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Shared Services Help Federal Courts Weather Difficult Times

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Across the United States, federal courts are developing plans to voluntarily share administrative services. It’s part of the federal Judiciary’s effort to contain costs and manage resources in a difficult budget climate.

Shared Administrative Services (SAS) is a business model often used in the private sector to control costs and improve services. The federal courts hope it will produce similar results for them.

"Different court units sharing the services of staff and other resources to perform ongoing administrative services results in a reduction of personnel and costs for those services," said Judge Julie A. Robinson, chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management (CACM). "The Committee believes that voluntarily sharing administrative services can help courts both to address the impact of a budget unlikely to meet our full funding requirements and establish a sustainable approach to what will most likely be an austere budget environment for many years."

In September 2012, the Judicial Conference adopted several recommendations aimed at implementing SAS in the courts, including CACM’s recommendation that each district adopt a SAS plan. Also in 2012, courts received the budget authority to fund shared administrative services among court units, regardless of type, geographical location, or judicial district or circuit. As an example of the use of this authority, the District of Nebraska recently used the skills of the Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) coordinator in the District of Columbia to update and test its own COOP.

Alec Leddy, a Director’s Leadership Program Resident and clerk of court for the District of Maine, is working on the SAS initiative with managers from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. He’s assisting with analysis of SAS plans and has helped to set up an internal online clearinghouse for the various approaches to shared administrative services.

"SAS plans proposed by the various districts range from a share-everything style to a more incremental approach that depends on staff attrition," said Leddy. "An online clearinghouse will serve as a resource for courts to see what others are doing. We’ll also create SAS models and provide guidance as courts develop and expand voluntary shared service arrangements."

Shared administrative services may present opportunities for courts to increase expertise, effectiveness, and efficiency and generally to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s money.

"Sharing administrative services," said Leddy, "may help courts retain highly skilled people. Potentially, courts that need specialized skills can buy services by the hour or the project from another court. Some courts are even splitting salaries and sharing employees."

As an example, Leddy points to the valuable training programs produced by the bankruptcy court in the Central District of California. Other bankruptcy and district courts could take advantage not only of the programs, but also the expertise of the in-house staff who produced the programs.

A recent internal study of courts already sharing services showed that those court units employed somewhat fewer administrative employees than non-sharing courts, with the differences increasing as court size increased. 

"SAS is an essential element of the Judiciary’s cost-containment program," said Robinson, "and the Judicial Conference and its Committees are dedicated to this important initiative and to helping courts as they manage dwindling resources in the current economic climate."

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