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Opinion: The courts’ computer system overhaul is a disaster

The way the Administrative Office of the Courts has gone about building a new computer system is almost a case study in what not to do.

That’s the way I read the latest State Auditor’s report, released Tuesday, that actually includes the phrase “poor project management” on its cover.

I authored the bill that called for this audit, and am as pleased to have it completed as I am dismayed by the results.

Auditor’s reports can be daunting to the uninitiated. Elaine Howle, the State Auditor, heads a team of very smart people who can dig their way through the most complicated financial problem. She delivers a thorough and thoughtful product, in this case 138 pages of narrative and graphics that paint a picture of a laudable project that has been off-leash almost since its inception.

Flip the report open, and on the first page you’ll find this unhappy summation: “This report concludes that the AOC has not adequately planned the statewide case management project since 2003 when the Judicial Council of California directed the AOC to continue its development.”

The lack of foresight is perhaps best demonstrated by the number 102. That’s the number of times the original development project was amended over a seven-year period. That number is too high. It suggests something bad about the quality of the original contract.

In one two-year period, 2006 and 2007, the contracts were amended 66 times. That’s more than once a month. And it wasn’t just to dot an ‘i’ or cross a ‘t.’ Those 66 amendments added nearly $200 million to the cost of the project.

And it’s not like those extra expenses sped things along, either. In fact, as the years rolled by and the contracts changed, the goalpost seemed to pull ever farther away.

When originally planned, the system was going to be up and running by 2008 for a bit more than a couple hundred million dollars. We’re now looking at possible deployment in 2015, at a cost of nearly $2 billion, and no real plan to pay for it or hook it up to the computer systems of local sheriff’s departments or district attorneys.

There’s no arguing that California’s courts should have a top-notch computer system that allows judges as much information about their cases as possible. We don’t want a system that can put someone in a courtroom on a traffic charge, with no way for the judge to know that he’s also wanted on suspicion of murder.

We want a system that links the courts together, makes filings easier and more efficient, provides complete information to all parties involved and gives judges the best tool available to do their jobs. And, to be fair, it’s possible that this system might one day turn into that system. But it’s pretty clear that unless the AOC changes the way it’s running the project, we risk throwing good money after bad, with precious little to show for it.

Worse, this is all taking place during the deepest budget crisis in living memory. Courtrooms have been closed to save money. Court workers laid off. And the governor says the courts are going to have to make even more cuts to survive the current deficit. So, any reasonable person would ask whether now is the time to careen forward with a project that has never had a clear plan.

It’s time to shine some light on this system. It’s time to get some real, independent computer experts to give it a no-holds-barred shakedown cruise to see whether it can withstand real-world rigors if and when we can move it into courtrooms around the state.

So far, the system has been rolled out in a few test counties, and the results are mixed. The AOC is eager to distinguish between the product they have and the way they developed it.

Of course, thanks to the audit, we now know how they developed it, and it isn’t pretty.

So, just as I called for the audit, I’m calling for the second half of the picture: genuine independent testing of the system. Not by AOC staff, nor by anyone with a financial interest in its completion, but by an unbiased third party.

It’s never too late to start doing things right.


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