Diane Cowdrey: Navigating Judicial Education in Great Change

Diane Cowdrey

Interview by Christal P. Keegan, Esq.

Diane Cowdrey
Diane Cowdrey

The NASJE Communications Committee will endeavor to periodically feature a spotlight on a NASJE member who has demonstrated tremendous efforts while “Navigating Judicial Education in Great Change.” The Committee members have voted to highlight NASJE member Diane Cowdrey (CA) who led the restructuring of the Center for Judiciary Education and Research (CJER) during the meltdown of the economy and the fiscal crisis for California’s judicial branch beginning in early 2008. Diane is the Director of CJER, in the Operations and Programs Division, Judicial Council of California.

Keegan: It is my understanding that reductions in personnel over the past several years have necessitated a restructuring of CJER. Examining what took place behind the reductions revealed that the restructuring efforts were calculated very carefully and included tremendous changes. I imagine it was challenging to ensure the budget reductions were structured to minimize the impact of the courts while maintaining access to high quality judicial education. Have the restructuring efforts met your expectations of creating efficiencies while maintaining high quality education? What other fine-tuning does the restructuring need? What advice do you have for other states that are considering restructuring of staff?

Cowdrey: I’ll begin with some background. California has undergone a huge amount of change within the judicial branch over the past five years. California’s judicial branch is the largest state judicial branch in the nation. It is governed by the Judicial Council of California, and includes 58 superior courts (trial courts), six courts of appeals and the Supreme Court. Trial courts are organized by county, with more than 500 courthouses statewide. There are more than 2,000 judicial officers, and approximately 19,000 employees who were responsible for processing the nearly 7.7 million case filings in fiscal year 2012-13.

The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) was created by the Judicial Council in 1961 to provide administrative support to the Council and to the trial and appellate courts. CJER was created in 1973 by the Judicial Council and the California Judges Association to ensure stable funding and an effective structure for judicial education. An advisory committee to the Council, the CJER Governing Committee, is responsible for judicial branch education policy and strategic planning.  Paul Li was hired as the first CJER Director, followed by Cathy Lowe and Karen Thorson. I took the Director position in early 2008, just prior to the meltdown of the economy, the resulting impact on state budgets, and beginning of the fiscal crisis for California’s judicial branch.

In January 2011, then-Governor Schwarzenegger appointed Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye as the new Chief Justice. In California, the Chief Justice presides over the Supreme Court as well as serving as the head of the policy making body, the Judicial Council. In March 2011, the new Chief Justice created the Strategic Evaluation Committee (SEC) to conduct an in-depth review of the AOC, with the intention of obtaining a fuller understanding of the organization, and creating transparency, accountability and efficiency. At that time, the AOC was facing severe criticism during the fiscal crisis. The Legislature reduced funding for the branch by 1.2 billion (25%) since fiscal year 2010-2011, necessitating the closure of courthouses and courtrooms, reduced hours, limited days of service, and reductions in staffing. Layoffs, furloughs, and unfilled vacancies occurred in the trial and appellate courts, as well as at the AOC.

The report of the SEC in May 2012 resulted in 124 recommendations for the operation of the AOC, with a particular focus on the reduction of staff and an increased emphasis on the core services provided to the courts. Restructuring within the AOC took on a greater urgency after the SEC report was released. The structure and leadership of the AOC underwent many changes. Between 2011 and 2014, there were five different administrative directors, and a large turnover in executive positions. The organizational structure changed dramatically, including the elimination of the Deputy Director position, and in July 2014, the Judicial Council changed the name of the agency. No longer the AOC, the organization was renamed the Judicial Council, to indicate clearly that we were the staff agency of the Judicial Council of California.

Within CJER, changes occurred, in part, due to the recommendations of the SEC Report. Since July 2011, the total number of employees working in CJER was 100. By January 2015, that number has dropped to 44, a reduction of nearly 60%. About one-half of the reduction is due to restructuring, wherein many employees and job functions were moved to a centralized department. Previously, CJER included staff responsible for printing and mail services, conference planning and registration services, audio-visual services, review of audio-visual infrastructure in new capital projects, and support of conference facilities. Most of these staff and functions are now located in a separate administrative unit. They continue to support CJER, but are not a part of our organization. The other one-half of the reduction in staff is due to layoffs, natural attrition, and the elimination of vacant positions. In addition to staffing reductions, CJER sustained significant budget reductions, including a nearly 60% reduction in funding for programs for the trial courts.

With that as a backdrop of what occurred during this period of tremendous change and reduction, it was important to identify and maintain priorities in order to manage to continue to provide judicial branch education during this period. Judicial educators want to be able to provide a wide range of programs and services to judges and court staff; however, when reducing staff and budgets, it is imperative to identify core functions and services. Before reductions were made, CJER staff and the CJER Governing Committee identified the priorities that needed to be maintained. For example, one priority for CJER is education for new judges. CJER has three separate programs for all new judges appointed or elected to judicial office:  New Judge Orientation (one week program), the B.E. Witkin Judicial College (two-week program), and a Primary Assignment Orientation (one week).  Judges are required by rule to take these programs within specific timeframes, and they are essential programs to orient new judges to their new role and responsibilities. Because these programs were considered as the highest priority, they were protected during many of the budget cuts, only making minor changes to reduce costs.

Another priority was quality. We never made cuts that would impact the quality of the programming or the services we provided. For instance, we have a planning process that uses staff and nine separate curriculum committees to determine the education to be delivered within a specific two-year period. This two-year education plan is based on available staffing and funding, and CJER conducts a resource analysis of our staff to make sure we have sufficient attorneys, educational specialists, conference coordinators and others to provide the amount of quality programming and resources desired by the curriculum committees. We carefully estimate what our staff can produce, so everyone has sufficient time and resources to maintain the quality of the work. CJER’s reputation is based on years of high quality judicial branch education, and we would rather reduce the number of programs and products than continue to provide that same number of programs and products, but at a lower level of quality.

My advice to other judicial educators considering restructuring is to make sure you have a set of priorities that you use in making decisions, and that set of priorities must be created in collaboration with stakeholders. Quality must be included; if you lose your reputation for providing excellent judicial education, it is difficult to regain. Judges and court staff will seek education from other sources, and/or your organization will become marginalized. Keep the quality and keep the faith that funding will become available in the future. If you continue to maintain quality programming, stakeholders will continue to value it, and, as resources improve in the future, to increase your funding.

Keegan: In response to budget reductions, I understand CJER moved its programs to an AOC facility instead of offering programs in an off-site venue and ramped up their delivery of online education products (broadcasts, videoconferencing, WebEx, short online education products, and filming the live face-to-face sessions) which in comparison to face-to-face trainings is a much lower-cost delivery method of education due to savings in the time and cost of travel. Has this been successful? How has it been received by your participants? What challenges have you faced, particularly in offering more online education products, and how did you overcome them?

Cowdrey: As all judicial educators know, live, face-to-face programs are the most expensive. While they are also some of the most effective types of education and appropriate especially for judges, who value the opportunity to interact with their colleagues, face-to-face programs are often the earliest target in budget reductions. The earliest reductions in programming were aimed at some of the large, face-to-face programs held in off-site venues, where judges from around the state came together to hear from expert faculty, and to share experiences and learn from one another. One of the major efficiencies CJER used was to increase distance education. Instead of bringing judges to a central location to hear from faculty, we brought faculty to our office where we could create a video presentation and post that video online for all judges to view. When it worked educationally, we produced video presentations, short online resources, and webinars instead of having live, face-to-face education. We developed in-house expertise in WebEx and trained staff and faculty on creating effective webinars. When appropriate, we created blended education which shortened the live (i.e., expensive) portion of a course and used WebEx (i.e., less expensive) to convey content that could be provided effectively using that delivery method. CJER expanded different models of delivering live programs, and increased regional programs (smaller, shorter courses held around the state) that did not generally require hotels or travel costs. We developed a course catalog that allowed presiding judges to request a course, with CJER paying travel faculty costs. That gave local courts the ability to hold courses at little or no cost, and was low cost for CJER. Staff time that was freed by reducing the large, face-to-face programs was now utilized with these additional delivery methods.

We also moved as many of our programs to on-site venues to reduce the high cost of holding programs at hotels. Because many courts were also in fiscal crisis, they did not generally complain about this change, since their courts were also implementing austerity measures. Our focus was to find ways to provide education at reduced costs, and we looked for approaches and delivery methods that could fulfill that goal.

Efficiencies were critical in being able to continue to provide education to the branch, and the biggest focus was the most efficient delivery method. However, I continued to emphasize effectiveness and quality, and decisions were made using all of these variables. When planning the two-year education plan, staff and curriculum committees refer to a chart that was developed to indicate which delivery methods are appropriate for achieving certain types of educational goals (attached). One year, when we had to severely reduce the cost of faculty development, we created an online newsletter with information, articles and tips for faculty, and instituted a series of short webinars for experienced judicial faculty. CJER staff was extremely innovative in trying to find ways to effectively deliver education and serve our many audiences at the least cost.

Because of the expanded use of other delivery methods, it was important to obtain feedback about the change. We added a question to our standard evaluation tool:  “There are many ways to deliver education (e.g., live, program, webinar, broadcast).  Were the methods used for this course effective? Why or why not?” Responses from this one question were collected systematically so we could gauge the feedback. As much as many judges and court staff appreciated the use of distance education, many were disappointed by the reductions in live programs. We also surveyed judges to ascertain their feedback about the various delivery methods used and specifically about distance education and the resources available to them online. Responses from the evaluation and feedback from the 2013 survey indicated that many judges were using the online toolkits and resources, but wanted more live programming. Although the financial situation in California does not yet allow us to provide that, CJER has collected data to demonstrate the continued need and I use it when addressing policy makers.

Input from stakeholders was very important. Decisions around budget reductions were always made in collaboration with the CJER Governing Committee, and by using relevant, available data. When reductions were made, that information was clearly communicated so judges and court executive officers could plan for the next year. Additionally, one of the recommendations arising from the SEC report, was to utilize a cost/benefit analysis for any program that was high cost, justifying why that particular program needed to be delivered using that high cost method. The CJER Governing Committee and the curriculum committees, with staff, complete these forms.

Keegan: What efforts are currently in progress (for example, reorganizing the education webpages)?

Cowdrey: One project that was put into high gear was the redesign of CJER’s web pages. Over the years, it had developed into a less-than-ideal format, organized by delivery method and not by how a user would want to access the information and resources. A redesign effort was languishing and with budget reductions and the increase in distance education, it was imperative to move the project along quickly, with input from users. The newly redesigned webpage, CJER Online, incorporated feedback from users and was organized into “toolkits.” The toolkits were primarily the assignment areas that judges and court staff worked such as criminal law, civil law, family, probate, as well as areas such as ethics, access and fairness, and leadership. All online products were categorized into the toolkits, with accordions that expanded and contracted for ease of use. CJER Online is also integrated with a program calendar and registration, so users can explore current programs and register for them, without having to leave the site. Response to the redesign has been enthusiastic and positive.

We are also exploring new ways to deliver education and resources in our mobile-oriented environment, such as podcasts and short screencasts that judges and court staff can use as needed. CJER continues to examine our business processes to ensure that we are being as efficient as possible while ensuring that our staff has what they need to develop quality programming and resources. Our new Administrative Director, Martin Hoshino, has been aboard for six months, and has brought a positive energy as well as a strongly needed sense of stability to the staff of the Judicial Council. He recognizes the important role that CJER plays in helping to ensure the fair and impartial administration of justice for all Californians.

Keegan: As part of your programmatic reductions and operation efficiencies, can you tell me about the effectiveness of reducing the number of evaluations for each program and the use of online evaluations? Did this change effect the value of feedback you received? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

Cowdrey: One efficiency that didn’t work as well as we had hoped was to use online evaluation forms. We implemented this for a couple years, but changed back to the paper forms because the decrease in completion was very compelling. Again, quality was the key factor. Not having the data from evaluations was a problem and if going back to the paper version was going to achieve a higher completion rate, then that was the right direction to take, even if it is the “low tech” and less efficient method.

Keegan: Is there anything else you would like to add that might be helpful to other judicial educators in states that are undergoing a restructuring or that are in a position to consider restructuring?

Cowdrey: My advice:

  • As the director, I tried to maintain a positive attitude about change with staff, and would talk about how we needed to be “fluid” in the changing environment. If there was a significant issue, I’d call a short staff meeting to update people.
  • In the restructuring, at times, people would be asked to do something new, or to work in an area that was unfamiliar to them. We looked at these situations as a positive, as a way to allow staff to stretch and try something new. Most were positive about the change, and as much as was possible, we worked with them to go in directions they were interested in.
  • In the midst of change, it is important to have some kind of practice that grounds you. My meditation practice does that for me. Others have a regular exercise practice. It is critical to have good self-care during periods of change and stress.
  • Good leaders are always looking at ways to improve their work and their organizations; however, it’s important to know when to stop improving and give people time to rest, recover, and integrate the change. Just like in planning education, timing and pacing are important in the change process.

Supplemental Materials

Education Delivery Options and Instructional Activities Matrix – PDF