Accountability and Resource Management – Annual Report 2021
The Judiciary is committed to adherence to the highest ethical standards, the sound stewardship of public funds, and the effective and efficient use of public resources.
A Safe and Respectful Workplace
In recent years, the Judiciary took substantial steps to strengthen policies, procedures, and organizational structures to help foster a safe and respectful workplace. Multiple avenues for employees to report workplace conduct concerns were created, including options for reporting anonymously and to points of contact outside the immediate employing office. The Judiciary also augmented long-standing prohibitions against workplace discrimination and harassment to include express protections against abusive conduct, even when harassing behavior is not discriminatory. Confidentiality policies were clarified to remove potential barriers and encourage reporting. And the Codes of Conduct and Judicial Conduct and Disability Rules were revised to emphasize that judges and Judiciary employees have a responsibility to take appropriate action if they learn of potential workplace misconduct, even if they are bystanders.
The emphasis on improving workplace culture continued unabated into 2021. The Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group (Working Group), in collaboration with Judicial Conference committees and Administrative Office (AO) advisory groups, led efforts to refine the Judiciary’s workplace policies. The revised Model Employment Dispute Resolution (EDR) Plan adopted by the Conference in 2019 clarified workplace conduct standards, streamlined procedures, and created a more flexible option for employees to resolve wrongful conduct concerns. As of 2021, all courts had an EDR plan, and over 90 percent had adopted a version of the revised Model EDR Plan.
“While we have accomplished much, we recognize there is additional work to do,” Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the AO Director, wrote in a letter (pdf) to congressional leaders in August 2021.
The Judiciary continued to engage internal and external stakeholders, seeking input on further improvements to its protections and raising awareness about the resources, systems, and points of contact dedicated to addressing workplace conduct issues. In August 2021, letters were sent to approximately 200 law schools across the country highlighting the Judiciary’s commitment to ensuring a safe and respectful workplace and emphasizing new positions at both the national and circuit level that serve as confidential resources for law school administrators to seek guidance or to report concerns.
The national Office of Judicial Integrity (OJI), headed by the Judicial Integrity Officer, serves as an independent resource outside of the courts’ traditional chain of command. It provides confidential guidance and advice to employees and employing offices about workplace protections, the formal and informal options available to address misconduct, and the rights provided under the EDR plans. The OJI collects information about the use of EDR processes across the Judiciary and monitors workplace issues to identify trends. The office also coordinates Judiciary-wide outreach, training, and education initiatives and supports the ongoing work of the Working Group.
All 13 circuits have a designated Director of Workplace Relations (DWR), who serves as a confidential resource and coordinates workplace initiatives within the circuit. DWRs provide confidential advice and guidance to employees and employing offices, receive reports of workplace issues, provide information about policies and procedures, and monitor the workplace environment for trends.
Together the OJI, circuit DWRs, and local court EDR coordinators form a national network of professionals who provide confidential advice and guidance to employees, managers, and judges on workplace concerns. The network supports or facilitates EDR processes, coordinates training programs, proposes policy initiatives, and collaborates on best practices to foster consistency across the courts and circuits. The Working Group and the DWR Advisory Group coordinate to provide guidance and insight to the AO on workplace relations issues.
All courts and employing offices are required to conduct annual training to ensure judges and employees understand workplace protections, the formal and informal processes available for addressing concerns, and the rights of Judiciary employees under the EDR plans. Training takes place throughout the year. In the fall of 2021, as a supplement to the multitude of training opportunities and initiatives by the courts and circuits, the OJI hosted a series of training sessions that were attended by more than 6,000 judges, managers, and employees.
The Judiciary has also expanded the ways it collects feedback from employees, from post-training surveys, to anonymous reporting forms, to the Judiciary-wide collection of EDR claims data. Several circuits have conducted climate surveys or exit surveys and established focus groups, all of which provide valuable feedback for the development of workplace initiatives and further refinement of policies and processes.
Office of Compliance and Risk
The AO’s Office of Compliance and Risk (OCR) initiated an enterprise risk management program in 2021 that reflects best practices in the federal government and private sector. The program will identify the top risks facing the AO, including internal control weaknesses flagged in external audits or by the Judiciary Data Integrity, Reporting, and Controls Program. It is designed to ensure that both external and internal risks are analyzed, addressed, and monitored by the AO’s leadership team. In addition, the OCR and other AO staff support the newly approved Risk and Financial Management Advisory Council as it focuses on Judiciary-wide financial risk and internal control issues.
The OCR was created in 2020 to enhance the AO’s ability to respond quickly to recommendations from audits, internal control reviews, and other reviews and studies. Placing the OCR within the executive offices is designed to enhance accountability and reassure the public and Congress that the Judiciary’s oversight mechanisms are operating effectively.
Strengthening Financial Reporting and Controls
The AO continued its five-year effort to strengthen Judiciary Data Integrity, Reporting, and Controls (JDIRC) and to produce consolidated annual statements of all Judiciary financial activity. Fully launched in 2020, the effort represents a best practice across public and private sectors and will ultimately strengthen the Judiciary’s internal control programs and ensure complete and accurate financial data for management decision making. When the initiative is completed, annual statements will include statements of assurance that internal controls are in place and operating effectively, and the Judiciary’s transparency and accountability to Congress and the public will be improved.
The project began with a comprehensive analysis of financial transactions and business processes across the Judiciary. The analysis covered AO, court, and federal public defender transactions.
The Judiciary’s Audit Program
The AO Office of Audit implemented new initiatives during 2021. A revamped program for audits in response to a change of clerk introduced a risk-based approach to evaluating processes and internal controls for a court unit audited when there is a new clerk of court. The approach will be piloted in appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts prior to full implementation. It will be available to all court units when there is a change in leadership.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Audit launched a remote audit program that made it possible for audits to continue both at the AO and at the courts. The audits assess the accuracy of the Judiciary’s financial statements and the effectiveness of internal controls that mitigate the risk of financial misstatement, fraud, waste, or abuse. They also assess compliance with significant laws, regulations, and Judiciary policy. The AO completed 101 audit reports of court units, federal defender organizations, and the six districts served by the bankruptcy administrator program, trustees, and debtors.
Electronic Bankruptcy Noticing
The Judiciary is reducing the high cost of bankruptcy noticing and improving efficiency by increasing the use of electronic bankruptcy noticing (EBN) and reducing the use of paper notices. An amendment to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, approved by the Judicial Conference in 2020, took effect on Dec. 1, 2021. It subjects high-volume paper notice recipients to mandatory electronic noticing and is expected to increase the rate of EBN to 60 percent of all notices. This will reduce annual costs by about $4.3 million when the amendment is fully in effect. Electronic noticing to creditors and debtors resulted in $10.3 million in cost avoidance in FY 2021 alone.
Solutions for Unclaimed Funds
The Judiciary is actively working to reduce over $320 million in unclaimed funds in the bankruptcy system. The Judicial Conference recommended that Congress consider imposing a five-year statute of limitations on applications to withdraw the funds, many of which have languished for years despite repeated attempts to locate and inform creditors. The Conference’s Bankruptcy Committee also recommended amending the Bankruptcy Court Miscellaneous Fee Schedule and the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure to assist with processing requests for the withdrawal of unclaimed funds. In September 2020, the Conference adopted the miscellaneous fee schedule revision and in 2021, the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure published an amendment to Bankruptcy Rule 3011 for public comment.
Strengthening Internal Audits for eVoucher
The AO in 2021 provided new guidance and training to strengthen internal controls and audit processes for the eVoucher system, which is used to process payments to private attorneys appointed by the federal courts under the Criminal Justice Act to represent people who are financially unable to retain counsel. In March, a new eVoucher user security and audit procedure guide was published, followed by six virtual training sessions for eVoucher administrators in district courts, courts of appeals, and federal defender organizations. The new guidance and training followed a multi-year effort to enhance audit, reporting, and security capabilities in the system. A standardized security model for consistent implementation across all court units was also developed. The changes are designed to improve compliance with the Judiciary’s policies for financial and IT systems.
Web-Based Collections of Receipts
In June 2021, the Automated Collections Register was successfully implemented in an initial round of district and bankruptcy courts. The new, web-based automated collection and receipting application will replace older systems and allow greater efficiencies, including point-of-sale receipting. Courts can quickly generate receipts from various sources such as walk-in customers, mail-in collections, and wire transfers. It was designed in partnership with several courts with a focus on user experience. After the system is tested and improvements are made in the initial round, there will be a national rollout to all the courts.
Government Accountability Office Studies
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) regularly examines Judiciary operations. In 2021, it worked on two significant studies.
Asset Management Planning: Begun in 2020, the study examined the Judiciary’s asset management planning (AMP) process, a comprehensive facility planning tool designed to identify industry best practices. During the pandemic, the AO and the courts hosted virtual courthouse tours to allow GAO to continue the study. The AO provided information showing that the AMP process rigorously assesses each courthouse to determine current and future space needs, identifies preliminary housing solutions as needed, and calculates the relative urgency versus that of other courts nationally.
In its final report, the GAO found several minor data and methodology issues and made three recommendations: 1) The AO should update assessment scores, as appropriate, to reflect major changes in a courthouse’s operating status; 2) The AO should evaluate the AMP scoring methodology’s three-part process to ensure its effects align with the AMP’s goals and are made transparent to Judiciary decisionmakers; and 3) The AO should better document for Judiciary decisionmakers the criteria applied in certain statistical methodology it uses. The Judiciary is evaluating ways to further develop and improve the AMP program.
IT Acquisitions and Contract Management; Use of Electronic Public Access Funds; and Fraud, Waste, and Abuse Processes: The study stems from a 2019 inquiry by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which asked the GAO to review the AO’s: 1) acquisitions, procurement, and IT project management practices; 2) IT workforce planning; 3) controls over the use of electronic public access fees; and 4) procedures for handling fraud, waste, and abuse complaints.
The initial study focused on fraud, waste, and abuse processes, particularly the ways in which the AO and courts handle claims suggesting loss due to fraud. The GAO identified three IT projects to focus on: the automated probation and pretrial services case tracking system, an enterprise facilities management system. and the Judiciary’s electronic financial disclosure filing system. The study was ongoing at year’s end.