CTG UAlbany Study: E-Justice Websites Focus on Transparency but Lack Tools for Engagement

A study led by researchers at CTG UAlbany and Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Mexico finds that e-justice websites often make limited use of citizen participation tools. (Photo by Shutterstock)

ALBANY, N.Y. (Oct. 8, 2020) – The pressure to adopt information technologies has reached the judicial branch of government, but a study led by researchers at the Center for Technology in Government (CTG UAlbany) and Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Mexico, finds that e-justice websites often make limited use of citizen participation tools.

Publishing in the June 2020 edition of Social Science Computer Review, authors Rodrigo Sandoval-Almazan and J. Ramon Gil-Garcia found that while judicial websites include important features related to information access and transparency, they contain limited opportunities for citizen participation and collaboration.

The article, “Understanding E-Justice and Open Justice through the Assessment of Judicial Websites: Towards a Conceptual Framework,” examined 32 state judicial websites in Mexico. The literature reviewed to build the assessment framework was primarily focused on the United States and Europe and Mexico was only the case study. So, based on the results, the researchers propose a framework to understand e-justice and open justice that could be adapted for use in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“General trends toward greater transparency and more openness in the public sector have pushed judges, ministers, and lawyers to use emergent technologies and to provide more information online,” said Gil-Garcia, research director of CTG UAlbany and an associate professor of Public Administration and Policy at UAlbany’s Rockefeller College.

In fact, judicial agencies have created their own websites with diverse levels of technological sophistication and functionality, often with the intention of opening their processes and interacting with multiple stakeholders. In contrast to the executive branch, however, little is known about the structure, usability, content, and impacts of these websites.

There is also no clear understanding of how judicial websites could be used to better understand and assess electronic justice and open justice efforts. This was a driving factor for Sandoval-Almazan and Gil-Garcia in their efforts to analyze the sites and provide a framework for improving their functionality.

Using a longitudinal mixed-method research design, the authors analyzed the functionality of judicial websites and proposed a comprehensive assessment framework that not only evaluates the availability of information but also the participatory mechanisms related to e-justice and open justice.

“Judicial websites are the main information intermediary between constant users – lawyers, judges – and the infrequent users like citizens or researchers with an interest in the courts,” said Sandoval-Almazan, a professor of political and social sciences at a Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Mexico.

The researchers found that most judicial websites were focused on information disclosure and transparency rather than citizen participation or engagement, making only limited use of citizen participation tools.

“Our main argument is that the evaluation of Internet portals from the three branches of government must consider their specific goals, functions, and the different kinds of interactions they have with citizens, businesses, and other stakeholders,” continued Sandoval-Almazan. “For instance, judicial websites could be evaluated from a citizen’s perspective of open justice, focusing on the disclosure of data that are not legally restricted and that do not violate individual privacy.”

Further, the authors’ proposed components for the assessment model could be helpful in finding new ways to measure open justice as well overall judicial website performance as a representation of e-justice.

“We hope Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and webmasters of these judicial websites could potentially use the information from this study to target weaker areas of their sites and, for instance, increase their collaboration with lawyers and their interaction with the general public,” said Gil-Garcia. “Better websites could foster the implementation of open justice practices, but there is still a long way to go before achieving the ideals of open justice.”

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