Performance Measures = Leadership Clarity

If you do nothing else, be clear, says Marcus Buckingham, who has spent a lot of his time studying leadership. You probably thought that your job is to analyze the complexity and chaos of your court’s operating environment and reflect it back to the court’s stakeholders. You’d be wrong. (When you’re asked what time it is, don’t respond with instructions for building a clock!)

Tell people what it is the court should achieve. But tell them succinctly. Point them in the right direction and give them a good handle on how to get there.

Today’s court executives and managers need more than a strong message and charisma to lead effectively. They need a performance measurement system that focuses and magnifies what is most important. They need ready access to clear and actionable measures that allow them to explore the court’s performance from multiple perspectives and to steer the court in the right direction.

Performance measures – like the percent of court users who are satisfied with the way they were served by your court or the percent of case files that were retrieved within ten minutes of request – are valuable to court leaders and managers because they are focused, unambiguous, and actionable. They serve as incentives and practical tools for change.

Public Trust and Confidence

Ray Rhodes, the executive director of the Office of the State Attorney in the Twentieth Judicial Circuit in Florida, told me a story last week in Ft. Myers that illustrates the point.

Rhodes was approached by a neighbor who manages a local department store. The neighbor told him that he was struggling with rampant shoplifting. He said he lost confidence that the criminal justice system was managed well enough to help him solve his problems.

The neighbor was quick to assure Rhodes that he had no gripes with the State Attorney’s Office. He said he was very satisfied with the attention the State Attorney’s Office was giving to his shoplifting cases. He appreciated the prompt notifications his employees received of the hearings and trials scheduled and rescheduled, and rescheduled again.

The problem, said the neighbor, was that trials were being postponed so often that he could not afford to give the time off to his employees to appear as witnesses. He told Rhodes that he has resorted, reluctantly, to dealing with his shoplifting problem on his own. From now on, the neighbor said, instead of calling the police, he would handle any shoplifting of merchandise worth less than $20 dollars himself, without law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

Rhodes believes that we could probably find many more store managers, owners and even non-business citizens that share the same sentiment as his neighbor. "Many crimes go unreported for various reasons," says Rhodes, "but one of the larger reasons is that people did not have the time to deal with the criminal justice system - just too confusing and too much time out of their schedule. It's just easier to buy a new bike, camera, etc."

The traditional way court leaders might handle this problem is by commissioning, that is, by creating a commission or blue-ribbon panel to look into the problem or commissioning a study of eroding public trust and confidence in the courts. There would be a lot of hand-wringing and grave pronouncements followed, in good time, by recommendations for transformation and reform on a grand scale (assuming, of course, that there’s the money to do it all).

Trial Date Certainty

Instead, Mr. Rhodes and his colleagues in the Twentieth Circuit are heading to a simpler solution along the performance measurement route. Rhodes is part of a Circuit-wide effort involving the major justice system partners in the Twentieth Judicial Circuit – the courts, the clerk’s offices, public defenders, law enforcement and jail representatives, probation and pretrial services. The group is defining the problem highlighted by Mr. Rhodes’ neighbor in a less ambiguous, more focused, and certainly more actionable way than the traditional “commissioning” approach.

The Twentieth Circuit is currently developing and testing a trial date certainty index, a measure of the certainty with which trials are held when scheduled, expressed as the number of trial settings per trial by case and trial type or category. (Full disclosure: My colleagues and I at the National Center for State Courts’ Court Consulting Services are helping.)

This performance measure, which is among the arsenal of measures in the CourTools designed by the National Center, is an indicator of the certainty, predictability, timeliness and efficiency of case processing. Required data elements are the total number of trials disposed or resolved by case (e.g., criminal) and trial (e.g., plea) type or category, and the number of times those same trials appear on the court’s trial calendar. For example, if a total of 50 trials were held in a given period of time and the total number of times those 50 trials appeared on the trial calendar is 218, the trial date certainty index would be 218 divided by 50 = 4.36 (this is a hypothetical example, not the Circuit’s actual performance).

The plan is to take the baseline of the average trial date certainty index Circuit-wide, slice and dice this average by case type and trial type, and by location, and then look for opportunities for improvements. This is where performance measures lend themselves to absolute clarity and focus.

At the outset, the Circuit’s leaders and managers might ask themselves if the baseline levels Circuit-wide, and for particular case and trial types, and in particular locations (the Twentieth Judicial Circuit encompasses five counties) are satisfactory, and then set appropriate short and long term performance goals and targets for the Circuit as a whole, and for case types, trial types, and different locations. For example, a short term goal might be to reduce the trial date certainty index below 4.0 Circuit-wide in six months, and reach the long-term goal of 2.0 or below in two years.

Sidestepping Sticky Issues

Commitment to a focused, unambiguous, and actionable performance measure is a way to sidestep sticky issues of institutional differences and governance and, perhaps, deal with them once successful joint effort is achieved around a decrease in the trial date certainty index. The power of the performance measure is that it helps people focus and get right to work without having to spend an eternity rehashing the back-story of institutional differences.

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