Putting the human experience at the heart of technology transformation
A barrister dials into a hearing, citizens live stream a court case, a prisoner earns their degree via self-paced learning on a tablet. These examples make it clear that technology has played an outsized role in helping the justice system respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology has certainly opened up new possibilities, but to institutionalise those possibilities and move the justice system from simply “doing digital” to truly “being digital” requires more. To be truly transformative, we need to make sure these new technologies are not simply grafted onto old ideas. Pairing new technology with new ways of doing business in a few key test cases can help demonstrate the value of transformation and help ensure that this unique opportunity is not lost.
Accelerating tech adoption, but barriers remain
There is nothing like a good crisis to spur on difficult reforms. The UK’s experience with the pandemic is not alone. Our recent study of global criminal justice systems found similar accelerations in several different countries. As one justice leader observed, “The pandemic has provided support, drive for digital transformation. [It’s been an] interesting time to find the places to accelerate digital transformation”.i
Despite this increased technology adoption, significant barriers remain to further change in the justice system. First, there are the technical barriers. Years of underinvestment in technology has left the justice system with significant ‘technical debt’ and limited infrastructure to add today’s most advanced technologies. Even simple things like WiFi access in court buildings can be a significant barrier to adding needed technologies.ii Second, these technological barriers create organisational barriers to greater change. Because adopting new technologies is hard - justice systems may avoid it, and in avoiding modernisation, subsequent upgrades are even harder and less likely. The gap between justice systems and state of the art can help explain a paradox we observed in our survey of global justice stakeholders. We found that even as technology adoption reached new heights during the pandemic, nearly half of stakeholders were still dissatisfied with their system’s adoption of technology.
True transformation requires new technology and new human thinking
One potential explanation for this paradox is the nature of the technology adopted during the pandemic. Faced with an acute crisis, justice systems adopted single technology solutions to solve the problems they encountered. But success is rarely due to a single digital ‘solution’. Any significant problem takes not only several different technologies, but also new business practices to make best use of them.
One such form of new thinking is a shift from governments going it alone, to coordinating solution ecosystems. With useful technologies coming from all corners, justice systems must now think in terms of nurturing digital ecosystems that are capable of constantly evolving to meet the needs of different users. When systems of new technologies are paired with government taking a coordinating role, the impact can be significant. Take creation of the National Economic Crime Centre (NECC) for example.iii Combatting financial crime takes more than just new technologies or data sources, it takes public-private collaboration. The NECC will further deepen public and private sector cooperation and coordination across a greater range of threats (e.g. fraud) and across more industry sectors (accountancy, insurance, etc.).
Start small to make big progress
True transformation, then, takes more than just adopting new technologies. It requires some larger paradigm shifts in how justice systems think about the technology they use and the services they deliver. As with any significant shifts, these can be difficult and resisted by the inertia of the organisation. So, the road to tech-driven, human-centered transformation starts with identifying smaller use cases that both need technology and can demonstrate results quickly. For example, using digital twins of court processes to help manage caseloads and reduce backlogs, or adopting more widespread use of digital desistance programs for rehabilitation could be promising test cases. Such use cases would require coordination across all the stakeholders involved; adoption of systems of supporting technologies, not just a single point solution; and above all a willingness by all involved to reimagine core business practices.
Even in small scale these steps can be difficult. But if such pilots can produce measurable results, they can serve as models for other areas of the justice system, spreading true tech-driven transformation. For example, pilots in the UK and Canada around ‘nudging’ attendance in court through carefully worded reminders can be small changes in technology and business practices that can, over time, have significant impact in how citizens relate to courts.
The large number of new technologies and processes adopted during the pandemic offer an unprecedented opportunity to gather real-world evidence about justice systems. The pilots are essentially small experiments and, if designed with learning in mind, can give leaders objective evidence about what is and isn’t working and why. With enough efforts like those, just maybe the next crisis will find the justice system already with the digital tools it needs to succeed.
Read more about our research into technology transformation in global justice systems here.