Prioritization is deciding the relative importance or urgency of a list of items or tasks. For years, I have worked with courthouse data to perform statistical analysis and develop planning tools and business processes.
The most important process I have participated in my career has been prioritizing courthouse projects. Priority setting can happen for a single courthouse, across a judicial complex, or a portfolio of courthouses. This article prioritizes projects across a portfolio of courthouses, such as a state or other large geographic areas.
When it comes to money, nothing is more important than spending it wisely. If you need to choose from five new construction or renovation courthouse projects, how do you know which project will provide the greatest return on your investment? Which one will result in the greatest cost-benefit? If you can only complete 3 out of the 5, which projects should you complete first?
These are all critical questions, and the answers shouldn’t be decided based on who complains the loudest or, heaven forbid… politics. Analytics and a well-designed prioritization model will provide you with the answers you are looking for and the data to back them up.
Establishing the Need for Prioritizing
Prioritizing courthouse projects might be more important than you think! Many courthouses across the country are in dire need of repair, renovation, or new buildings.
By prioritizing courthouse projects, we are investing in the future of our justice system and ensuring that it remains a cornerstone of our society. With all that being said, you are probably still asking yourself, “Why is it so important to prioritize courthouse projects?” Well, here are the five reasons:
- Access to justice: Prioritizing courthouse projects ensures adequate facilities are available to handle the caseload demands and meet the community's needs, ensuring citizens have access to a fair and efficient judicial system. Upgrading or constructing new courthouses helps reduce backlogs, delays, and overcrowding in the judicial system, enhancing access to justice for all individuals.
- Safety and security: It is crucial to prioritize courthouse projects to ensure the safety and security of all participants, including judges, court personnel, lawyers, litigants, and the public. Prioritizing courthouse projects allows for implementing robust security measures, such as controlled access systems, surveillance cameras, and screening procedures, ensuring the safety of all individuals on the premises.
- Efficiency and effectiveness: Prioritizing courthouse projects can address inadequate infrastructure, overcrowded courtrooms, and outdated technology. Upgrading facilities, expanding courtrooms, and improving technology can help streamline court proceedings, reduce delays, and enhance the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the judicial system.
- Public trust and confidence: The physical appearance and functionality of courthouses can significantly impact public perception and confidence in the judicial system. Dilapidated or outdated courthouses may create a negative impression of the justice system, undermining public trust. Prioritizing courthouse projects and creating modern, welcoming, and accessible facilities helps instill confidence in the judiciary and fosters public trust.
- Long-Term Cost Savings: Investing in courthouse projects may seem expensive in the short term, but it can lead to long-term cost savings. Modern courthouses with energy-efficient technologies can reduce operational costs by lowering energy consumption. Additionally, addressing maintenance issues and upgrading infrastructure can prevent further deterioration and the need for more costly repairs or replacements in the future.
What to Prioritize
With limited resources and budgets, it's essential to identify which projects are most pressing and allocate resources accordingly. Let’s examine three key elements I have used to develop courthouse project prioritization models.
- Caseload demand: Evaluate the volume of cases and the demand for court services in a particular jurisdiction. High caseloads and overcrowded courtrooms indicate the need for expansion or additional facilities. In addition, the greater the workload, the more demand on the courthouse for filings, courtroom proceedings, and appointments with various court components.
- Space needs: Growth in caseload often requires growth in judges and personnel, which requires more space. Determining where and when space is needed can help prioritize courthouse projects. Some of the more important space needs include courtrooms and chambers, prisoner circulation and holding cells, jury facilities, and staff spaces.
- Infrastructure and condition assessment: Assess the current state of existing courthouses. Consider building conditions, functionality, design standards, and security. Prioritize urgent maintenance or renovation needs based on robust assessments that can help identify areas of deficiencies. The assessments should be performed regularly, every five years at a minimum, to maintain accurate conditions and operational data on the portfolio.
From my experience, there are some common elements to an efficient and useful prioritization model.
First, decide what truly drives the needs of the courts. In the above section, I have included the drivers that I often use: caseload demand, space needs, and the condition of the facilities. There could be other drivers in your court system.
Second, keep the model simple regarding the number of elements or variables you use to prioritize. I typically use three to five variables. I can envision models with a dozen or more variables, but it ultimately comes down to accurately maintaining the data and using only the key variables to distinguish project priorities.
Third, I recommend using a decision-support method that is more advanced than a checklist to develop the model. I have found that when using a checklist of priority issues, it results in many “tied” projects and does not have enough substance to rank one project in front of another accurately. When working with a portfolio of courthouses, I apply a more rigorous decision-support system (DSS) to use the data to rank projects in priority order.
I have used such rankings in jurisdictions that consider them the final priority order. This approach takes politics and qualitative factors out of the process. If a courthouse scores number three on the priority ranking, it must wait for the first and second projects to be completed before it is the top priority.
I have also used rankings to inform a more qualitative decision-making process. These rankings are often combined with budget and stakeholder input to determine a final priority order.
I like the objective approach that removes politics because it is the fairest method. It also sets up a process that appeals to court decision-makers. If the prioritization method is viewed as valid, I have found that courts will wait their turn, and the rankings help manage expectations.
A court out of space with a growing caseload, deteriorating building systems, and significant space and security needs should rise to the top. It is critical to confirm that the rankings match reality. Meaning that there should be a common sense feel to the results and that the top project should be considered urgent and in need of funding.
I’ve established that it is important to prioritize courthouse projects and examined key elements of a prioritization model that will rank projects by urgency need. So, why wait? Start prioritizing courthouse projects now to positively impact your community and the justice system as a whole in the future. With the right planning and execution, you can ensure that your courthouse projects are completed in urgent order and have a lasting impact for years.