The field of court administration has learned much about the policies, practices, and technologies that characterize high performance. Nevertheless, courts continue to struggle with improvement, and we have speculated that the difficulty may lie in not knowing how to go about achieving high performance. In this article (the second of three1), we seek to demonstrate through our court experiences how the application (conscious or not) of principles and practices from the High Performance Court Framework (HPCF, or Framework2) have led to successful court improvement efforts.3
Successful government performance managers have been described as using “five best practices.”4
- Aligning indicators to strategic goals
- Measuring impact on people
- Tying outcomes to inputs
- Collaborating and iterating over time
- Not reinventing the wheel
Workplace coaching professionals have noted that high performing teams ensure communication, embed accountability, and focus on clear goals and results.5 Concepts from the Framework allow court managers to exercise these practices so that courts can establish vision and goals, continually evaluate and innovate, and use performance measures for accountability as a path to high performance.
The Framework contains many concepts or elements that equip court leaders to create a court that has high quality administration of justice. As the researchers who first described the Framework explain:
[T]he Framework encourages court leaders to learn as much as they can about what good, better, or best practices appear to offer [as] an answer to a perplexing business situation. It is developing just such a capacity to approach difficult questions from many perspectives and to combine various approaches that holds the greatest promise for fine-tuning a solution that will work in each court’s particular context.6
- Administrative Principles–key caseflow management concepts such as individual case attention, proportional attention based upon case need, procedural justice, and judicial control of the legal process.
- Managerial Culture–attributes about organizational culture that impact the sociability and solidarity of how a court “behaves.”
- Perspectives–areas related to performance assessment that include customer, innovation, internal operations, and social value outlooks on how a court conducts its business.
- Performance Measurement–metrics that allow a court to report on programs, accomplishments, and outcomes vis-à-vis organizational goals.
- Performance Management–analysis that allows a court to improve processes and be equipped to communicate about court performance
- The Quality Cycle–steps a court can employ in a repeated sequence to assess and solve an array of challenges over time.
To guide courts in applying these concepts, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) has created a “High Performance Court Self-Assessment” (also known as High Performance Court Inventory, or HPCI). It is a tool that a court can use to document perceptions of how the court is performing and to identify areas for improvement.7 Ten survey assessment categories include such issues as efficiency and the use of staff and technology resources (see figure below). The assessment questions are answered by judges and staff or by justice coalitions, whereby the responses provide insights on the court’s performance in the ten key areas. These varying perspectives allow a court to avoid reliance on only one or two key individuals or voices within the court organization.
High Performance Self-Assessment Categories
|Procedural Satisfaction||Human Capital|
|Productivity||Public Trust and Confidence|
|Organizational Capital||Support of Legitimizing Authorities|
Application of the Framework
To illustrate the value of the Framework, this article focuses primarily on courts with which the authors have direct experience in Arizona and Virginia. A list of other courts that have successfully applied Framework concepts is noted below. Although caseflow management is a common focus of initial court improvement efforts, the concepts of the Framework have been used in a number of performance-related contexts including strategic planning, process reengineering, customer service, and performance measurement and management. Some of these court improvement projects were funded by the State Justice Institute (SJI) and initiated under priority or focus areas such as reengineering, justice reform, or responses to issues such as substance abuse, trafficking, or self-represented litigant access.8
|A Sampling of Courts’ Use of the Framework|
|Johnson County 10th Judicial District Court, Olathe, Kansas |
The Johnson County District Court, a general jurisdiction court, had previously identified targeted improvement areas but had yet to achieve consensus and momentum to implement needed changes. With grant support from the SJI, the court used the Framework concepts to conduct an assessment survey of stakeholders, create focus groups, and provide workshop meetings, all intended to instill greater impetus for change. Results included creating a court governance structure, establishing leadership and work teams, preparing a strategic plan with an implementation process, and taking introductory steps to accomplish agreed-upon objectives and goals.
Source: Patti Tobias and Donald Jacobson, 10th Judicial District of Kansas, Johnson County, Strategic Planning, Final Report (Denver: National Center for State Courts, 2018).
Superior Court of Arizona, Maricopa County, Phoenix, Arizona
The Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County recognized that caseflow problems existed in the probate department for guardianship and conservatorship cases. The large general jurisdiction court obtained SJI funding to evaluate judicial procedures and administrative practices. The project employed an assessment survey on processes and resources coupled with use of the Quality Cycle (problem-solving process). Project outcomes included caseflow management techniques such as a case evaluation tool, processes to monitor and report on guardian and conservator cases, and increased outreach to the community for assistance in annual monitoring of conservators.
Source: Brian J. Ostrom, Matthew Kleiman, Alicia Davis, Scott Graves, and Shannon Roth, The Application of the High Performance Court Quality Cycle in the Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County (Williamsburg: National Center for State Courts, 2013).
Superior Court of Arizona, Mohave County, Kingman, Arizona
In northeast Arizona, the Mohave County Superior Court is a court of general jurisdiction in a mainly rural area. The court had identified areas of concern and sought to develop a five-year strategic plan. Working with an SJI grant, the court developed a navigable course and collaborated with justice partners and stakeholders. The project used the High Performance Self-Assessment survey. Results included a tangible strategic plan and consensus on key actions and steps.
Source: See SJI Grant #SJI-13-T-020 and Alicia Davis, Matthew Kleiman, and Shannon Roth, Mohave County Courts, Arizona, Strategic Plan: Achieving Excellence Through Innovation and Teamwork (Denver: National Center for State Courts, 2014).
Ottawa County Circuit and Probate Courts, Grand Haven, Michigan
The Ottawa County courts serve a population of over 260,000, with substantial summer visitors and leisure seekers at locations such as Traverse City and Holland. The court sought to create a sustainable strategic plan. A primary focus was to set a clear mission and vision for the court. Work involved strategic action teams and the use of the High Performance Self-Assessment survey. It was also important that the court use other measures, such as the employee satisfaction survey (Measure #9 from the CourTools measures). Using an SJI grant, the court renewed its strategic planning and used court performance measures.
Source: Workshop summary from the 2015 Annual Conference, “Continuous Improvement in Ottawa County, Michigan Circuit and Probate Courts: A High Performance Court Framework Perspective,” Court Manager 30, no. 3 (2015): 36.
Superior Court of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix
The Superior Court of the U.S. Virgin Islands had already implemented the CourTools measures and sought to establish a strategic plan, which included three principal objectives: access and fairness, timely justice, and employee satisfaction. Using Framework concepts, the court completed the High Performance Self-Assessment and drew upon their CourTools data. Task forces were created, as was an active strategic planning committee. Results have established the foundation for an ongoing process for public confidence in the court system, timely caseflow management, and service excellence.
Source: See SJI grant #SJI-13-T-087 and Access and Fairness Committee presentation, Superior Court of the Virgin Islands, Divisions of St. Thomas/St. John and St. Croix, 2014-2019 Strategic Plan.
Framework Concepts Used in Court Projects
Framework Use in a Limited Jurisdiction Court
The Scottsdale City Court is a limited jurisdiction court handling traffic, misdemeanor, and city ordinance cases. For many years, the court published a rudimentary and summary monthly report with aggregate statistics about cases filed, closed, and pending. Case-filing volumes were already growing; however, volumes jumped, and interest in court operations increased following implementation of a large traffic-photo-enforcement program in February 2006.
The surge in caseload and the widely diverging public views of the photo-enforcement program–its purpose and efficacy–prompted significant public, political, and media interest at both state and local levels in the court’s workload and case handling. In response, court administration began issuing weekly reports about the photo-enforcement workload.9 The intent was to “be ahead of the curve,” to have data readily accessible, and to be able to tell the story about the program and work volumes. Court leadership also began greater use of monthly statistics about all aspects of the workload.10 As part of the expanded use of data, the court began collecting and reporting on all the CourTools measures.11
Then, during the national fiscal crisis starting in 2008-09, the court found itself faced with additional challenges. The budget situation resulted in cuts to court expenditures, including staffing. The local political environment was unsettled with varying policy interests among the elected officials. Some views (and critiques) of the court alleged that the court was not managing its work volumes in the new, austere times. The rudimentary statistical reports did not explain court work nor improve perceptions about the court. The tried and true traditional aggregate statistics revealed little about the court’s work outcomes and use of scarce resources.
In 2010 court leadership took interest in using the Framework as a foundation for reporting on court operations and workload and issued a summary annual report with greater detail about court operations. By late 2010, the annual report began mention of Framework concepts.12 The result was an annual reporting structure (an “executive summary”) whereby Framework concepts were married to court performance measures, increasing the court’s ability to communicate its accountability and perceived social value. For example, concepts about different perspectives noted in the Framework were used as categories in which to report on work volumes and accomplishments.
Framework Perspectives with Data and Accomplishments
The actual executive summary, excerpted below, demonstrates how Framework ideas, along with CourTools measures, were used to structure information about court work and outcomes.13
In 2011 the court participated in the High Performance Self-Assessment Inventory to pilot test the instrument and gain greater understanding of different perspectives from the judges and court staff. Results informed court leadership about different perspectives and opinions of court-provided services and customer interactions and the application of current policies and procedures. Court leadership used the inventory results to implement immediate and incremental changes in practice and conduct remedial training on court processes. The inventory also heightened understanding among the judges and administrative staff of their different perceptions of the same work. For example, judges and staff had different views of how well litigants understood the outcome of court events. Judicial officers asserted that litigants knew and understood the actions to be taken following a hearing after being directed by the judge. However, customer service representatives painted a different picture because litigants approached them with questions, such as “What did the judge say?” or “What did the judge mean?”
In early 2012 the court began discussions about using concepts from the Framework to assist the court on key projects underway (civil and criminal caseflow efficiencies and program management). The court obtained an SJI grant, and project work used the Quality Cycle/problem-solving process and evaluation of the court culture to improve case handling for the large traffic caseload, notably the driving-under-influence (DUI) cases, which had become backlogged. Results included issuance of a new case management plan and a case preparedness form. Post-project actions have included ongoing attention to and adjustment of court practices and performance measurement.14
Framework Use in Virginia General Jurisdiction Courts
Although Virginia’s court system had comprehensive statewide efforts during the 1990s to improve case management and reduce delay, efforts in active docket management and delay reduction became less pronounced after 2001. For more than a decade, despite ongoing efforts by the Office of the Executive Secretary–Virginia’s administrative office of the courts (AOC)–to provide technical support and assistance to individual courts dealing with delay, Virginia had no statewide approach to these or other performance issues. This situation began to change in 2012 with an unprecedented increase in the participation of AOC and trial court staff in the courses offered by the Institute for Court Management (ICM) of NCSC. These courses, particularly those related to caseflow and workflow management and performance measurement and management, enhanced awareness of and interest in the pursuit of court improvement among Virginia’s trial court clerks and facilitated the spread of court improvement concepts to line staff by their supervisors. AOC staff, many of whom became certified ICM faculty, became better able to discuss court improvement concepts so that trial court personnel would understand.
In 2013 several trial courts decided to refocus their calendar management efforts. Working together with AOC staff, judges and staff in these courts began major work to assess the pace of litigation and to assess current caseload practices to improve docket management and to reduce delay. Leveraging concepts from ICM training, AOC staff began with a data-driven approach and gradually developed a general action model adaptable to different courts. This model became known as the Comprehensive Strategic Court Improvement Model (Model; see below), which, as became clearer to the AOC staff over time, ties closely to the balanced scorecard approach of the Framework.
Anticipating a phased approach over several years, the Model recognizes the need for courts to begin with basic data on filings and dispositions, interpreted and assessed through the balanced-scorecard metrics that measure efficiency, effectiveness, productivity, and the level of procedural satisfaction delivered by the court. Then, through an increasingly complex data-analysis process, the Model advances a court through an assessment of caseload management, calendar and docket management practices, and, ultimately, toward a “high performance” analysis interpreted through the court’s mission, vision, and values.
This general roadmap tends to focus initially on a court’s delay reduction efforts but leads ultimately to a broad assessment of court practices. In Virginia, the Model has worked well where it has been used because the overall approach requires a court to think in terms of what needs to be done from each of the four Framework perspectives and in each of the four management capital areas. All action planning now consciously takes place within this “Framework,” whether the goal is to improve data quality, implement a continuance policy, change docket structure, alter case assignment practices, or do anything else.
For purposes of this article, we profile four Virginia circuit courts that have used the Model’s HPCF-aligned approach. These courts range from urban and suburban to very rural in nature, from the highly urbanized area in northern Virginia to the coal country of far southwest Virginia.
- Arlington County Circuit Court (First HPCF Review 2013)
- Wise County Circuit Court (First HPCF Review 2014)
- Fredericksburg Circuit Court (First HPCF Review 2014)
- Chesterfield County Circuit Court (First HPCF Review 2016)
Each of these courts, over varying periods of time since 2013, has made considerable progress in reducing delay and improving overall case processing. Compared to a sample of 36 courts drawn from around Virginia, each of the HPCF courts has addressed data-quality and timeliness issues; improved compliance with the state’s voluntary case-processing-time guidelines through robust continuance policy changes and other efforts; and institutionalized a data-driven, balanced scorecard approach to case assignment, case monitoring, and docket management practices. Most importantly, each of these courts has implemented a management approach that involves judges, court staff, and clerk’s office staff, as well as the broader court community, in a more collaborative and coordinated way.
While each of the four courts discussed here has made progress in reducing delay using the Court Improvement Model and HPCF approach, each has had its unique challenges. In Arlington, for example, major court cultural changes were required as the court moved from a culture characterized by a high degree of autonomy among the judges to a culture based much more on collegiality and active involvement in making court-wide changes. In Wise, hard hit by the opioid crisis, improving the processing of criminal cases was particularly urgent and difficult.
While many performance metrics might be used to measure these courts’ progress, only a few that focus on age of active pending cases and time to disposition will be discussed. For perspective, their progress can be compared to performance averages for a sample of courts from across the state that have not engaged in a directed HPCF effort with the AOC. In nearly every instance, courts actively engaged in the HPCF effort show demonstrably enhanced performance compared to the sample courts.
Virginia Data Summary
Arlington Circuit Court. Beginning in 2013, Arlington Circuit Court was the first circuit court in the state to use what became the Model to examine court performance issues. With the leadership of Chief Judge William Newman and court administrator Robin Salter, AOC staff met with the judges, court staff, clerk of court, and clerk’s office staff frequently and over the first year developed the Model as an overall roadmap to reducing delay and becoming a “high performance” court.
The court identifies as keys to its progress the constant application of data to case-processing changes and early and continuous monitoring of each case by using court-assignment and scheduling orders. Judge Daniel Fiore states that a “court speaks through its orders,” and those orders set expectations of all parties with regard to the life of a case. The judge further explains that it is through the development and use of such orders that a court institutionalizes best caseflow management practices. Arlington Circuit Court also involves law clerks who serve the court in the day-to-day “triaging” of cases and in caseflow-workflow discussions and work. As the first HPCF-focused court among the Virginia trial courts, Arlington has witnessed dramatic improvement over the five-year effort in the age of active pending civil and criminal cases and in time to disposition for both civil and criminal cases (see Virginia Data Summary above).
Active pending civil cases and civil cases showing no action have fallen dramatically. The fewer civil cases now exceeding the time guidelines reflect a significant decline in the percentage of cases with multiple continuances. Among the four HPCF courts, the percent of disposed cases with more than three continuances was the lowest for both civil (0.6 percent) and criminal cases (5.6 percent). This level of performance compares to a state sample average of 2.6 percent (civil) and 19.1 percent (criminal).
Wise Circuit Court. In 2014 Jack Kennedy, clerk of the Wise County Circuit Court, working with judges and clerks throughout the 30th Judicial Circuit, began a major effort to examine and reduce delay. Experiencing dramatic increases in drug-related cases, the court felt the need to assess overall performance and to work with members of the bar to examine how to deal with issues of delay. This resulted in an innovative, daylong program attended by the judges of the judicial circuit, clerks of court and their staff, and nearly 100 members of the bar, along with staff from the AOC. At this event, a detailed analysis of delay and calendar management issues was presented and discussed. The results were a better understanding of the court’s and the bar’s perspectives on both criminal- and civil-case-processing issues and specific recommendations to improve case scheduling and processing and communication between the court and the bar.
During the HPCF project, Wise was most successful at reducing its time to disposition for felony cases, reflecting its need to focus on the rapidly growing caseload due to drug-related cases. The court reduced felonies exceeding the time guidelines and reduced the percentage of criminal cases disposed with multiple continuances (see Virginia Data Summary). This was accomplished while also focusing on maintaining civil-case-processing timeliness and reducing civil continuance rates.
Fredericksburg Circuit Court. Beginning in 2014, Jeff Small, clerk of court, began an HPCF effort to work with judges of the court to reduce delay. With constant attention to the “cost” of delay due to continuances, the court has made considerable progress. This attentiveness to continuances is exemplified by Mr. Small, who says, “A continuance is a motion; it is not an entitlement.” It is also reflected in the dramatic improvement in the age of active civil cases accompanied by the significant decline in civil cases pending for over five years (see Virginia Data Summary). The civil-no-action rates over this time fell remarkably to zero, reflecting active monitoring of each case. Also significantly, the age of disposed civil cases improved, with the percentage of cases exceeding the time guidelines falling. Among criminal felony cases, the court saw the percentage of cases exceeding the time guidelines decline.
Chesterfield Circuit Court. Chesterfield is a suburban court in the Richmond area that has experienced considerable growth in population and commerce over recent decades. While the circuit court there has examined civil and criminal case processing and delay at times over many years, it began a focused HPCF approach in 2015 guided by Wendy Hughes, clerk of court, and Tricia Muller, court administrator.
The keys to progress in this court include vigorous and constant communication and collaboration between the clerk’s office and judges’ staff, including the court administrator. The development of a local-based scheduling system has also helped the court improve case docketing and processing. Most importantly, as stated by the clerk and court administrator as vital to ongoing efforts, is the leadership and vision of the chief judge and of all the judges of the court.
In Chesterfield, noted progress has been made in improving the age of civil cases pending over two years (see Virginia Data Summary); at the same time, the court has, through a case-by-case review and active case-monitoring protocols, reduced the percentage of cases showing no action since filing. Among criminal felony cases, the court has reduced the percentage of active cases pending over one year, and the percentage of cases exceeding the time guidelines has fallen.
As significant as these improvements appear, these four courts continue to adapt, adjust, and improve. They define and refine their caseflow-workflow processes and, with the exception of Wise, still engage actively with the AOC to measure performance. They all consider the process to be ongoing with much remaining to be done; therefore, they are actively planning and experimenting with the Framework.
The experiences of these four Virginia courts demonstrate the application of key points raised in the Framework.
Administrative principles underlie good court performance: the principles and concepts of good caseflow-workflow management, such as early and continual case monitoring, control of continuances, and judicial leadership and vision, are effective.
Consideration must be given to court and managerial culture: aspects of court culture affect every dimension of caseflow-workflow. While it may be difficult to change culture, a court must either work to accomplish more within the prevailing cultural environment or consciously change culture to effect meaningful change.
Different operational perspectives are helpful: the wider court community must be involved continuously in caseflow management efforts. Within the courthouse and between the courthouse and the community, the process must actively involve stakeholders.
Performance measurement and management is valuable: the court must actively measure aspects of performance. While specific CourTools measures may be used, a balanced approach that touches on all four areas of performance measurement using a court’s own measures is essential.
Use of a problem-solving cycle (e.g., the Quality Cycle) will help: action and progress must be continually measured and re-measured. Active caseflow-workflow management efforts must be data driven, meaning activity is measured, evaluated, and assessed in light of performance metrics.
Individually, these are tested and tried concepts. They work. What’s exciting in the Virginia experience is that, using the Framework-base Model, courts come naturally to “discover” and use these concepts. Almost unaware, courts reviewing the Framework discuss caseflow-workflow issues in new ways (the four perspectives) and set about task planning for each of the resource capitals. In effect, courts develop a more thorough and comprehensive approach to improvement using the structure of the HPCF than they might otherwise do without it–an approach that goes well beyond CourTools or just measuring performance, as important as that is.
The challenge of achieving higher performance endures. Courts continue to seek methods to assess operations, gain efficiencies, and successfully implement innovations for better access and service. Courts may also struggle with sustaining any advancement using Framework concepts. An important lesson from our observations is that high performance achievements are best attained and maintained where Framework concepts become institutionalized. To the extent that court improvement initiatives are overly reliant upon one or two key individuals or lack periodic support from an external actor such as an AOC, performance achievements are vulnerable, and continuous improvement is unlikely. One recent Web comment from a court noted the work to implement broad court performance measures (the CourTools measures) would position the court to demonstrate high performance through administrative principles, court culture awareness, use of performance metrics, and ongoing self-assessment for performance improvement.14
This article has sought to share information about courts that have used concepts promoted by the High Performance Court Framework to improve their court operations. In that the work for change and innovation does not occur in a vacuum–nor without challenges–we have facilitated efforts for change and achieved progress by employing lessons learned. In the third and final article, we will offer strategies and tools for courts to consider to initiate and sustain their own court improvement efforts. Should this article inspire questions or comments, please let us know.15
Questions for Consideration
- Can my court or organization use one or more of the Framework concepts to do a better job of telling the story of what the court does?
- How can my court leverage the linkage of operational goals and performance measurement to Framework concepts?
- What techniques should be used to sustain the utilization of Framework ideas?
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
This article was a collaboration between Janet G. Cornell, court consultant and retired court administrator in Arizona; Cyril W. Miller, Jr., Ph. D.; and Kenneth G. Pankey, Jr., director of judicial planning and senior planner (respectively), Department of Judicial Planning, Office of the Executive Secretary, Supreme Court of Virginia.
- See “The High Performance Challenge: Concepts and a Call to Action,” Court Manager 34, no. 3 (2019).
- “High Performance Court Framework: A Roadmap for Improving Court Management,” visual summary, National Center for State Courts, 2010.
- “3 Inspiring Government Performance Management Leaders to Watch in 2019,” OpenGov, January 24, 2019, www.governing.com.
- Adapted from “A Coach Approach: Sustainable Change for Judicial Branch Leadership,” by Nancy Fahey Smith and Leslie Gross, Sustainable Change Coaching and Consulting, educational session presented at the National Association for Court Management 2019 Annual Conference in Las Vegas.
- Brian Ostrom and Roger Hanson, Achieving High Performance: A Framework for Courts (Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts, 2010), p. 76.
- The High Performance Court Self-Assessment tool may be made available upon request from the National Center for State Courts, Research Division, phone 800-616-6164.
- For information about the State Justice Institute. Appreciation is extended to Jonathan Mattiello, executive director of the State Justice Institute, who, in his support for the SJI Board of Directors has been a supporter of projects that allow courts to target and exemplify high performance.
- The weekly summary report included numbers of cases filed, status for cases in processing, and case outcomes (compliance, contested cases, and cases concluded by payment of a fine). In addition, a summary report was issued on the program. See also, Janet G. Cornell, “Photo Enforcement Traffic Cases in Scottsdale’s Municipal Court,” Court Manager 22, no. 2 (2007): 6 (an article describing program operations).
- A monthly workload statistical report was used by senior management (internally) in which volumes were published on the numbers of customers, documents, transactions, phone calls, court events, and typical case-filing volumes.
- Descriptions of the CourTools measures are available at http://www.courtools.org/.
- See the 2010 Annual Report.
- See the full Executive Summary from the FY 2011/2012 report.
- SJI grant #SJI-12-T-079, as profiled in Brian J. Ostrom, Matthew Kleiman, and Shannon Roth, “DUI Case Management in the Scottsdale City Court: Applying the High Performance Court Framework,” Court Manager 30, no. 1 (2015): 6.
- Comment from posting about high performance on Court Leader forum.
- Email comments, ideas, and suggestions to Janet Cornell at firstname.lastname@example.org.