. According to Fast Company, “paving the cowpaths” is an expression often used to express disdain for weak change management programs. Essentially, she boiled it down to the fact that we often keep doing things the way we have because it is the way it has always been done. As I looked around the room at the nodding heads, I knew all of the court managers in the room were intimately familiar with this concept. Perhaps they wanted to institute a change, but their judge, court clerk, chief probation officer, or [insert any other title here] wouldn’t go for it.
My husband, a court administrator who I met in my CMP I class (we briefly renamed the class “Certified Marriage Program” after we wed in July 2018), knows this concept well. He works in a small court in a small town. The clerk’s office historically received all of the police paperwork, including a discovery packet. This left them in an awkward situation as the custodians of the prosecutor’s work product. After completing CMP I, he decided it was time for a change. His clerks would no longer accept prosecutor’s paperwork at their window. Officers and detectives would have to go directly to the prosecutor’s office. However, the prosecutor didn’t have an official office, and he mostly handled the work alone.
The changes he proposed were a physical brick-and-mortar office for the prosecutor, a secretary to handle collection and distribution of discovery and state’s evidence, and a case management system for the prosecutor to use. This was met with resistance as change always is. Excuses were made that there was a lack of funding, but the cowpath needed to be plowed. After much debate, the court has moved forward and implemented the changes. In three months, the people that were opposed to the change now embrace their greater access to videos, body cams, and the ability to have administrative staff distribute discovery and issue subpoenas. The end result is that cases are now being resolved more timely and efficiently. But how often do we throw in the towel or avoid even breaching the subject of change altogether?
This quarter’s articles give a fresh perspective on approaching change and using technology to advance access to justice. As a person who hates to get the notice in the mail that I can upgrade my phone because it might mean learning new apps and the conversion process alone is daunting, I understand the avoidance of trying new things—blazing new trails. However, I was amazed at the possibilities these new technologies, which are now available to courts, can bring and at the new approaches to assisting court customers and, as a result, the community at large that these articles put forth. I hope you enjoy this quarter’s issue and consider what cowpaths in your own work you’d like to bulldoze, rather than pave.