Improving Timeliness in Agency Adjudication

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Agencies should investigate the factors affecting adjudication timeliness and subsequently adopt the appropriate ACUS recommendations for improvement.

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It is often said that justice delayed is justice denied. This holds true for administrative adjudication—the legal process by which federal agencies resolve disputes between the government and individuals or entities. Concerns frequently arise about the time it takes for agencies to adjudicate cases. For example, media reports and congressional hearings frequently decry the effects of long wait times, especially on vulnerable populations.

Federal agencies are under constant pressure to process and decide cases promptly. Yet, when making decisions, adjudicators not only must pursue timeliness, they must also remain sensitive to other values such as decisional quality, due process, procedural fairness, and program integrity. These constitutional and statutory requirements, combined with each agency’s unique mission and resources, create complexities when agencies seek to address backlogs and delays in their adjudicatory decision making.

Because of these and other complexities, there has been little systematic study across time and agencies of the factors that contribute to administrative delays or of the measures agencies have adopted to improve the speed of decision-making while preserving its quality. In a report to the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS), we began to fill that gap.

We examined how agencies and Congress could foster an organizational culture of timeliness in administrative adjudication and devise plans to address increased caseloads, delays, backlogs, and other timeliness concerns. Based on our report, we worked with ACUS to develop Recommendation 2023-7, adopted in December 2023, which provides a general framework for improving timeliness in agency adjudication consistent with principles of fairness, accuracy, and efficiency.

Our work highlights an enormous diversity in administrative adjudicatory processes. For example, some federal agencies conduct adjudications to determine whether an applicant is eligible for a benefit, license, permit, certification, or other entitlement. Other agencies adjudicate conflicting claims by multiple private parties. Still others determine if a regulated entity has violated the law. Procedurally, these adjudications range from adversarial to inquisitorial in nature, and they offer varying levels of appeal.

Furthermore, the average time agency adjudicative processes take varies. Even within the same program or agency, expectations for timeliness differ depending on factors such as the nature, source, and volume of evidence needed to adjudicate, the role of the agency in developing the administrative record, and the sophistication of interested parties.

Despite the diversity in administrative adjudication and expectations for timely decision-making, our report highlights some common factors that can slow adjudication.

Many agencies inherit timeliness problems from other agencies and programs, since the creation of a new agency or transfer of authority from an existing agency is often a response to prior administrative failures. Yet, when restructuring programs, policymakers spend comparatively less effort on considering solutions to these problems or identifying how an agency will absorb its new authority.

In addition, an agency’s organizational features can influence its ability to adjudicate in a timely manner. Structural aspects such as agency size, complexity, degree of centralization and hierarchy, and standard operating procedures can affect how quickly an agency can process cases.

The characteristics of an administrative program can also impact timeliness. For example, the types of claims that an agency adjudicates, the population it serves, and how the agency organizes its adjudicative processes all can affect the speed at which adjudicators can decide cases.

And, of course, an agency’s capacity to decide cases promptly is dependent upon its financial, human capital, and technological resources. These resources and the agency’s overall policy environment, however, can change abruptly due to factors outside of an agency’s control, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

In adapting to these factors and seeking to maintain effective adjudicative processes, agencies adopt policies that safeguard against lapses in program integrity. These policies help prevent waste, fraud, abuse, or similar barriers to decision-making quality and efficiency, but they can result in additional delays or be incompatible with making decisions quickly.

As a result of these factors and the variations in administrative adjudication, there is no single answer to addressing timeliness concerns. Each agency must define its own approach to timeliness, taking into account its own unique task environment, caseload, and resources. Some commonalities, however, exist across all agencies with respect to achieving high-quality, timely performance.

For instance, any attempt to improve timeliness in agency adjudication must begin with a full understanding of the foundational causes of timeliness concerns and how those causes impact different aspects of an agency’s adjudicative system. To achieve this understanding, agencies should collect the data necessary to accurately monitor and detect changes in case processing times. Agencies should also communicate often with interested persons, both within and outside the agency, to obtain feedback and information about expectations for adjudication timelines.

Once an agency has a full understanding of the factors that affect timeliness and the potential adjustments it can make to address those factors, the agency should engage in significant strategic planning to identify a path forward, set priorities, and promote innovation.

The agency then must implement that plan efficiently and effectively. ACUS has adopted many recommendations in this area that can help agencies identify organizational, procedural, technological, case management, and other techniques to promote timeliness.

Finally, agencies should take full advantage of technological advances and limit reliance on paper-based processes. When appropriate, this may include automating routine tasks that do not require a significant exercise of discretion. Because technology can help agencies more effectively store, analyze, calculate, and process information, an agency’s use of technology can enhance its operational efficiency by reducing costs, increasing productivity, and improving the quality of adjudication.

In sum, agencies and their adjudication programs are extraordinarily complex systems.  It is no easy feat for policymakers to promote timeliness in these systems while simultaneously promoting other values of administrative adjudication. Our study and Recommendation 2023-7 can help agencies promote timeliness in administrative adjudication and devise plans to address increased caseloads, delays, backlogs, and other timeliness concerns when they arise.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the Administrative Conference or the federal government.

This essay is part of a series of essays titled, “Moving Administrative Processes Forward, Together.”