Analysis: HMCTS’ £1 billion courts reform programme is making progress - despite ringing most of the ‘public sector IT disaster’ alarm bells
After a run of high profile fiascos, a consensus emerged a decade ago about how to spot a headline grabbing public sector IT disaster in the making. The elements included: large scale, tight timetables, multiple stakeholders outside the programme’s control and unrealistic expectations of benefits.
Today’s National Audit Office report on HM Courts & Tribunals Service's (HMCTS) transformation programme ticks all those boxes. Like the programme itself, the report is a blast from the noughties.
For a start, the courts transformation programme is big and ambitious. It aims to transform both civil and criminal justice by digitising processes and procedures, drastically reducing the need for physical court buildings. Technological challenges include the need to deal with more than 70 different legacy systems inherited when HMCTS was formed 25 years ago by merging 150 different courts bodies.
This cannot be done by order. The key leaders of change, judges, are independent of government and acutely aware of the fact. The process also depends heavily on investments by other organisations, from the police and Crown Prosecution Service down to local law firms, which may have different priorities.
The NAO notes that “the tight timetable creates challenges in maintaining meaningful engagement with these organisations and ensuring alignment across all parties”.
The justice system also has a special problem with its end-users. “Those who use the courts do so only rarely," the NAO notes. "In many cases, they have had no prior contact with the justice system and do not engage with it out of choice.”
An individual on trial for an alleged crime will have little interest in helping the system run smoothly - often the reverse is the case - and only 50% of criminal trials go ahead as planned, Meanwhile, engagement has been hindered by high turnover of senior stakeholders, including within the senior judiciary, the Crown Prosecution Service and responsible ministers.
Another external dependency is on primary legislation, and example being to enable more virtual hearings. The Prisons and Courts Bill that was supposed to do the job was a casualty of last summer’s general election, and its successor, the Courts Bill, has not yet been granted time in a busy parliamentary schedule.
While some reforms can be enacted by changing courts procedure rules, this will require the cooperation of judges and delay the realisation of benefits, the NAO observes.
As for the benefits, HMCTS expects the reforms to deliver £1.22 billion over the 10 years to 2024-25, with net benefits overtaking costs in 2023. But savings will depend on the success of preliminary work: judges will not see demands on their time fall until more cases are dealt with online.
In some cases, the NAO warns, the costs and benefits of change may fall on different parts of the system. "Government’s record of transforming public services suggests the overall benefits of the changes are likely to be smaller than expected and will take longer to achieve," the report says. "HMCTS has already reduced the scope of the portfolio and scaled back planned benefits."
There is also "a very significant risk that... the full ambition of the change portfolio will prove to be undeliverable in the time available."
Roughly two thirds of the benefits booked by the reform programme so far have come from not replacing departing staff if their roles are ultimately to be abolished under the reforms. "This has resulted in some gaps and risks putting pressure on HMCTS’s ability to maintain current services," the NAO comments. The resulting disruption is hardly likely to win support for the reforms among sceptical court users such as barristers, who already refusing to take new criminal cases in protest against legal aid cuts.
"HMCTS does not yet have effective arrangements to measure and report on progress and communicate this clearly to its stakeholders."
For all this, the report finds that HMCTS is getting some things right. It commends the adoption of agile methodology, with common components being tested and refined separately before being brought together to enable system-wide transformation.
In a formal response, HMCTS described the report as "helpful and constructive" and states that lessons are being taken on board.
"We are confident that the current six-year programme is on track to deliver the benefits promised on completion and, in doing so, help create a better, more straightforward, accessible and efficient justice system,” chief executive Susan Acland-Hood said.
The hope seems to be that courts users will come around to the belief that almost any change is better than the current crumbling system. But it will be a long slog.
"HMCTS will need to be flexible and to adapt its approach if things do not go to plan," the NAO concludes, with understatement.
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