Moving from transmission to collaboration

April 30, 2001

The recently published Court Service consultation paper ‘Modernising theCivil Courts’, though containing many proposals which offer incrementalimprovement, nevertheless falls short of the transformation that could beachieved. The reason for this is simply that the Court Service is following atraditional ‘transmission’ model and not a collaborative one.

In an article published in the last issue of this magazine, I set out toexplain why the so-called ‘next generation’ technologies can be trulyvaluable to professionals and clients alike. In this article I will look at thebroader landscape of business and professional services on the one hand, andwhat is being called ‘joined-up justice’ on the other. I identify where Isee the opportunity for transformation and offer my own vision for acommunications platform that meets the common and individual needs of privateand public sector alike.

In the course of this article I will refer to two distinct groups:

Government – including national and local government, regulatoryauthorities (such as the Patent Office, Companies House) and bodies such as theLegal Services Commission and the Small Business Service

Citizen – individuals and all forms of commercial operations, national orotherwise, and their professional service providers

Transmission vs. Collaboration

We communicate today in a transmission paradigm. To achieve transformationrather than just automation we must move to a collaborative paradigm.

When we communicate, other than by direct speech, we reduce the substance ofour communication to some documented form. That document is then transmitted,either physically or, nowadays, electronically. When one sends to another, thesender keeps a record of what was sent and of its despatch; the receiver keepswhat was received and a record of its receipt. The inevitable result is themaintenance of duplicate, or more often non-duplicate, records ofcorrespondence.

In a collaborative paradigm, all involved operate within the same systemsinfrastructure. A collaborative system essentially comprises a self-containedsoftware and data environment – providing a common ‘enclosure’ with entrysecurity; a common workplace with private workspaces; a common data store withindividual access control. In such a system the system itself managespublication by the sender and notification to the recipient, providing a recordof those actions and access to the relevant document.

Consequently, documents and the information they contain may be ‘shared’instantaneously with others – everyone, as the Americans like to say,‘reading from the same page’.


Government has embarked on an e-business programme with a target completiondate of 2005, of which the Court Service initiative forms part, and expects toinvest substantial amounts of taxpayers’ money developing variouscollaborative technologies, including specifically ones that facilitateinteractions between government and citizen. Recent announcements report on thecreation of the ‘Government Gateway’, principally supported by Microsoft, inwhich an initial investment of £15M has already been made. The Court Serviceconsultation paper also refers to ‘Gateway Partnerships’

The problem with a ‘Gateway’ is that citizens have the benefit of thetechnology only during the process of interaction. Once that interaction iscompleted, citizens are then left to manage their own records and technologyrequirements according to their means. The result – government would be vastlybetter equipped than the community it serves. A way must be found to ensure thatcitizens are adequately equipped for the proper conduct of their own affairs;this involves bringing particularly businesses and their professional advisorsinto an estate of technological parity.


The plight of the common man and his lawyer could not be more clearlyhighlighted than in Professor Susskind’s new book, ‘Transforming the Law’,in which he renews his vision of the role of technology in legal practice. Hisnow familiar ‘Grid’ basically breaks the business of the Law and attendantuse of technology into four areas or categories: first, basic office systemssuch as accounting, time recording, document creation, email, etc; second,internal knowledge management systems (or, for simple folk, precedentlibraries); third, client facing technology that allows clients to look atelectronic files, billing records, and other information; and lastly, ‘onlineservices’.

There can be few legal practices left in the country that do not have systemsin the first category. Those lawyers who do not have access to systemsfulfilling some or all of the other are suffering from what Susskind calls‘The Technology Lag’. There are more than 100,000 lawyers in the UK. LawSociety statistical figures for 1999 indicate that of 10,000 solicitor firms,42% are sole practitioners; 41% have 2-4 partners; 11% have 5-10 partners. Howare these firms to bridge this ‘Technology Lag’?

Other professional groups, and the clients they serve, face the samechallenge.

This is a nettle that surely must be grasped if the e-government vision isnot to be undermined by the citizens’ practical inability to investsufficiently to keep pace with Government.

Common Needs

Software, through ASP and the Internet, can be made universally accessible.Consequently, a common platform, comprising a self-contained virtual workingenvironment, can be readily provided as a service to a broad community of users.This platform can then be augmented by so-called ‘Web services’ – specificapplications developed by independent software developers to meet individualneeds.

This is essentially what Microsoft have proposed in the recent launch oftheir ‘HailStorm’ initiative – a super ASP providing basic tools/services(including those that underpin the Government Gateway) to be supplemented byapplications developed by so-called ‘Web ISVs’ (Web Independent SoftwareVendors). Microsoft seems set to become the dominant Web service provider andwhile accommodating cross-platform solutions will clearly be well placed topromote its own.

Now consider the administration of justice and, I suggest, the administrationof regulation (local government and other regulatory authorities) and theirinteractions with citizens. Commercial operations of any form inevitably requireat various stages of their existence contact with administrative authorities;examples of such contact include registration, seeking of consent, and conflictresolution. Such contact may be direct or, in many cases, through professionaladvisors.

Contact with these administrative authorities is managed primarily throughtransmission of written communications in which relevant information isexchanged. Other than those seeking pure information, all contacts entail someform of process, initiated by application and concluding with some form ofadjudication. Such processes involve the application of rules and a sequence ofevents governed in some way by time; the rules may be fixed or, in some cases,may be made ad hoc (such as a procedural order made by a High Court Master). Themain point to note is that the process is common to both the applicant and theauthority.

What happens at present is that government and citizen each maintainindependent records of what has passed between them. When the authority requiressomething to be done by the applicant, a record and diary note must be made inthe authority’s system; the citizen must then also make a record and diarynote in its system. If both were using the same system then the duplication ofeffort, and the attendant risk of error, would be obviated.

The communications between government and citizen, to a greater or lesserdegree prompted and influenced by inherent process, when aggregated with‘internal’ communications and information belonging to either party,represents the universe of relevant data that each may wish to view and analyse.

In summary, I see three essential functions that are required in common bygovernment and citizen:

  • Communications – the expression and exchange of information and ideas.
  • Process – the conduct of particular activities by reference to rules and events.
  • Views – presentation and analysis of captured information.

The Electronic File

The Court Service consultation paper addresses the notion of an electroniccase file and it is this component among the array of proposals that for merepresents the key opportunity for transformation through collaboration.

The Court Service will, if it pursues this particular solution, be creating acommunications management platform into which may be incorporated specificprocess and view capabilities.

Individual case files would constitute individual ‘venues’ which couldequally equate to what are variously referred to as a projects, files, jobs,matters, or otherwise. Such a venue becomes the place where all digital workproduct is created and stored.

In a collaborative environment, each venue has an owner who authorises accessto the venue by others with whom the owner wishes to communicate. Users enjoyprivacy within the resulting workspace, sharing work product and communicatingby granting access to what they have created. In this way each user group hasits own private workspace, though the venue is in fact the same. Once the natureand purpose of the venue is defined, this ‘singularity’ becomes of pivotalimportance as it facilitates delivery of relevant knowledge, information,templates, and process rules where and when they are needed.

Why should the investment in software development to create such anelectronic file capability be enjoyed only by and for the purposes of the CourtService?

Imagine a super ASP platform that provides the basic tools, incorporating thebasic communication and process rules, required to facilitate the conduct ofinteractions within and between government and citizen. Those tools are thenmade available and made useful to both, for their interactions and for their ownpurposes. There is no absolute need to start out with a single platform, thoughto do so would secure other practical benefits that go far beyond mere datatransmission.

Virtual Geodesics

Collaborative technologies do not create physical structures such as the EdenProject, however they can create self-contained, secure environments withinwhich business can be safely conducted. The best example of a virtual‘geodesic’ environment that I can think of to illustrate one aspect of whatI am proposing is the London Stock Exchange. The LSE provides an electronictrading environment that has embedded rules – when transactions are madewithin the system, the system itself provides the means of communication andrecord, capable of review and audit in the event of dispute.

Imagine then an electronic working environment that has embedded rulesrelating to communication and process so that communication and notification aresystemic, and from which an absolute record of such communication andnotification may be accessible in the event of dispute.


UK government, working with key infrastructure partners, has the means tosponsor the creation of a national communications platform that will accommodatethe communications and process requirements of both government and the businesscommunity. This platform would provide a secure self-contained environment forthe conduct of relations within and between government and citizen.

Such a platform would transform business and government by providing avirtual environment that has embedded business rules, facilitates theadministration of justice and regulation, and meets common needs. The platformwould provide a basic suite of communications and process management tools fromwhich independent Web services could be developed to meet individual needs. Thisamounts to providing the same vehicle for all – technological parity. How onedrives that vehicle is of course another matter! n

Peter Rouse is the CEO of Geodesia, a business that provides Web basedcollaborative solutions for professional firms and their clients. He is thefounder and former leader of Rouse & Co International, an internationalintellectual property consulting business, as well as founder and former seniorpartner of Willoughby & Partners, solicitors. Email: