Online Processes in Agency Adjudication

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Agencies can improve their adjudicatory processes by broadening access to their electronic case management systems.

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Millions of people each year navigate federal agencies’ adjudication systems to access benefits and services, answer charges of legal noncompliance, and settle disputes with third parties, among other actions. Individuals participating in these systems often expend substantial time and resources completing forms, submitting evidence and arguments, and monitoring their cases. And agencies expend substantial time and resources processing submissions, managing dockets, and providing case updates.

Agencies that engage in adjudication face many challenges in discharging their obligations to parties that come before them, most significantly how to balance the efficiency of their adjudicative systems against the quality of the decisions issued. As one approach to improve efficiency and accuracy, an agency can use an electronic case management system (eCMS) to organize evidence and other critical documents required for its adjudicative proceedings and make those documents more accessible to their employees.

But internal productivity, case flow, consistency, and quality are only half of an adjudication system. In recent years, members of the public have spent billions of hours annually on paperwork for executive agencies. By opening their eCMSs to members of the public, their appointed representatives, and other persons involved in adjudicatory proceedings, agencies can further promote productivity, shorten processing time, and improve the consistency and quality of the adjudication experience.

To achieve these goals, and to fulfill legal obligations to develop electronic business processes, agencies have increasingly deployed online processes by which parties, their representatives, and other interested persons can perform routine tasks such as filing, serving, and viewing forms, briefs, evidence, and other case records or materials.

In recognition of these developments, the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) engaged me to prepare a report on online processes in agency adjudication. This project built off of two prior ACUS studies, which resulted in ACUS Recommendations 2018-3 and 2021-10. These earlier projects studied how agency personnel could use electronic case management systems to increase efficiency in case processing and increase quality by capturing and utilizing structured data. Both of these recommendations were discussed previously in The Regulatory Review.

The most recent project built on those earlier projects by looking closely at how agencies could open their systems to outside users. By doing so, agencies could increase efficiency by allowing users to input documents, other files, and collected data into the system directly, eliminating the need for parties to print submissions and fax or mail them to the agency, as well as eliminating the need for agency staff to scan mailed or faxed submissions and ensure they are associated with the proper case file. The systems could also communicate to those users information housed in eCMSs, such as the status of cases, giving immediate answers to user queries and eliminating the need for agency staff to field status calls. In this sense, the project was inspired by Executive Order 14058, which encouraged agencies to digitize services and forms and to reduce the administrative burden on both the public and agency staff.

Some agencies began developing these tools many years ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic spurred even more to do so in recent years. As such, my recent report to ACUS serves as a first draft of a very recent history—a taxonomy of systems that agencies have deployed, often very quickly and under difficult operational circumstances.

This history continues to develop rapidly. Just this summer, several new developments have emerged. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs published a proposed rule that would allow electronic notifications of claims decisions. The Social Security Administration issued an emergency message to notify technicians about a new online service option that customers can use to submit certain evidence and forms electronically. The Federal Labor Relations Authority implemented an interim final rule to enable parties to permit the agency to serve them by email. And the U.S. Senate reported a measure that would establish a temporary task force to coordinate efforts to develop digital identity verification systems.

My report to ACUS addressed these types of proposed tools—and ACUS Recommendation 2023-4, adopted June 15th, covers proposed best practices for them. In researching my report, I spoke to nearly two dozen agency staff members from a dozen agencies—including adjudicators, prosecuting attorneys, and legal assistants. I was heartened to hear that all of them were enthusiastic about the systems that their agencies had built, and they felt that those systems had improved efficiency and quality for their agencies.

But I was even more impressed when I spoke with a dozen representatives who practiced before some of our most high-volume adjudicative systems, who were also extremely enthusiastic about the systems that agencies had built and how those systems improved their experiences in practicing before those agencies.

That said, everyone agreed that there was still work to be done, and my interviews identified many improvements that could be made.

Generally speaking, agencies have developed three types of online adjudicatory processes. First, and most commonly, they have created online means for filing motions, evidence, and other adjudicatory documents.

Second, many agencies have created online customer portals. At the simplest level, these portals provide an easy way to file electronically, such as via a web interface. But many agencies have also provided additional functions with their portals, such as tools for case management, updates on case status, and even estimates of the expected time until the next stage of a proceeding. Also, many of these customer portals allow users to change addresses, add or remove representatives associated with the case, and to pay filing fees or provide direct-deposit information.

Third, many agencies have also created online forms and templates. These often comprise fillable PDF documents that can be used for common filings, such as notices of appearance or subpoena requests, or even more involved tasks, such as completing applications for benefits or immigration. Some agencies have begun converting their PDF forms to online questionnaires. Some of these online systems can prepopulate answers with information already in the agency’s possession. Some use decision trees, so that early answers by users reduce the options of subsequent questions. For example, if users answer that they are married, they may be asked questions about their spouses; however, if they answer that they are not married, questions about spouses are never presented.

Agencies grouped themselves into three categories as to how they developed and used online tools and processes. Agencies without eCMSs tended to adapt their prior paper mailing processes to an email filing-and-service system. Formal adjudicative systems with back-end eCMSs tended to operate customer portals that offered little functionality beyond electronic filing. Mass adjudication systems, such as those making determinations on benefits applications, offered the most robust of customer portals.

The findings from my report underlie ACUS’s Recommendation 2023-4. Directed to all federal agencies, this recommendation provides best practices for all online processes at any stage of development. In many respects, ACUS’s recommendation can be read as a roadmap that agencies can follow, no matter how advanced their systems.

Agencies without eCMSs will find best practices for establishing a flexible, reliable system for electronic filing and service by email or secure file transfer protocol. Agencies with eCMSs will find best practices for developing and then expanding customer-facing electronic-filing systems that will be accessible to parties that come before them. They can then maximize the collection of useful, structured data.

Agencies that prefer to build more robust customer-service web portals will find best practices for tools that have been shown in pilot studies to encourage engagement and reduce frustration by users.

Like my underlying report, ACUS’s recommendation does not tell agencies what specific process is best for their adjudicatory proceedings. That question is best answered by internal agency officials who know the resources and needs of their system. But agencies that come to the ACUS recommendation knowing their needs and capacities will find helpful advice on next steps to develop their processes, drawn from the experiences of their fellow adjudicative agencies.

Matthew A. Gluth is the Deputy Research Director with the Administrative Conference of the United States.

The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Administrative Conference or the federal government.

This essay is one of a four-part series on Using Technology to Improve Administration.