LSC has now formally released its Technology Summit Report. While I have previously blogged on the careful and inclusive process here, and here and here and here and here, I thought it would be most useful to make general comments rather than summarize this very important Report, which has the potential to shape access and collaboration strategy and investments for the next decade. I will focus on the implementation and funding strategies for the already quite well known components, as well as for the initiative as a whole. (Disclosure, I have been part of the planning process and steering committee for the Summit, and it must therefore be emphasized that I very much speak only for myself in my response to the Summit Report.)
Implementation of the Triaging Portal
The Triaging Portal concept is very ambitious, assuming connection to all service agencies, full information, tools, triage, self-correcting algorithms, etc. The plan is to develop work cooperatively with courts and others to secure funding to support three statewide pilots, to be selected competitively. The vision is far more ambitious that the websites currently required by LSC for its grantee networks. Key issues: finding states with a sufficient level of collaboration and integration between legal aid, courts, the bar, and ideally social service agencies to commit to this cooperative approach, particularly in the context of differing institutional roles; getting national funders committed to the same pilots; developing the pilots so that the technology can be deployed nationally, but without dumbing-down to a lowest common denominator; getting consensus on triage protocols; leveraging TIG money without running into opposition from the existing structure.
Implementing Document Assembly
As the Report points out, this is a relatively mature technology, to which perhaps the principal bar to full deployment is the lack of full systems of standardized forms in all too many states (a problem treated as beyond the scope of the report.) The main implementation strategy here appears to be encouraging funders to support fully adoption and integration of document assembly data into other aspects of the delivery system through development of standards, tags, etc. The approach urged would be to condition funding upon commitments to an integrated vision, to a collaborative system that would ensure full court and legal aid use, to rules mandating acceptance of the products, and to a broad input process. (While the language of the Report does not support this, I would go further and condition all access funding on such an efficient approach; tolerance of the status quo is unacceptably wasteful. In any event failure to meet such a standard should disqualify states from consideration as pilot projects.)
Implementation of Mobile Strategy
The mobile strategy lists a number of possible applications and application areas, recommends seeking funding for converting current websites, replicating existing applications, and developing the listed possible applications, encourages use of hackathons and developer engagement systems, and recommends a campaign to have telecom companies exclude access to justice usage from billed totals.
The challenge here is to build a far stronger capacity within the access community. While access to justice organizations were very early to market with use of the world wide web, we have been far slower in the mobile area, and we need both capacity and mindset. We have to think far more about how to be proactive in the far wider use of the far larger range of information that can be accumulated and used by a mobile device. Making at least minimal information available over mobile devices should be required of grantees, to help ensure that broader capacity is developed.
Implementing Business Process Analysis
I think it is safe to say that the area of the Report that goes furthest in expanding the prior debate is that dealing with business process analysis, a concept that has been largely absent from the public sector discussion. As the Report puts it: Business process analysis involves the disciplined “mapping” of how a task or function is performed, using standard conventions for depicting different aspects of the process. This can lead to standardization, efficiency, division of labor between organizations, etc. It represents a major change from the “craft” orientation of much of our delivery system, in which the lawyer or advocate builds everything from scratch every time, and often does not learn from the experience of colleagues.
The strategy is to obtain pro bono consulting support from the private sector for pilot projects, and thereby develop an internal group with the skill to provide ongoing help from within.
However, the development of the strategy will need to address the real resistance within the delivery system, at all levels. Components of the strategy may need to include specific funding incentives for adoption of the process, status rewards, investment in sophisticated research and evaluation (itself requiring agreement upon outcome measures), major promotional and educational efforts, and possible use of the LSC grant process.
Implementing Expert Systems
For the expert systems/checklist strategy, the Report recommends the development of a tool that can enable knowledge to be coded into an application to create customized information for client and advocate.
It may be that it will be helpful to develop additional focus in the identification of possible products and methods. Moreover, exploring the relationship to both triage and document assembly (both of which use such logic, and need tools to do so) might result in a significant saving of resources.
I quote in full the first section on overall implementation, since the new group it envisions is crucial to success in this ambitious multi-organizational agenda.
Create a Steering Committee to Provide Leadership for Achieving the Integrated System
LSC will reconvene the group that planned the Summit to discuss how to achieve the goals identified in this document. It is anticipated that this group will present the vision for an integrated system to other national organizations supporting access-to-justice entities, urging their endorsement and asking for their support and guidance. (Underline added)
Activities for the steering committee may include designating:
• A small group to provide day-to-day direction to the initiative
• An appropriate supporting entity that can receive and administer funding raised to support the effort
• A more detailed action plan and timeline for the initiative revised on at least an annual basis
• A plan for generating and dispensing the funding that will be necessary to implement the initiative
The Report also generally addresses issues of outreach, potential funders, replication, and communication.
Establishing a group of the kind described above would represent a major innovation in access coordination and integration — in some, but only some, ways a national technology-focused analog to the highly successful state level access to justice commissions — and would have huge implications for the future.
A thousand congratulations to LSC for its vision and commitment.
I strongly agree that the LSC Technology Summit report lays out a compelling vision for the future and thus deserves a broad audience. One of its chief virtues is that it moves the conversation past the (understandably stubborn) notion that merely tinkering with the status quo is likely to result in anything other than a slightly improved status quo.
However, having worked as a funder trying to promote some of these very strategies in Illinois, I think that the report has a tendency to breeze past some (very) hard truths. It is certainly accurate to say that if we are to build a spaceship capable of taking humans to Mars, it will require lots of people to think creatively, work collaboratively, and find new money from a variety of sources. But saying so does not get you much closer to Mars.
A handful of tensions cry out for a bit of highlighting. The first tension relates to inclusion. As in many national reports, there appears to be a mania (or a tic, perhaps?) for referring to the need to include all stakeholders in the development of any new system, which is sort of like saying that you want Google to be run by the United Nations. We have been working on an online access portal in Illinois under a TIG grant for the past two years, limited to the three LSC-funded programs in our state. To say it has been challenging puts the matter but mildly. If the initial plan had called for roping in 22 judicial circuits, 7 law school clinics, and 40+ independent or “niche” legal aid programs, the process would have fallen apart of its own weight. (And, I suspect, the TIG reviewers would never have approved it.)
A related issue is whether or not it is possible, in the face of plain old inertia and “resistance to change” (p. 2, para 1) to re-engineer planes while they are in mid-air. As evidence, I would offer that despite it being a “mature technology,” (and considerable investment of resources here in Illinois) the uptake of automated document assembly systems has proceeded at much the same pace as the Colorado River forming the Grand Canyon. At the risk of sounding like one of those people who name-drops best-selling business authors while wearing a Bluetooth headset, read “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” Is real change more likely to come from existing organizations, or is it going to come from lean, hungry, purpose-built startups? And in the LSC-funded universe, how does a startup, well, start up?
Finally, I wholeheartedly welcome the focus on business-process analysis. My foundation has made some relatively significant investments in “low bono” consulting services in this area, engaging one of the nation’s leading providers of such services in the legal arena. But even with such robust resources at our disposal, this process of analysis and improvement is a daunting, necessarily incremental one. I very much question whether this is something that legal aid lawyers can be taught to do on the fly, or whether there are enough qualified pro bono resources to re-engineer more than a fraction of the existing work of legal aid providers.
I believe very strongly in the vision set forth in the “Summit” report and hope to spend the rest of my career working to implement some version of it. But let’s not kid the troops. Embracing this vision for the future will require some very real trade-offs in the present, and it introduces the risk of failure(s) on a potentially spectacular scale. This is Everest. Anyone standing at the base of the mountain who isn’t in for the long haul (and at least partially terrified) should not start climbing.
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