I always say that I don’t object to a fight; I just object to a fair fight.  If I have to be in a fight, I want the big kid on my side.

At last June’s ImageSoft Government Summit, several speakers from courts that had gone through successful implementations of Electronic Content Management systems pointed out that in addition to sponsors, court IT projects need a Champion.  And while at first blush it may seem that the sponsors ARE the champions, that simply is not the case.

I think that, by definition, every project has a sponsor.  Someone has to provide the authority, resources, charter and business reason for the project.  Project managers may be many things, but (at least in the court space) they are not entrepreneurs rustling up their own funding and resources for their own business objectives.

However, far too many projects lack champions.  While sometimes there is a senior person who actively initiates and evangelically champions the effort, that is far from always the case.  And while smaller projects may not need a champion per se, large, transformational projects are extremely difficult to successfully execute without one.  In looking at leading reasons for court IT project failures, lack of an effective, committed champion is at or near the top of every list.

The conference speakers noted that, when it comes to champions, a committee really won’t do.  The need is for a very senior, committed individual.  The Champion will be the key person who personally makes the business and political case to the legislature, county commission or other funding authority.   Because courts are (at the federal, state and in most political subdivisions) a separate branch of government, it is absolutely best if the Champion can speak “peer-to-peer” with the legislative authority.  Thus a judge, particularly if he/she is the presiding or chief judge, is the obvious choice for a court.   The keynote speaker at the Government Summit, The Honorable John C. Foster, Chief Judge of Michigan’s 16th Judicial Circuit Court, provides an excellent example.

The involvement of Champion does not obviate or replace the need for the sponsor(s) and/or steering committees.  The Champion does not (at least primarily) bring the resources.  And, if there is at the outset no Champion, one of the first and most important challenges for the sponsors (say, a Steering Committee) should be to recruit one.

Identification and recruitment of an effective champion represents a significant challenge.  Being a champion of a transformational court IT initiative is not a hobby; and the best candidate will arguably be the busiest, hardest-to-schedule person in the organization.

The Sponsors and their staff will, of necessity, have to gain some familiarity with the technical choices.  The Champion, on the other hand, need not be (and usually is not)  particularly technically knowledgeable.

What the Champion DOES have to be is committed.  If there is a Champion who is already evangelical about the initiative, fantastic.  But, for that commitment to be effective, the Champion must be presented with, and have a clear grasp of,  the link between the strategic, existential needs of the court and the technological solution.

Some good ways to cultivate (and later educate) a Champion include

  • Attend conferences with a focus on court IT that have tracks specifically for sponsors and champions (such as The Government Summit; NCSC’s Court Technology Conference.
  • Visit courts that have successfully implemented the technology and arrange for that court’s Champion to speak with your Champion;
  • Arrange information sessions and demos with a vendor or vendors tailored to the Champion.

An effective Champion works both ways.  Naturally,  the Champion advocates for and defends the initiative both internally and externally.  Likewise, the Champion holds the sponsors, the project team, the court managers and staff, and the vendor accountable.

For IT projects to have a reasonable chance of success, it pays to get the big kid on your side.

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