In Irving, a Court Meets Residents Where They’re At
By Hayley Kallenberg
Providing quality, reliable services may be the essence of city government. In Irving, Texas, a suburb of Dallas that has been recognized for having the single-most diverse ZIP code in the country, meeting this day-to-day expectation of residents isn’t a business-as-usual proposition. It’s an opportunity to provide excellent customer service grounded in respect for residents.
“I’ve worked here for 27 years, and this city gets better every year because there’s an expectation to treat people with dignity,” says Wayne Lambert, the City’s municipal court director. “That’s entrenched in our values, and it applies to our work in the courts. Our job is to ensure every person has access to justice and receives high-quality service.” Hitting the mark requires listening to residents’ needs and embracing a continuous-improvement mindset, he adds.
Irving’s work in recent years to improve its municipal court’s Failure to Appear (FTA) rate shows what is possible when cities invest in foundational data practices and use data-driven evaluations to test and fine-tune new approaches. The City’s FTA rate is calculated based on the percentage of individuals who fail to appear in court for a scheduled pretrial hearing.
In 2018, Lambert and his staff realized the average monthly FTA rate was 28.2 percent at Irving’s Class C Misdemeanor Court, which handles issues like traffic cases, city ordinance violations, and public intoxication. In other words, more than one in four people were not showing up for pretrial hearings. “From an administrative, equity, and taxpayer perspective, it was a problem we knew we needed to address right away,” Lambert says.
A high FTA rate is problematic for multiple reasons. It costs the City money and staff time to process additional paperwork. Those taxpayer dollars could be better used to support other city services. And then there are the negative impacts on defendants, which can spiral. Receiving an FTA can lead to issuance of an arrest warrant and potential related fees, and contact from a collection agency if fees are not paid promptly.
Yet in many situations, FTAs do not occur due to intentional avoidance. Some common reasons include lack of child care, the inability to take work off, and forgetfulness — Lambert’s team encountered all these issues in Irving. In the medical sector, studies show that patients don’t show up for between 15 percent and 30 percent of medical appointments. Court FTA rates across the U.S. are in the same range.
To lower Irving’s FTA rate, Lambert’s team took a cue from doctors’ offices that call patients with appointment reminders. The City’s court staff began reminding residents a few weeks ahead of any scheduled court date, and then again just days ahead. Staff placed the calls, which gave the City an opportunity to humanize the criminal justice system and reduce many residents’ fear of court.
“With those changes, we reduced the FTA rate down to 21.4 percent in 2019,” Lambert says. But that was just the beginning of a dramatic drop in Irving’s FTA rate that continued through the COVID-19 pandemic, supported by the City’s culture of data-driven innovation and governance.
An Iterative Testing Process Yields Big Results
Irving’s shift to virtual court operations and hearings in the spring of 2020 did not slow down the court team’s FTA reduction efforts — to the contrary. Lambert and colleagues tested and optimized new and more customized call reminder approaches, while reallocating clerical staff to make calls and trying new tactics to prevent the need for some court hearings altogether.
“Amidst the crisis, we were determined to embrace new ways of thinking and operating that could sustain FTA rate progress and meet residents where they were at, literally,” Lambert says. “The ability to design evidence-based approaches was crucial.”
Early on in the pandemic, the court team began working with The Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), a What Works Cities expert partner, to create more impactful hearing reminder call scripts. With support and guidance from BIT, staff edited scripts to keep messages brief and to the point. One change: beginning scripts with, “This is a friendly reminder from the court,” so recipients would be more receptive to the information.
“BIT helped us take a very granular look at our language,” says Major Youngblood, a management analyst in the City Manager’s Office. “Its team walked us through the science behind starting friendly, then giving residents options, and then noting the consequence of missing a court date to make clear the City has enforcement powers.”
Landing on final reminder scripts was a data-driven process involving control and experimental groups, and four rounds of editing. The team targeted approaches for different reminder scenarios — customizing calls to individuals who received additional tickets and citations after previous court appearances — for example. Then the team tracked data to learn if certain messages prompted residents to appear for scheduled court dates more than other messages. It also tried an entirely new approach to obviate the need for residents to ever appear at a hearing. Court staff began working with prosecutors to prepare and make plea offers over the phone ahead of a hearing. If a resident accepted the terms, a scheduled hearing could be canceled.
This, along with data-driven evaluations of call reminder messages, reallocation of staff to deliver messages, and the convenience of virtual hearings, pushed Irving’s FTA rate down to less than 1 percent by early 2021, 0.42 percent, to be exact. Since voluntary virtual hearings played a major role in the FTA reduction during the pandemic, the court anticipates an FTA rate increase as Texas courts return to in-person hearings. That said, the court will continue offering virtual hearings and staff believes it will help maintain a low FTA rate.
A New Resident-Centric Data-Driven Normal
The rate reduction is an impressive feat — but Irving’s achievements relative to data-driven governance and innovation extend beyond the court. In the last three years, Irving has ramped up efforts to engage residents through open data practice approaches, creating a Data Governance Committee and an open data policy and portal. “Through these resources, and by normalizing data analytics across city departments, we’ve been able to really hone our innovation priorities while also bringing residents into the problem-solving process,” says Aimee Kaslik, the City’s chief innovation and performance officer.
Last year, for example, the City launched Irving 360 2.0, an eight-week program that engages alumni of Irving’s 360 Civic Academy. Participants used both existing data and data gathered through resident focus groups to answer the question, “How does the City engage those who have historically not been engaged?” The group then presented its solution, a resident ambassador program, to City Council.
Going forward, Irving plans to apply what it learned about court operations during the pandemic to ensure the new normal that emerges is mindful of residents’ varying needs and challenges. “Traditionally, obstacles such as transportation or child care would have prevented someone from coming into the court,” says Jennifer Bozorgnia, court services coordinator for the City. “Our new normal involves reaching people where they are, so to speak, by giving the option of virtual or in-person hearings.”
In crucial ways, the pandemic jumpstarted the City’s willingness to test new data-informed ways of operating. That jumpstart was supported by core data practices Irving staff had worked to strengthen and normalize in the preceding years — everything from stakeholder engagement to data governance to open data.
Today, going back to the old ways of working is not an option. “We’ve seen what’s possible when data plays a central role in how we operate and deliver services to residents,” Kaslik says. “The results are clear, in the court and beyond. We’re all excited to see what comes next.”
Hayley Kallenberg is a writer and organizational strategist, specializing in communications, marketing, and program design.
As a member of the nationwide What Works Cities (WWC) network, the City of Irving has received technical assistance from one of WWC’s expert partners to strengthen data-driven governance capacities. The City has also participated in WWC’s online learning Sprints to develop foundational data practices.
Irving is one of 23 cities to achieve 2021 What Works Cities Certification, the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Read stories from other certified cities here.