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Ten Tips for Evaluating Your ODR Program

Jennifer Shack, May 18th, 2023

After Donna Shestowsky and I completed two of the nation’s first neutral evaluations of state court online dispute resolution (ODR) programs, we had some thoughts to share with courts about how they could best ensure the evaluations of their ODR programs were useful and of high quality, so we wrote an article, “Ten Tips for Getting the Most Out of an Evaluation of Your ODR Program,” which was recently published in Court Review, the journal of the American Judges Association. The following is a summary of what we wrote. For more complete guidance, see the complete article.

Tip 1: Negotiate data access when contracting with an ODR provider
RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack, second from left, and University of California Davis Professor Donna Shestowsky, second from right, are the authors of “Ten Tips for Getting the Most Out of an Evaluation of Your ODR Program.” They joined Nick White, Research & Evaluation Director of the Maryland Judiciary’s Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office, and Dr. Deborah Goldfarb, Assistant Professor at Florida International University, on a panel at the American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution Spring Conference.

The best time to ensure you will have the data needed for a future evaluation, and to monitor program activity in general, is when you negotiate your contract with an ODR provider. As you screen providers, learn how each ensures data security and confidentiality. This is also the ideal time to negotiate data access for your evaluation. To keep your evaluation options open, you will want to secure terms that obligate the provider to share data not only with you, but with external evaluators you might hire later. And whether you hire a provider or develop an ODR platform in-house, be mindful of any data sharing or confidentiality rules or policies in your jurisdiction for the types of cases you plan to include in your evaluation.

Tip 2: Determine when to evaluate

Ideally, you would plan the evaluation of your ODR program as you design your program. But evaluation planning can happen at any time, as can the evaluation itself.

If you plan your evaluation before launching your program, you can increase the probability that the evaluation will accurately reflect your program’s use and effectiveness if you begin your evaluation after 1) the provider has addressed technology glitches that may emerge during early testing of your platform and 2) after you conduct outreach to ensure parties know about your program. If your program is already up and running, you should avoid scheduling an evaluation for a time frame when major changes are planned for your court or the ODR program itself. Significant changes while data are being collected may introduce noise into the data.

Tip 3: Find a neutral evaluator

Selecting a neutral evaluator is important for enhancing the quality, usefulness and credibility of your evaluation. In choosing your evaluator, consider whether they have experience evaluating court alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and/or ODR programs. If you hire someone who is not knowledgeable about ADR, be prepared to spend a lot of time explaining how ADR works, the theory behind it, and the specific issues involved.

Tip 4: Ensure that key personnel are involved in the evaluation planning process

Include court personnel who have knowledge that can assist with evaluation planning. These individuals are, at minimum, judges hearing the cases served by the ODR program and court staff who understand the processes involved and the underlying technology. They can help you determine the questions to answer, identify what data are needed, or work out how to access relevant existing data.

You will also want to decide who should serve as the point of contact for your evaluators. This person will answer the evaluator’s questions and help to obtain data. Staff members should be clear on their role in the evaluation.

Tip 5: Prepare to use data from a variety of sources

To best understand your ODR program, you should obtain information from multiple sources, such as your case management system, the ODR platform and participant surveys. To collect systematic feedback from parties (or other stakeholders, such as lawyers), your evaluator will need your help to facilitate distribution of surveys. They will work with you to determine which parties to survey and the best method for contacting the parties. They should also ask you to review the survey questions.

Tip 6: Expect to spend time with the evaluator

To conduct an effective evaluation, your evaluator will need to thoroughly understand your ODR program, how it fits with your overall process for handling cases, and how the platform interfaces with your case management system. Your evaluator will want to spend time with you to discuss your program processes and get answers to any questions throughout the evaluation process.

Tip 7: Facilitate the participation of court personnel and other program partners in the evaluation

Give court personnel and other program partners (e.g., mediators) who were not a part of the evaluation planning process a heads up about the evaluation and ask for their cooperation. Introduce your evaluator to relevant personnel and partners. These efforts should pave the way for your evaluator to reach out to them to get their perspectives on the ODR program and its impact on their work. When asking court personnel and program partners for their cooperation, reassure them that the evaluation’s objective is to improve the program, not to find fault with it or with them.

Tip 8: Help your evaluator to pilot test their survey materials

Before the evaluation period, your evaluator should obtain feedback on their surveys from individuals similar to those who will be surveyed for the evaluation—typically, parties to similar cases. Your evaluator will need your help to gain access to those individuals.

In addition, every court has unique terminology that should be reflected in how questions are worded. Your evaluator should work with your staff to ensure that the correct terminology is used so that it is more likely to be understood by those who will be asked to complete the survey.

Tip 9: Be flexible about the length of time set aside for data collection

The time allocated for data collection needs to be long enough to get the data necessary for analysis, but measured enough to provide timely results. Your evaluator will work with you during the evaluation planning phase to determine the time frame. But be prepared to be flexible. Your evaluator may recommend extending the data collection period if the level of program use and/or survey participation is lower than expected and they need more time to collect data to deliver a useful evaluation.

Tip 10: Survey those who use ODR as well as those who do not

Our evaluations have shown that the motto “If you build it, they will come” does not always apply to ODR. Surveying eligible parties who did not use ODR could help you identify issues that might be driving lower-than-expected usage. Surveys can point to marketing or party education problems, or in the case of voluntary ODR programs, uncover program attributes that parties find unattractive. You can ask parties whether they knew about your program, how and when they learned about it, and whether they knew they were eligible.

In the end, when a court invests resources to establish an ODR program, a major goal is to have it be used. It is imperative to commit resources to effectively market the program, which should include efforts to educate parties and ensure they know they are eligible or required to use it.

Conclusion

Courts that have their ODR programs objectively evaluated should be applauded for their efforts. Evaluations can facilitate program design that is data-driven and evidence-based, rather than guided by anecdotes or hunches. This grounding in data is especially important when making decisions geared toward satisfying the interests of litigants, since understanding their unique perspectives requires collecting data directly from them. Ideally, ODR evaluations will be conducted by neutral third parties who have no stake in the results and meet high research standards. Neutral evaluations are uniquely situated to offer an outside perspective on what works well about a program and to suggest how it might be improved. In addition, constituents, including lawyers, are more likely to accept the findings of a neutral, outside evaluation that concludes that a program delivers beneficial outcomes.

Does ADR + Tech = Better Access to Justice? RSI Spent Much of 2022 Trying to Find Out

Sandy Wiegand, May 2nd, 2023

RSI spends a lot of time and energy studying the conditions under which court-based alternative dispute resolution (ADR) can best improve access to justice. In recent years, that has often meant using new technologies and/or assessing their impact.

As is often the case with innovations, ADR options that employ new technology are sometimes hailed as the solution to longstanding challenges. For example, online dispute resolution (ODR) is celebrated for its potential to increase access to justice by allowing parties to engage on their own schedules, in their own spaces. Unfortunately, however, technological innovations can also bring challenges and create their own barriers to justice.

RSI’s 2022 annual report asks the question: Does ADR + Tech = Better Access to Justice? Our staff spent much of last year examining that premise. We published two landmark evaluations of court programs that used ODR-specific platforms; completed an in-depth report on the potential for ODR to serve thinly resourced parents, courts and communities; and used video mediation to serve hundreds of clients in northern Illinois. We also evaluated how those programs were operating and how participants viewed them.

Our annual report outlines these efforts and summarizes some of our findings. Not surprisingly, we found both promising signs and causes for concern when it came to technology’s impact on access to justice. We also discovered a lot more questions that need to be answered and problems that need to be addressed.

We hope you will take the time to read the Resolution Systems Institute 2022 Annual Report and review what we have learned so far. The role of technology is, of course, just one of many aspects of court-based ADR that RSI is examining. Please join us as we continue exploring what technology can and can’t solve, as well as other keys to providing cost-effective, timely and fair conflict resolution.

Could RSI’s Latest Research Project ‘OPEN’ Door to ODR for Parties with Low Literacy?

Jennifer Shack, April 13th, 2023

Text-based online dispute resolution (ODR) programs are often touted as a way to increase access to justice. They are seen as more convenient, less costly to parties, and less intimidating, and thus as having the potential to reduce the default rate, particularly for debt cases. Yet early evaluations of ODR programs have found that they suffer from low participation. An information gap, worsened by the prevalence of low literacy, contributes to this low participation.

Through a generous grant from the AAA-ICDR Foundation, RSI’s ODR Party Engagement (OPEN) Project hopes to address this problem by gaining insights from impacted populations and using those insights to develop guidance on communication materials for small claims courts that use ODR.

Through a generous grant from the AAA-ICDR Foundation, RSI’s ODR Party Engagement (OPEN) Project hopes to address this problem by gaining insights from impacted populations and using those insights to develop guidance on communication materials for small claims courts that use ODR.

The Information Gap

RSI’s ODR evaluations found that parties were often unaware of their court’s ODR program or did not understand what ODR was and how it worked. We identified deficiencies in the language the courts used to inform and educate parties, and in how the information was provided. In Utah, a usability study found that parties did not always understand the information provided and wanted more information than was offered.

These evaluations point to a need for better information to apprise parties that an ODR program exists and educate them about the program. Then they could knowledgeably decide whether the program might benefit them, understand what the risks may be, and learn how to use the ODR platform.

Need for Digital Hand-holding

Informing parties properly has become more important with the increase in self-represented litigants. According to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, 48% of US adults struggle to perform tasks with text-based information, such as reading directions, with 19% only capable of performing short tasks.

Some courts have changed their approach to helping parties, with varying success. But even those that recognize the need to serve their constituents better may not realize they have a communication problem. Recently, the Colorado Supreme Court conducted a listening tour throughout the state to find out how it might better serve the state courts’ constituents. The main takeaway was that people with low literacy could not understand the courts’ communications to them.

Some courts have instituted alternative dispute resolution (ADR) programs, such as RSI’s virtual eviction mediation programs, that involve access to a program administrator to help parties navigate the program. Small claims ODR programs are different. These programs require parties to use ODR before their first hearing, and they often do not have a designated staff person to help those who have the wherewithal to reach out to the court on their own. Without a person to “hold their hand” through the process, parties need digital hand-holding.

RSI’s Project Goals

To engage and educate parties, courts should offer ODR participants materials that are easy to understand and to access via multiple methods (e.g., mailed notices, videos, text guides). A recent readability study of court forms found that simplifying the text used in the forms increased participants’ understanding of the purpose of a subpoena from 29% to 70%.

Courts generally do not have the knowledge or capacity to develop materials that can be readily understood by people with low literacy. For the OPEN Project, RSI will conduct a series of focus groups and apply their findings, along with best practices developed from prior research, to develop guidance on communication materials for small claims courts using ODR. Cases such as debt, landlord-tenant, eviction and consumer-merchant cases are likely to benefit.

OPEN aims to make access to justice more equitable for self-represented, diverse populations who are either required or offered the opportunity to use text-based court ODR for debt and small claims cases.

Watch this space for updates on our findings.

What Makes Parties Trust a Mediator? RSI Hopes to Find Out, With Help From Grant

Jennifer Shack, February 28th, 2023

For mediation to be successful, it is considered essential that the involved parties trust the mediator. Yet little research has been done to determine whether any particular mediator behaviors help to engender party trust. RSI intends to change that. With a generous grant from the Rackham Foundation, we are undertaking an exploration of the intersection between mediator behaviors and party trust. 

Two Potential Phases

During this exploration, we will observe mediations, code mediator behaviors, survey parties before and after mediation, interview mediators and collect outcome data. The purpose will be to test the mediator behavior codes, data collection instruments, research protocols and hypotheses to determine whether research of this type can provide useful information.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels
Support from the Rackham Foundation will allow RSI to examine the intersection between mediator behaviors and party trust.

If we find that our research is fruitful, RSI will undertake a full research project to determine which, if any, mediator behaviors impact party ratings of trust in the mediator and other procedural justice components, and whether mediation resulted in agreement, among other factors. Our ultimate goal is to provide mediators and trainers with concrete information about behaviors that are more likely to engender party trust in the mediator and result in a satisfying, successful mediation. This project will lay the foundation for work toward that goal.  

Seeking Site for Observation

We plan to observe a limited number of mediations at two sites with mediators with different training and backgrounds. We have identified one but are seeking another. If you are interested, please contact RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack.

We are grateful to the Rackham Foundation and to Ava Abramowitz, who has championed this research, for this opportunity. She and her research partner Ken Webb have developed and tested the coding scheme we will be using. Stay tuned!

Rethinking Party Safety in Online Mediation

Dee Williams, January 19th, 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to online mediation becoming far more common in family cases than it was previously. This shift from in-person to video mediation has both benefits and potential pitfalls when it comes to participant safety, as discussed in a recent article by Erin R. Archerd.

In her Winter 2022 Stetson Law Review article, “Online Mediation and the Opportunity to Rethink Safety in Mediation,” Archerd describes some of the security benefits and challenges of mediating online, recommends steps mediators can take to enhance party security in online mediation, and calls for a more expansive conception of safety for mediations in general.

Photo by Liza Summer via Pexels

Some observers argue that online mediation can be safer than mediating in person because of the physical distance between the parties. Archerd acknowledges this benefit, but also sees a downside. She notes that when mediating in person, a mediator can personally ensure that the room has safe exit routes for all parties in case of a confrontation and that the mediation is not observed or interrupted by an unauthorized party. Such assurances are more difficult online. Additionally, Archerd states that interacting via camera also entails the loss of some of the nonverbal cues that mediators might normally use to assess parties’ senses of safety. To make up for this, she suggests that — once screening for impediments has been completed and the mediator and parties decide to go forward with­ mediation — mediators hold private pre-mediation sessions with each party. During such a meeting, the mediator can go over the security of the parties’ mediation locations, make sure they will be in a safe and appropriately private environment during the mediation, and establish ways to communicate if the party is being watched or intimidated from off-screen. Mediators can do something similar on the day of mediation by holding a private session with each party prior to joint session to ask them to describe their space and ask whether they feel they can safely complete the mediation process.

Maintaining confidentiality in an online mediation also requires more work, since mediators are not able to monitor all aspects of the space in the same way. Archerd recommends that mediation agreements make it clear that unauthorized parties should not be present at the mediation. In addition, mediators should communicate with parties in advance about how to ensure privacy in their mediation locations. At the start of the mediation session, mediators should confirm with parties that they are not recording and that no unacknowledged parties are present. Another aspect of safety is the long-term well-being of participants: Mediators conducting mediations online need to be sure they are well connected to “wraparound services” such as domestic violence or special education resources. Archerd notes that lack of access to in-person meetings can hamper feedback that would otherwise be received about the overall well-being of parties, and greater effort to connect parties to required services may be beneficial in online mediation environments.