Gazing Into the Crystal Ball, Part Three: Waving Goodbye to Documents

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In a recent post I set forth some predictions of the longer-term consequences of moving to paper on demand, I posted that in the future, “Courts will handle only a small fraction of the number of documents they do today.” Here’s why.

The first stage of implementing a paper-on-demand justice system involves the very profound shift from processes that rely on physical documents and files to processes that utilize electronic documents. Not surprisingly, during the first phases, a significant portion of effort involves trying to make the electronic documents useful within the context of their predecessors, paper documents. (Yes, people tend to cling to the old ways. To quote Jefferson (out of context), “…all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”)

Of necessity, this transformation takes time. Eventually, as fingers loosen on the tightly held habits of the past, previously unseen factors begin to emerge. One of the earliest, and now well accepted, was that robust, configurable workflow capabilities are essential to making Enterprise Content Management (ECM) effective.

What ECM with configurable workflow increasingly demonstrates is that in many, if not most, cases “documents” are merely containers for information. Consider, for example, a typical Motion and Order for Continuance. Once upon a time the Motion document fulfilled the essential function of carrying the request to the Court, and the Order document provided a place for the judge (or other acting official) to memorialize approval. Today, neither document is necessary or desirable, as more effective, easy to use and safe mechanisms exist for accomplishing both objectives. Moreover, when a document (even an electronic document) is used, it has to be managed. And even if that management is done electronically, it creates overhead.

Think of making an online application for something that will require approval — say, a credit card or a loan; or, in my case. Medicare. The information (data) elements are critical to the process. There must be trustworthy authentication of the applicant’s identity. And, of course, the applicant must be bound by his or her assertions. But no one argues there has to be a document to accomplish any of these. Using some form of identifying security (today, email address and password are common, but more robust mechanisms exist), the applicant enters the information, acknowledges the terms under which the application is made and submits it.

Even with no document, the applicant should, at any time, be able to access the application information and see the status of the request.
In exactly the same manner, the “Order”, or approval/denial, has the requirements of containing the necessary information. If the decision/authority emanates from a particular person, that person must be held to have made the order. Again, absolutely no document is required.

While I could make similar arguments concerning more substantial, as opposed to ministerial/procedural, documents — things like pleadings, judgments and so forth — there is no need. Just the volume of ministerial/procedural documents in courts is so heavy that their elimination or substantial reduction will constitute a major change (for the better) in court operations. After they are gone, we’ll see about those that remain.

In this evolution, configurable workflow is THE key ingredient. The ability to move information based on rules, integrating the ECM system with Case Management system for courts, or Inmate Tracking System for jails, and so on, is the capability that can make many processes independent of documents altogether. Without it, some form of documents will still be necessary to provide conduits and containers for the information, albeit at a significantly greater cost.

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