EDITOR'S DESK—Commentary

Judicial branch IT on trial

For all the attention paid to federal information technology projects, it’s easy to miss the fact that most of the focus is on executive branch initiatives.

It’s not like the legislative branch hasn’t been busy upgrading its information technologies. Indeed, congressional IT staffs have done a rather remarkable, if unheralded, job of consolidating data centers, embracing green IT, and helping legislators and their staffs get on the Web 2.0 social-networking bandwagon.

But federal agencies attract a lot more attention — in large part because of the size and scope of their IT projects. And let’s face it: The number of federal agency IT projects that go astray is enough to keep more than a few inspectors general, not to mention reporters, busy.

However, for a variety of reasons, the promise of technology has somehow failed to make much headway in the courtrooms and back offices of the judicial branch and consequently has attracted little notice.

Part of that has to do with the nature of the work, which involves many players and tends to defy easy automation solutions. Another factor is that judges generally set the technology tempo for their courts. Many federal judges, for better or worse, haven’t been convinced that the costs and technical issues inherent in upgrading their court’s systems are worth the effort.

However, as GCN suggests in its report, titled "Order in the Court", there are pockets of IT progress in the federal courts that are encouraging, especially among technically savvy judicial employees who are trying to keep up with crushing workloads.

At least, that’s what some believe with the news that the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California is deploying a kiosk system that improves pretrial services.

The technology might seem quaint in this age of mobile computing, but the project is catching more than casual attention from pretrial services officers across the country who play a crucial role in the federal court system and its 94 districts nationwide.

In effect, the kiosk system moves the burden of submitting standard reporting information from the pretrial services officer to the defendant, streamlining the work for officers and judges.

But the kiosk program is also providing a new model for how to modernize federal courts — or at least some of its age-old processes — at a time when many federal courts would benefit from a technology overhaul.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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