Building an efficient justice system through an open justice platform
One of the fundamental pillars of an efficient justice system is a modern and robust case management application. One with online environments for participants and administrators and interoperability between independent justice organisations creating a holistic and effective operation.
The evolution of case management systems over the last decade has seen the growth of options from which sector leaders may choose. From specific custom builds jurisdiction by jurisdiction to enterprise commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) systems, and the more recent rise of low code/no code generic platforms.
Lastly, there remains a belief in some justice sector organisations that their requirements are so unique that only a bespoke system developed from first principles will meet the distinctive requirements of their operations. Which is the right one for your organisation?
These decisions must often be taken in the context of the organisation’s previous investment in case management tools. These may now be operating beyond their original specifications, but the risks and costs associated with their wholesale change are beyond the organisation’s appetite.
It is not only important to understand the opportunities and costs of adding enhanced functionality but also the whole-of-life costs and risks of your investment. Organisations must ask themselves ‘are we building a system that will grow with our requirements and changing circumstances? Or are we locking ourselves into applications which face redundancy that can only be resolved by yet another major round of high-cost, high-risk first-principles system development?’
The justice sector – a complex environment
While the sector is often referred to as a ‘justice system’, in reality the various organisations in this system are separate entities that operate in a highly independent manner from each other. Even in distinct parts of the sector such as courts, there are multiple tiers. Each has a different purpose and focus, and each has different cycles of system investment and funding, with different appetites or priority for software changes.
In a perfect world, there would be a fully integrated system across the entire justice sector where party and case data would seamlessly flow through each jurisdiction with levels of data integrity and operational efficiency.
Understanding the challenges
At the beginning of any major change initiative, there is remarkable optimism. At last things will change for the better when every problem ever experienced and outstanding for years will be solved. And all this will be achieved while staying on budget and within timelines. This aspiration should remain, although to achieve it requires the presence of key fundamentals.
The main contributors to a successful justice sector change program arises when there is: -
- clarity and sufficient testing of objectives;
- a strong appreciation of the development risks;
- a disciplined governance framework to ensure priority is given to business impact rather than easy technology solutions;
- the adoption of industry best practice around agile system development; and
- the piloting of minimum viable product (MVP) approaches rather than big-bang releases.
Without these characteristics difficulties such as excessive scope creep, budget overruns, interdependencies, and timelines all become increasingly challenging to manage particularly where the governance layers are not aligned.
A considerable risk is failing to understand the whole-of-life costs for the project’s maintenance and long-term viability. Achieving the balance between a highly bespoke system which is costly to maintain and risks early redundancy, or the use of a more generic justice sector system that transitions to new platforms and applications as the need arises. One where the agency can participate in a community of justice sector users providing advantages of access to their innovations and enhanced functionalities with costs dispersed across multiple clients.
Sufficient investigation is required to ensure there is a complete and collective understanding of what problems require solving. Rigorous testing of these requirements ensures that those with the highest business and user impact are prioritised.
Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions
COTS solutions have the underlying functionality to meet the majority of a justice clients’ needs through configuration. However, trying to solve absolutely every issue will require customisation.
Getting to the start line by using out-of-the-box functionality that meets 80-90 per cent of requirements should not be underestimated. Organisations need to be cautious about getting bogged down and causing delay. The last 10-20 per cent of the functionality required for a particular justice agency can then be added in subsequent phases of deployment or as required.
Recognising the need for phased releases aligned with an organisation’s capability also minimises the distraction and potential action-paralysis of conversations about why the last 10-20 per cent is not completed in initial deployments.
The user experience of the first phase rollout also crystallises the priority and real needs of remaining enhancements and this knowledge is invaluable in subsequent sprint cycles.
Collaborating with a vendor that has a community of clients in the same sector has significant advantages. User groups and similar community discussion forums generate ideas and provide insights into successful transformations that can be adopted with confidence by other clients and at minimal cost compared with bespoke developments.
Low/no code applications
The emergence of low code/no code platforms in the justice specific case management sector can appear, at least superficially, to address everything. However, a similar issue to the COTS products occurs that while a generic platform has pieces of user functionality, they still need to be assembled thus resembling a customised solution that is built specifically for a jurisdiction. This option tends to be attractive for the 10-20 per cent of functionality that COTS products do not have out of the box; however, organisations need to be mindful they will still need to assemble the other 80 per cent.
Low code/no code platforms that work well in areas such customer relationship management (CRM) may initially appear to address case management needs especially at a prototype stage. However, the workflow that is built on top of the technology stack means each iteration of the software becomes unique, and thus similar to custom developed software.
Jurisdictions are finding, as good as some of the low code/no code technology platforms are, case management in the justice sector is a different beast. Understanding the intricate workflows, legislative restrictions, and privacy requirements, all while increasing access to justice is critical to success.
While the baseline technology stack may be a starting point that software developers will build on, upgrades and scalability become high-cost areas and lock the organisation into arrangements that are to the organisation’s long-term detriment.
Open justice platform – COTS solution from low code base
An open justice platform provides an option that allows the justice sector to access the benefits of a low code solution that is effectively a combination of out-of-the-box functionality. One that is purpose built for the justice sector from a low code base. The core configuration has been built based on years of experience working with, and within the justice sector to ensure the software is supporting the operational and strategic needs.
The ease of configuration provides the users with the ability to take control of the software, without the need to continually rely on the vendor for every change, while maintaining accessibility to upgrades and support. This also applies to most COTS solutions, although the open justice platform allows for the enhanced functionality to be made available to the entire client base or kept unique to the jurisdiction, including the source code and intellectual property.
Providers of an open justice platform and/or COTS solution have the domain knowledge and experience from specialising in the justice sector. The functionality of the software solutions has been based on client need and feedback from the justice organisations. As enhancements are added to the core solution, existing and future clients receive the benefits. Software that has been deployed multiple times becomes robust and the implementation process refined to be more efficient.
A contemporary open justice platform includes a modular approach. This enables organisations that have invested heavily in other software applications the opportunity to implement modules that will complement the suite of applications that are currently in operation. This is especially true if the organisation has limited funding and/or a small appetite to move away from legacy applications.
The modules can be integrated through APIs or operate independently of other solutions depending on the module and organisational need.
The approach allows modules of software that are normally part of a larger case management platform to be implemented in stages. This reduces the risk and cost of entry for an organisation not looking to replace an entire case management system or are only at a stage where they are investing in a solution to address a particular problem. Leveraging those successes can eventually lead the organisations closer to a fully integrated ‘justice system’.
Modular approaches have advantages with system upgrades. There is greater confidence that changes will have no impact on other functions and system integration testing and user acceptance is simpler, quicker and less costly.
Upgrades and updates
To keep pace with advances in technology software requires maintenance and upgrading for enhanced functionality, security, access needs, and other continually emerging requirements.
When an organisation decides which software solution it will invest in, understanding how the solution will maintain currency to meet the ongoing expectations and needs of the users is a key factor in the decision on the type of solution to choose.
COTS solutions and open justice platforms provide the options to have an upgrade to the latest software version, thus taking advantage of bug fixes, new functionality and enhancements that are available to the entire client base from the core solution.
Where organisations fail to keep the solution at the current release, they risk requiring a significant ‘lift and shift’ to move the organisation onto the current version. This will be at a higher cost and with a materially poor impact on the core functions. It is preferable that these upgrades, managed in partnership with the vendor, are effectively maintained so system improvements are timely and seamless.
With custom built solutions and low code/no code platforms, there is not a single version of the case management system that would enable an across-the-board update at regular intervals. Thus, as each case management system is its own iteration, any upgrade will be a more significant event.
Strategic thinking and change management
Software implementations in the justice sector are a considerable change management exercise. Too often, a new case management system or other software implementation is thought of and managed purely as a technology project without strong enough consideration to the change aspect for an organisation.
Regardless of which approach is taken – COTS, open justice platform, low code/no code platform or custom-built software, the technology will only work if it is deployed properly and works effectively for the business. There will always be users of an organisation who, even if openly critical of the old system, will be highly apprehensive about adopting something new. They can be the biggest hurdle or the strongest advocates and must be thoughtfully managed to allow a project the best chance of success.
Legacy systems and other software solutions have received considerable investment over the years. Thus, while there may be a desire to modernise, there are always blockers. Overcoming the blockers by engaging with experts (within or external) that understand the challenges, obstacles, and the character of the organisation can help develop the strategy to deliver the best outcome for the systems users and the community.
How to choose the right solution
There are several options available for justice sector organisations seeking to use software to enable their own transformation programs that address modern community and business operational needs.
When making a choice about which direction to head, the successful organisations are those that:
- are business and user centric in their design goals;
- find solutions that address the balance between immediate and long-term requirements;
- work closely with the experienced vendors to gain a comprehensive understanding of the options and their respective capabilities;
- recognise and manage the challenges of stakeholder engagement and the scale of change management effort required; and
- have business-lead project-governance in determining priorities around client and business impact.
By engaging with vendors early, particularly during the development of requirements and scoping stages, organisations will be well placed to ensure the overall goal is achieved within the timeframe and budget allocated.