Information Technology Management

What This Core Competency Is and Why It Is Important

Information Technology is a tool, not an end unto itself.  It is both difficult to implement and to manage.  With its use can come conflicts about budgets, organizational relations, administrative authority, processes, and procedures, and even the best way to process cases. Despite these potential conflicts, Information Technology clearly can improve justice system and court performance through instant, integrated, and linked information.

Correct judicial decisions require timely, complete, and accurate information.  When Information Technology delivers on its promise, the right people are more likely than not able to get the information they need, at the right time, and in the right format.  Because of its potential both to improve and to entangle the judiciary, court leaders must take responsibility for the use of technology in their courts.  Direction, policy decisions, and management oversight of Information Technology cannot be left solely to technical staff.  Court leaders must ensure that technology serves the courts purposes and that it is managed effectively.

Much is at stake.  With a click of their mouse, users can move with ease through data and information that formerly was dispersed in fragmented and often poorly designed electronic systems, libraries, and paper records.  This improves justice, increases efficiency, and empowers end users and increases their morale.  But new technology alone will not improve inefficient work processes. The new electronic system must be well designed.  The information delivered to end users must be accurate.  The end users must know both what they are trying to do and how to do it.  When Information Technology is applied skillfully, communication and decisions, both judicial and managerial, can be improved.

Through technology, judges can bring together relevant case histories and documents, communicate with attorneys and social service staff, whether internal or external to the court, and take and maintain control of their calendars.  Cases and information about them can be accessed any time, from the bench, in chambers, in administrative offices, on the road, and at home.

Information Technology can enable improved case management through court-prompted and supervised timely lawyer exchange of reliable information.  As a result, the same or better justice is achieved, sooner for many cases.  Judicial attention then can be focused on the remaining cases as they are managed to closure later in the judicial process. Good Information Technology supports case management, service delivery, and management reports in any size court.  It is essential in large jurisdictions.

A century ago, when society was less mobile, when most business was conducted locally, when judges could remember all of their cases, and when everyone knew their neighbors, paper files supplemented later by crude computerization were adequate.  Even today, paper remains the medium of choice for many courts and court users.  Today, however, more and more people routinely communicate electronically.  Today, records of civil judgments and satisfactions are used nationally and internationally.  Today, police officers and prosecutors, pretrial and probation staff, and judges on the opposite coast need to know “right now” about criminal histories and the existence and status of warrants and protection orders.  No matter what their size, advanced electronic systems can help courts organize and manage the documents that are filed and the hearings that are held each day.

Judges who know about a defendant’s prior convictions and other matters pending and disposed in their own and other jurisdictions can make better bail decisions and impose more appropriate sentences.  Drug courts and others closely monitoring defendants and probationers can learn instantly about re-arrests through “subscription/notification” functions. Technology aids the court in recording legal status and in making judicial decisions and their consequences more reliable and transparent in traffic, criminal, civil, and domestic relations cases.

With accurate real-time financial reports, courts also are better able to meet their fiduciary responsibilities.  Information Technology enables better use of court resources, including judges, staff, equipment, and courtrooms.  The system can be more accountable.  But these and other equally significant benefits are not guaranteed. Skill is needed in the design of Information Technology and its day-to-day management, maintenance, and upgrade.

System design; expectations of efficient and instant service; significant changes in people’s mobility and the social, political, and economic environment; and caseload volume and complexity challenge all courts.  As courts deploy technology to meet these challenges, other issues arise:

  • Technology changes rapidly while technology design and implementation can take time.  Resulting applications can be dated almost as soon as they are implemented.

  • Technology often is overlaid incrementally on complex and archaic procedures and processes.

  • It is difficult and sometimes impractical to mirror the full complexity of justice system and court processes in information systems.

  • Although the same rules and procedures may govern courts within a state, the size of the court, the nature of the facility and local legal culture, among other factors, drive differences in specialization and the division of labor among staff.  One-size-fits-all solutions do not work.

  • Many key components of information management systems, people, processes, data, and facilities are already in place.  New hardware and software often are introduced without adequate attention to how they fit within this existing environment.  Almost always, re-engineering of justice system and court business processes and training are needed.

  • Expectations about court software are commonly unrealistic.  Software developed by court staff usually has limitations.  World-class designers are not available at salaries courts can afford. Because courts are a small market for software designers, finding vendors whose court products are world-class and whose financial base is strong enough to maintain the software’s currency and functionality also is problematic.

Information Technology is carried out in a variety of settings.  In some court systems, technology services come from an external organization with no direct reporting relationship to leaders in the courts using the systems.  A county information technology group or the state court administrator’s office may be responsible for technology support of the trial court.  Leaders in other trial courts directly supervise technology staff, vendors, resources, and projects.  If the promise of technology is to be real rather than imagined, all these alternative organizational arrangements, and any other variant, demand skilled leadership and supervision.

Managing technology requires some degree of technical competence.  A court leader must be comfortable with and have some proficiency with Information Technology, because it is impossible to manage that which one does not adequately understand.

Increasingly, courts are moving closer to a paperless environment, when the entire case, including all of the data, documents, recordings and transcripts of hearings, evidence, and legal reference materials will be digital.  Court leaders need to keep pace with technologies such as:  digital audio and video recording, video teleconferencing, voice recognition, the Internet, laptops, imaging, electronic mail and calendars, integrated justice software, alternative hardware architecture, assistive listening devices, electronic evidence presentation, and high-tech security in the courtroom and in the courthouse.  Integration of court technology with other justice organizations enables open, smooth, and timely information flow.  Technology can improve the speed, consistency, and fairness of decisions.  Improvement in a court’s management can be dramatic.

Court leaders who effectively manage Information Technology know both the limitations and the challenges it presents.  They also know that if its promise is realized, Information Technology can improve justice and court efficiency and increase public trust and confidence.

View the Summary of Information Technology Curriculum Guidelines or click on each of the other four Curriculum Guidelines to see the associated Knowledge, Skills and Abilities:

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