The Jevons Paradox

What?  You never heard of the Jevons Paradox?  Well, I expect that, given the current debate regarding the price of gas, you likely will even if economics is not your leisure reading subject of choice.  

The Jevons Paradox, described by 19th century economist William Stanley Jevons (1835-1892), contends that improvements in fuel efficiency (then coal) tend to INCREASE, not decrease, total fuel use.  The translation to today’s debate is that adoption of more fuel-efficient vehicles leads, overall, to greater consumption of gasoline.

There’s a lot of really sexy equations and graphs involved; but I confess that math and arithmetic are three of my weak areas.  In English, the two reasons given are that 1) Because your Prius is more fuel-efficient, you will drive it more; and 2) The net result of the efficiencies creates a form of stimulus to the overall economy, resulting in greater fuel consumption.

It occurs to yours truly that The Jevons Paradox provides a possible explanation for a long-observed phenomenon in the world of court technology.  Consider: Technology-based initiatives, when efficiency-generated savings compose a significant part of the justification, have essentially three potential outcomes.  First, they can fail, in which case they cost a lot of money.  Second, they can succeed as planned, in which case the expected savings are generated and overall cost drops.  Third, they can succeed in ways both expected and unexpected to such an extent that courts dramatically increase the service they provide and the overall effectiveness of the justice system increases.  In the real world, the outcomes are almost always either Number One or Number Three.  Rarely, if ever, do service levels remain the same while costs drop.

You hear about this phenomenon at conferences and when you visit courts that have successfully implemented solutions such as ECM, E-Filing, E-Signature, and E-Certification.  Where you DON’T typically hear about it – at least as a primary justification – is at either the business case development stage or during the requests for appropriations from the funding source (elected legislatures, county commissioners, city councils, etc.) who are laser-like focused on reducing cost.  And, unless you ask (and few do), you don’t hear much of it from vendors, who, while they know the potential, are responding to the immediate, public sector imperative for making the business case based primarily on cost in the context of current and next budget cycles.

One compelling aspect of ECM and related technology initiatives like E-Signature, E-Filing, and E-Certification is that they CAN provide the type of rapid, measurable ROI and early break even that strapped public funding entities crave; and they can provide relief to courts suffering from current and projected staffing cuts.  In other words, the cost-based financial case can easily be made.[i]

Even more, however, successful completion of such an “efficiency” initiative will almost certainly accelerate the effectiveness and importance of the court to its community, its funding body, and its business partners. 

Such change, albeit based on success, has its own challenges and potential pitfalls.  Courts should be prepared to “Ride the Tiger”.   Court planners should create a well-developed strategy, partner with an experienced systems integrator and engage in a fully-committed implementation; AND plan for an INCREASE in use of court services.   A year after implementation, no one will be asking, “What did you save?”  Instead, they’ll be asking how can you ride that tiger even further?


[i] See Short-Term Payback & Long-Term Gain from Transitioning to a Paper-On-Demand Court: How Courts Can Realize Rapid ROI from Paper-On-Demand, Jeffrey N. Barlow, 2011 [http://www.imagesoftinc.com/resources-wp-roi-of-pod-signup.html]

 

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