Building Better Mousetraps In Praise of Local Innovation

Building Better Mousetraps In Praise of Local Innovation

Journal Issue: 
Column Name: 
Journal Article: 
Bankruptcy courts rely heavily on automation in order to conduct their essential business functions. Nearly all aspects of court operations now involve the use of automated tools to increase efficiency. Some of the tools involve national solutions, such as the Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system and the Bankruptcy Noticing Center (BNC), while others are the result of local innovation. This process of innovation has made national systems responsive to local needs and improved court operations.

CM/ECF is now in use by nearly every bankruptcy court in the country. The system was initially designed and implemented nationally. However, as more courts began using CM/ECF, the demand for local enhancements quickly exceeded the ability of national developers to quickly respond. As a result, individual courts developed their own enhancements in order to meet their unique operational needs.

Some examples of these local enhancements to CM/ECF include:

  • judge/trustee assignment: provides for the automatic assignment of a judge and a trustee when a bankruptcy case is opened.
  • case upload: allows attorney filers to open a new bankruptcy case by uploading (attaching) files created by their bankruptcy preparation software package.
  • order processing: enables the handling of paperless orders from submission by attorneys to signing by judges and docketing by case managers.

Each of these tools was developed by individual bankruptcy courts and then shared with others. However, as locally developed applications proliferate throughout the courts, support issues can develop. The developing court must create user documentation and technical specifications to assist other courts that wish to install the software. They are sometimes called upon to make modifications to the application to meet the operating needs of other courts. This can become burdensome to the developing courts in terms of diverting valuable personnel time. In some cases, the enhancements are added to later releases of CM/ECF, thereby making them available to all bankruptcy courts and improving the overall functionality of the program. For example, the judge/trustee assignment module has already been added to the nationally supported version of CM/ECF. Case-upload and order-processing modules developed by local courts are scheduled to be included in future releases of CM/ECF.

Local innovation, however, isn't confined to simply enhancing the CM/ECF program. Individual bankruptcy courts have also taken the lead in developing additional software programs to automate court calendaring, finance and quality assurance. Additional administrative functions such as personnel management and inventory control utilize local solutions as well as national programs. Like CM/ECF enhancements, these local solutions quickly find their way to other court units hungry for innovation.

This exchange of local solutions is accomplished in a variety of ways. In some cases, judges or court managers hear about an enhancement at a conference or in conversations with other court personnel. If the enhancement sounds like something that might benefit their court, they contact the court that developed the enhancement for more information. If interest is high, a copy of the enhancement is shared. Additionally, court information technology staff engage in e-mail groups and mailing lists to share their applications and learn what other courts are doing. Finally, court conferences promote sharing through formal presentations and the inevitable networking that takes place.

To streamline this process, the judiciary created a Web site called "Ed's Place." This site was created in 2003 and was named for the late Judge Edwin L. Nelson. Judge Nelson's idea was to have a place where courts could see what others had already done. He believed this would promote sharing among court units and reduce unnecessary duplication of effort. There are more than 100 local applications available on Ed's Place for appellate, bankruptcy, pretrial and probation court units. These include scripts, enhanced CM/ECF reports and new software programs that address a wide variety of court requirements. There are also discussion rooms, technical guides and best-practices information available. The growth and relevance of Ed's Place is a testament to the usefulness of developing and sharing local applications.

Rather than simply wait for something to be posted on Ed's Place, however, courts are also now creating collaboration groups. These groups allow programmers and systems analysts from different courts to meet together to solve common problems and create new enhancements. These groups are organized around a particular local application, such as a calendar or order-processing system. The collaboration group prioritizes proposed enhancements, shares programming code and creates new functionality that is then shared by other courts using that particular software. Another objective of the collaboration group can be to prepare the application for migration to a nationally supported application.

Thus, bankruptcy courts act as both developers and consumers for each other's products with the end result of improved court operations. Local innovation has become a way for individual courts to set their own priorities and commit their resources to the development of new or enhanced systems applications. By sharing these local innovations with other courts, wheels are less likely to be reinvented. As local innovations develop a large user base, collaboration groups serve to develop a more universally usable version of the application and help to migrate the application to national support.

This is a win-win situation. Scarce development resources at the national level are freed up to work on high-priority tasks while local developers are able to meet local needs quickly and effectively. Other courts are able to use locally developed applications before they become components of nationally supported applications. Finally, collaboration groups can help migrate local applications to become parts of nationally supported products.

One common complaint of this process is that local enhancements mean multiple versions of CM/ECF, creating confusion for users. This argument asserts that standardized systems are best. However, local court practice and judicial independence are essential to the court system. We have a complex judicial system, and software programs must serve the system, rather than forcing courts to operate according to the constraints of a single, standardized program. In other words, the tail shouldn't wag the dog. Local innovation has allowed individual courts to meet local demands and provide a better program for its users. That these innovations spread quickly and are shared with other courts is a testament to their usefulness. This is how better mousetraps are built.

Journal Date: 
Saturday, October 1, 2005