The High Performance Court Framework

This article highlights essential aspects of a recent publication by the National Center for State Courts, Achieving High Performance: A Framework for Courts. The objective is to summarize the Framework’s concepts, identify their practical significance for judges and administrators, and connect the Framework to the larger, continuing trend of court reform.

Brian J. Ostrom
Principal Court Research Consultant, Research Services, National Center for State Courts

Matthew Kleiman
Senior Court Research Associate, Research Services, National Center for State Courts

Roger A. Hanson
Consultant, Research Services, National Center for State Courts


What Are Some Key Themes Advanced in the Framework?

Number One: Realistic Assumptions Frame the Discussion of Performance
The Framework is both realistic and positive about the possibilities for improvement. Courts are complex organizations that provide a unique set of services to the public, while being challenged to show they are fair, accessible, timely, and accountable. Balancing these competing values is a high-wire act, especially in lean budgetary times. Improvement and the pursuit of excellence are not easy. However, the Framework is grounded in the sensible belief that all courts can do better. Because no court is excellent in all respects, every court is capable of making positive headway.

More important, most court leaders want to improve their courts’ performance. But finding the starting point can be daunting. There is no shortage of available new "management solutions," including managerial approaches, technological applications, and human-resource plans. One problem is that most suggested solutions will not simply plug-and-play in the court environment. Courts offer their own management challenges that must be acknowledged if performance improvements are to take hold.

Consequently, the Framework embraces the notion that there is no single way to the top, or even the next peak. Courts are decentralized, so one size cannot fit all. As a result, the Framework does not assume an ideal or perfect archetype, but instead offers flexible approaches—or managerial ingredients—that can be applied under different circumstances.

In addition, the Framework underscores that the emphasis administrators place on administration is consistent with the legal value of procedural due process adhered to by judges. Procedural due process ensures that appropriate and just procedures are used throughout the court so that people feel they have been treated fairly. While court users may not speak in terms of procedural due process, they want results marked by the same key attributes, including a process that is fair, predictable, timely, and cost-effective. Therefore, the Framework’s ingredients should appeal to judges, administrators, and other staff, not just to one of these groups. All court personnel have something to contribute and gain from better ways of doing things.

Number Two: Employee Engagement Is Needed for High Performance
The Framework’s concept of how organizations, and certainly courts, become better is by getting everybody involved. Engaged employees at all levels are those who understand and are enthusiastic about their work and will act in a way that furthers the interests of the court and its customers. The suggested managerial ingredients have the greatest chance of success when court personnel trust one another and communicate openly. The goal is to create an environment where ideas are freely shared, a logical approach to establishing priorities exists, and there is a common commitment to orderly, timely, and responsible administration.

Clearly, judges need to be involved, too. The Framework takes into account the deep veins of autonomy and discretion that characterize many professions, including the judiciary. Loosely coupled relationships among judges inhibit current ways of doing business from even being discussed. Without a way to reach collective agreement on possible reforms, any court-wide improvement plans will face considerable uncertainty over the prospect of sustained success.

In response, the Framework focuses on building cohesion and consensus among personnel at all levels by systematically looking at organizational culture and its role in attaining high performance. The prospect for reform is greatly enhanced by diagnosing current cultural beliefs and expectations as a springboard for building the kind of culture best suited for improving long-term performance.

Number Three: High Performance Calls for Collegial Leadership
The Framework sees the roles of the chief judge and court administrator as facilitators of high performance, not autocrats. A top-down approach not only sparks controversy among judges, but is simply unrealistic because judges see themselves as a group of equals. At best, presiding judges are viewed as a first among equals—or an equal among firsts.

What a facilitating chief judge and court administrator can do is increase the span of control and keep a court on the desired and agreed-upon track by enlisting the support of other judges and selected staff in the form of a cadre. A cadre in touch with the tenor of the court leaders’ ideas can monitor the ingredients of performance closely and see to it that preferred practices become the norm.

Number Four: High Performance Integrates Multiple Innovations
The Framework synthesizes previous notions about improving courts with new concepts and provides a roadmap and tools for improvement. Readers will find parts of the Framework new and parts familiar, as it brings together many different ideas expressed in print and at conferences. The layout of the Framework encourages court leaders and managers to look at the big picture of the dynamics of court administration, while seeking to solve specific problems in a structured and sequential manner. Problem solving evolves in the form of a quality cycle, which is predicated on a data-driven approach to identify problems and an iterative evaluation of change. What follows is an overview of the basic, yet holistic, set of ingredients that define the High Performance Court Framework.

The High Performance Court Framework: Basic Ingredients

The Framework is intended to clarify what court leaders can do to guide their organizations in the direction of administrative performance consistent with procedural due process. It consists of five key managerial ingredients:

1. Administrative Principles: Judges and staff focus on principles that define and support the vision of high administrative performance.

2. Managerial Culture: Judges and staff work to build a culture committed to achieving high performance.

3. Performance Measurement: A court systematically assesses how successfully it is completing and following through on the goals it seeks to accomplish.

4. Performance Management: A court responds to performance results and develops its creative capacity in refining and changing administrative practices.

5. The Quality Cycle: A court engages in a dynamic, iterative process linking the four preceding concepts into a chain of action supporting ever-improving performance.

Administrative Principles

The Framework suggests that the character of high-performance administration derives from fundamental values and desired behaviors widely shared among judges and court staff. These values and corresponding behaviors lay out elements to look for in a well-run court. Among these elements are a series of administrative principles.

Every Case Receives Individual Attention. Giving individual attention to cases connotes a tension between each individual case and a judge’s caseload and, in fact, an entire court’s caseload. Judges know an appropriate amount of time is necessary to make the most correct decisions possible. Well-administered processes allow contending parties and attorneys to provide all relevant information, to present their respective sides of the case, and to respond to any questioning by a judge.

Individual Attention Is Proportional to Need. Judges and court staff must balance the desire to give every case individual attention and the responsibility to honor this desire in a world of substantial caseloads and finite time and resources. One way to reconcile the conflict between "individualized" attention and caseload imperatives is to apply the proportionality proposition, which states that every case should receive individual attention in direct proportion to what it warrants. More complicated, more serious cases should receive more time than less complex, less serious cases (see Ostrom and Hanson, 1999; Chapper and Hanson, 1983).

Decisions Demonstrate Procedural Justice. Research consistently shows positive experiences are shaped more by court users’ evaluations of how they are treated and whether the process seems fair. The administrative principle of procedural justice deals with the perception of fairness regarding court procedures and outcomes. Perceptions that procedures are fair and understandable influence a host of outcome variables, including satisfaction with the process, respect for the court, and willingness to comply with court rulings and orders—even if individuals do not like the outcome (see Burke and Leben, 2007).

Judges Control the Legal Process. A key development over the past 40 years is caseflow management, which blends the processes, techniques, and resources necessary to move a case effectively and efficiently from filing to resolution. A substantial benefit of greater court control over caseflow is that it can lead directly to more effective—and cost-effective—advocacy for all litigants. By using effective caseflow management policies, the court sets clear expectations for what is expected of attorneys at each event and what a judge will do if the expectations are not met (see Friesen, 1999; Ostrom and Hanson, 1999).

These administrative principles outline a vision of what a well-run court wants to achieve. Actual application of the principles will vary from court to court due to cultural differences.

Court culture classificationsManagerial Culture

High performance occurs when principles and practices correspond with each other. A key challenge for courts is creating a managerial culture conducive to making high performance an administrative reality. The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) provides a method for understanding court culture and a set of tools and techniques for diagnosing and, when appropriate, changing court culture (see Ostrom et al., 2007).

Following the methodology used successfully to understand managerial culture in the private sector (see Cameron and Quinn, 2006; Quinn and Rohrbaugh, 1983), NCSC research defines court culture as the beliefs and expectations judges and managers have about the way and the degree to which they individually and collectively affect the legal process. A key finding is that the components of court culture fall along two "dimensions."

The first dimension, solidarity, is the wide spectrum of beliefs on the extent to which it is important for judges and managers to work toward common ends. Solidarity refers to the degree to which a court has clearly understood shared goals, mutual interests, and common tasks. The second dimension, sociability, concerns the wide range of beliefs as to whether it is important for judges and managers to work cooperatively with one another. Sociability refers to the degree to which court personnel acknowledge, communicate, and interact with one another cordially.

NCSC’s approach constructs a classification scheme that systematically produces four distinguishable types of cultures: (1) communal, (2) networked, (3) autonomous, and (4) hierarchical. Each of the four cultures is a particular combination of solidarity and sociability.

An essential lesson learned from field research is that a high degree of solidarity is necessary to support performance initiatives. Hence, a challenge for court leaders is to encourage and facilitate collective decision making among individual judges on what is best for the whole court. As a result, by focusing on solidarity and building consensus, a court can reduce fragmentation and isolation, enabling it to apply the administrative principles.

Performance Measurement and Management

Performance measurement is a data-driven, systematic approach to determining whether and to what degree a court is high performing. High-performance courts are evidence-based in establishing success in meeting the needs and expectations of their constituents. The Framework offers a method of gathering information directly on performance and suggests ways courts can use the information to adjust practices.

Specifically, the use of CourTools (see National Center for State Courts, 2010), a common set of ten indicators and methods, is proposed as a method to capture reality in a meaningful and manageable way. The choice and formulation of the ten CourTools measures are shaped by three interrelated criteria:

Principles. The measures are aligned with the four administrative principles and help courts evaluate success in key areas such as providing access to justice, reducing delay, and ensuring fairness.

Balance. Achieving a balanced perspective means core performance measures should cover the most important dimensions of court performance and offer meaningful indicators of success in each area. A "balanced scorecard" entails both the idea of balance (e.g., unifying traditional case-processing measures like time to disposition with measures of access, procedural fairness, effective use of jurors, and court employee opinion) and the regular scoring of performance.

Feasibility. Integrating performance measurement into daily operations requires measures that are limited in number, readily interpretable, and durable over time. CourTools provides ten vital indicators of court performance that can be applied regularly.

Performance management relates to how a court responds to performance results and refines, updates, and adopts new practices in conjunction with its evolving priorities and changing circumstances. Therefore, a high-performing court is an "administratively activist" body, because it considers the consequences of its administrative practices and adjusts them in light of what it learns.

Quality cycle process graphic

Quality Cycle

The Framework logically extends performance management to include a series of flexible steps a court can take to integrate and implement ongoing performance improvement. In fact, the Framework forms a functional system that can be called a "quality cycle." The court administration quality cycle consists of five main steps: determining the scope and content of a problem, gathering information, analyzing, taking action, and evaluating the results.

In many courts, the road to high performance begins with a collegial willingness to see how the four administrative principles are working in practice and to use data to gauge what "working" means. In other words, when a court’s culture supports a commitment to high-quality service, there is ongoing attention to identifying and resolving administrative problems. A clear statement of a specific problem is the first step in organizing a court’s resources to effectively address it.

Collecting relevant data is the next key element of the quality cycle. The scope of assessment is a local option. A court can begin by consulting the Framework’s proposed set of performance areas and accompanying measures to gauge whether reality is consistent with expectations. For example, consider a court that is concerned with a growing backlog of family-law cases. They decide to compile data on time to disposition and age of the active pending caseload in family law, while also conducting an access-and-fairness survey of all litigants involved in the family-law case.

The third step in the cycle is interpreting the results from the data collection and drawing out their implications. Bringing data to bear helps judges, management, and staff to identify more clearly the real causes of the problems and what actions might be taken to solve them. For example, time-to-disposition data might show that family cases fail to meet benchmarks for timely case processing. Further investigation might reveal that many self-represented litigants are not clear on what actions are required to move their cases forward, leading them to feel ill-treated by the court. The result is family cases are taking longer and backlogs are increasing, while litigant—or customer—satisfaction is declining.

This step in the quality cycle is clearly iterative. Once the basic character of a problem is identified, additional information is gathered to further narrow and refine the problem. Court staff might examine data on the number of continuances in family cases, distinguishing whether litigants are pro se and soliciting input from family court judges. Such additional information allows the problem to be more succinctly stated as "family cases involving pro se litigants are continued at a greater rate, delaying these cases and increasing the workload of judges and staff."

The fourth step in the cycle fuses performance measurement and management. As new information emerges, potential business-process refinements and staff-capability improvements will naturally evolve. For example, with respect to pro se family-law cases, the court might redesign services to provide improved self-help resources in the law library; add a family-law coordinator; build up staff training for those working with pro se family-law litigants; ensure the issue is on the meeting agenda for the family-law bench; and collaborate with the local family-law bar to develop a legal clinic staffed by pro bono attorneys.

The fifth step involves checking to see whether the solutions have had the intended result. By gathering input from appropriate judges, court staff, and customers and monitoring the relevant performance indicators, the court determines if the problem is fixed. The goal is not to temporarily change performance numbers, but to achieve real and continuing improvements in the process and in customer satisfaction. For example, a court that has implemented a range of possible solutions for improving family-case processing will want to determine if updated performance-measure data show the problem has been resolved. If data show performance is still unacceptable or not meeting benchmarks, another round of problem assessment is required.

There is no one aspect of performance that must be every court’s entry point; rather, the Framework enables courts to address issues that correspond with their particular priorities, needs, and circumstances, all with an eye on higher performance.


High-performing courts engage in four essential activities regularly:

1. Develop a coherent vision based on a working consensus of guiding principles

2. Assess their strengths and weaknesses in light of evidence

3. Increase performance by refining practices and adopting new ones

4. Disseminate performance results openly and widely to diverse audiences

These activities work because high-performance courts are organized to anticipate challenges, prevent small problems from becoming larger, and learn from experience and data.