Op-Ed: New Computer System Is Trouble Laden

This Op-Ed piece was published in the Daily Journal and was authored by the Hon. Loren E. McMaster, Sacramento Superior Court judge.

Last year, the Judicial Council took the unprecedented step of ordering all California courts to close the third Wednesday of every month. While we might disagree on the priorities for limited judicial resources, surely all would agree the first priority should be to keep the courts open to serve the public. That’s why a large majority of Sacramento County Superior Court Judges signed a petition last June urging the Administrative Offices of the Court (AOC) to defer expenditures on the AOC’s troubled $1.9 billion dollar proposed computer California Case Management System (CCMS) in order to keep our courts open.

Sacramento County Superior Court is one of the six pilot counties currently using CCMS. As one of Sacramento’s judges who use CCMS on daily basis, I speak from painful experience in urging that further expenditures on this seriously flawed proposal not take precedence over keeping our courts open. Some observations:

First, performance of the system is painfully slow. Parties attempting to file cases with our court must wait an average of 45 minutes at the front counter due to the time required to enter information into CCMS before a case may be filed. The slowness of the CCMS system is compounded by the reduction in clerks available to input this information – positions our court was required to leave unfilled due to funding cuts – imposed in order to continue funding CCMS. In Sacramento, this has resulted in a backlog of over 18,000 documents awaiting entry into CCMS. Our court has met repeatedly with staff from the AOC regarding our problems with CCMS. To date, the AOC and its vendor (Deloitte, LLP) have been unable to effectively address these problems.

Second, though CCMS is billed as a statewide system, it is not. The three largest participants in the pilot project – Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange – have opted to use their own data bases. The current pilot program has thus failed to meet its objectives: CCMS has not demonstrated that it offers an effective, reliable design to computerize California’s records statewide.

Equally troubling are the murky origins of the CCMS project. A diligent search of the records of the AOC available to the public likewise fails to reveal how this project was initiated, what it is supposed to accomplish, how its success or failure is to be measured, or how it was finally approved. What we know is that what started as a $260.2 million dollar project has now morphed into a $1.9 billion dollar excursion -with no end in sight.

Recently, the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Review held a hearing concerning the CCMS project. Staff from the AOC tried to defend the expenditure of scarce taxpayer dollars on a statewide computer system that is not yet fully functional. After nearly five hours of discussion, no one from the AOC could say how much the project would ultimately cost, when it might finally be completed or what it will look like. Since the AOC’s own estimate is that the system is likely to cost approximately $1 million dollars per judge, those questions need answers. That might help to explain why last week Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal formally requested the Bureau of State Audits to investigate and review this costly endeavor.

California continues to face devastating budget deficits. The troubled CCMS project must not take priority over keeping courthouses open.

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9 responses to “Op-Ed: New Computer System Is Trouble Laden

  1. With a well-designed computer system, filing of a case at the front counter should take less than 5 minutes. As a matter of fact, it could be done via the Internet in very little time as well.

  2. Obi-Wan Kenobi

    It’s always nice to learn something you didn’t know before. If Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange are utilizing their own databases, then this program isn’t being written for the entire state.

    It’s being customized individually for each of the trial courts and its ultimate goal has been circumvented – and as such the costs will continue to climb with each court that requests a one-off.

  3. Composite Knuckles

    This was also news to me. How on earth is a system that slows down the process worth even a nickel?

    “Parties attempting to file cases with our court must wait an average of 45 minutes at the front counter due to the time required to enter information into CCMS before a case may be filed. The slowness of the CCMS system is compounded by the reduction in clerks available to input this information – positions our court was required to leave unfilled due to funding cuts – imposed in order to continue funding CCMS. In Sacramento, this has resulted in a backlog of over 18,000 documents awaiting entry into CCMS.”

    I welcome comments from the courts where CCParties attempting to file cases with our court must wait an average of 45 minutes at the front counter due to the time required to enter information into CCMS before a case may be filed. The slowness of the CCMS system is compounded by the reduction in clerks available to input this information – positions our court was required to leave unfilled due to funding cuts – imposed in order to continue funding CCMS. In Sacramento, this has resulted in a backlog of over 18,000 documents awaiting entry into CCMS.”

    I welcome comments from the courts were CCMS is working “beautifully.”

  4. Composite Knuckles

    Sorry for the cut and paste glitch.

    I welcome comments from the courts where CCMS is working “beautifully.”

    Leave a Comment

  5. Interesting comments. As points of information, the software should cost around $1,000 per user, maximum. The response time should be as fast as the user can hit the keys, at least for all common tasks.
    It would be nice if all the counties wound up using the same software because that would make it easy to pool data and have easy cross-access. However, as a matter of demonstration, since some of the large counties are already apparently declining to go along with CCMS, if some smaller counties wanted to try out a prototype of what could be done, it would be free.

  6. It’s a shame that all this trouble continues when the answer is right there in front of everyone, for the asking. Current technology would permit all those filings to each be done in a few minutes. There should be no backlog anywhere. The situation in Sacramento is serious and totally unnecessary. I offered to show Chief Justice George (and another member of the court whom I know personally) how to do all this and do it very quickly and for a tiny fraction of the cost of CCMS. But the CJ referred the offer of help to someone in the Information Services Division. He responded with a blather type letter extolling the virtues of CCMS, etc.

    There is an old expression, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” But there is also a corollary. “And desperation is the father.” I guess people just aren’t desperate enough to look at a solution that is right under their noses. It reminds me of old Air Force survival training jokes about people surrounded by snow dying of thirst.

    If there are any superior court judges on this blog who would like to consider a solution that is there for the asking, just so signify on this blog. Indicate what county you are in. I will contact you. Same goes for court clerks, but I would need further contact information. If you want to test solutions and be able to try them out hands-on, you will need Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word operating on a reasonably current Windows PC.

    A county could be up and running on a modern solution within weeks. And it could include participation by the district attorney, public defender, probation, and others. Everything electronic. Once the first county was done, the rest of the state could be using the same approach within weeks. For the first county to respond and go ahead, my time will be free. I consider the matter of court closings, layoffs of employees, and potential overall damage to our court system to be severe enough that I will do the initial prototype programming for free.

    Hold the laughing and snickering, all you “IT experts” out there. Been there on several projects and all the snickerers got suddenly quiet when they saw solutions in operation. I recall one “programmer” (that was his day job) telling me how difficult it was going to be to write a program to handle a particularly complex mathematical/statistical operation. And I recall his efforts produced miserable results. And others chimed in, telling me how I just didn’t understand when I suggested that a modern computer, programmed correctly, could solve the problem in seconds.

    Then the “desperation” situation came along. And the snickerers turned to me and said go ahead and try it. I did. Then I applied my software to the task at the first opportunity. It produced accurate results in seconds. The snickerers were suddenly quiet. It was a Kodak moment.

    Later, the “programmer” had an opportunity to see the software in action. He stood behind me as the software performed the calculations almost instantaneously on an ordinary laptop PC. A puzzled look on his face, he asked, “How did you do that?” I recall him also commenting something like, “I don’t know how you did that.” I had the urge to remark something to the effect that that was the only intelligent thing he had said, but I withheld, as my wife just snickered. Now, people just accept that the software works. It has been sold to people all over the United States, including a bunch of people here in California. But of course, I’m just an idiot who doesn’t understand.

    So, has desperation set in yet?

  7. Obi-Wan Kenobi

    The alliance of AOC employees consists of experienced programmers and developers.

    What computer geek indicates is accurate – even if his message may be lost in the marketing.

    What is happening with CCMS is a travesty perpetuated by the unknowledgable and this is why the Alliance recommends an X-Prize approach.

    Alternatively, let computergeek prove his case on behalf of the people as we too know that it only takes a few savvy developers to design a whiz-bang version of CCMS and we are puzzled by the image of 512 Deloitte people working on this project and believe that this represents most of the problem.

  8. Obi-Wan,
    I don’t mean to sound too much like marketing but it is important to get the message across. The situation really is like the old Air Force survival situation joke about a crewmember bailing out into a snow-covered area and dying of thirst because he’s so sure you can’t “drink” snow. He is sure an “expert” told him that so he won’t even try.

    As for the number of people required to create the software and system, it only requires one programmer. It also takes a handful of intended end-users. The whole thing could be done in a few weeks at minimal cost.

    What is getting in the way now are factors like pride, potential embarrassment, power grabs, potential loss of control by those in power, etc.

    I’d be happy to accept the challenge but it’s now up to those with a lot to lose (court employees, judges, lawyers and litigants interested in getting cases tried, others interested in channeling money away from CCMS and into their arenas, etc.) to lead the charge. If they had the way cleared right now, I’d have it done by late February or early March, and running in many if not all counties.

    Don’t need an x-prize. Given the challenge and cooperation, I’ll do most of it for free as a demonstration. The final grunt work of working 12-14 hour days cranking out all the damn forms might run a couple million worth but that’s about it.

    Get me a group of inputters/testers lined up and I’ll show you how it’s done.
    You convince people to listen, and I’ll do it.

  9. As a P.S., Obi-Wan, the inputters/testers need to be intended end-users, not IT personnel. To understand why IT personnel need to be out of the picture at the beginning, read the book “What Intelligence Tests Miss” by Professor Stanovich of the University of Toronto. Some excerpts and examples appeared in Scientific American Mind. Note particularly the “failure to test the negative” examples.