Developing hard, quantitative standards of spending efficiency should be a priority for a state in California’s financial position. But efforts toward developing such standards have been placed on indefinite hold in the state’s trial court system. As the judicial branch’s budget was tightened in 2008, the Administrative Office cut funding to a promising project on “Implementing Performance Management in the California Courts,” which sought to develop “clear and comprehensible information on fair, efficient, and affordable court services.” We have no doubt someone in the Administrative Office saw the irony of saving money by cutting a program meant to increase efficiency and thereby (presumably) save money.
Appreciation of irony aside, the researchers at California Common Sense—a Stanford based “fact-tank” (think think-tank with less opinion and more facts)—realized the importance of introducing quantitative standards of spending efficiency to the state’s Superior Court system. And so we produced an analysis meant as an important step toward doing exactly that.
The core of our analysis is the construction of a comparative spending model. The model takes into account the number of each type of legal filing, disposition, and trial (e.g., felony trials, limited civil disposition, small claims filings) to come up with an estimate of how much courts, on average, spend on a given caseload. Comparing that average to how much any given court actually spends gives a preliminary indication of how efficiently that court spends its funds to process legal proceedings. Most importantly, the analysis finds a strong underlying relationship between caseload and spending, which suggests that this method has real promise for measuring court-spending efficiency.
This approach to understanding government offers a great potential that is not limited to the Superior Court system. Developing quantitative standards of spending efficiency in all areas of the California government would allow policymakers to eliminate inefficient spending systems, replicate efficient ones, and generally hold government entities accountable to the standard of what comparable entities spend. California cannot make the grave decisions its fiscal situation demands if it is ignorant as to how efficiently its own government operates. But there is always recourse to ignorance—and the recourse is a new, perhaps even revolutionary, data-driven method for thinking about government.
ABOUT CACS | California Common Sense (CACS) is a Stanford-based nonprofit devoted to opening government financial data to the public, informing Californians about governmental inefficiencies, and promoting effective and efficient government policies.