Some Thoughts on Public Defense, Data Entry and Moral Injury

I’ve been thinking about moral injury and data entry. This may not seem the sexiest topic during a pandemic, but during a pandemic is when many public defense offices are simultaneously rolling out or increasing data collection.

This focus on data also may be because I’ve just spent many weekend hours entering file notes and case data. I did not enjoy it. I resented that I was not spending my time meeting with clients or writing motions for upcoming trials.

Moral Injury, covered extensively at this site from doctors Wendy Dean and Simon Talbot, is a useful lens through which to view the movement to collect data in public defense. Moral injury looks at the impact on our well-being from systemic obstacles to meeting the needs of the people we represent.

Public defense offices are embracing data collection and championing it as a tool to secure additional resources, demonstrate inequities at all phases of cases, and quantify arguments that have previously been anecdotal. These are all goals worth pursuing and collecting empirical data may be a powerful tool in those efforts.

However, I have concerns about the way data is being collected in public defense and the toll it is taking on our well-being. The lens of moral injury invites these questions of leaders: is the action that is being taken making it easier or harder to do right by the people we represent? Is it increasing or decreasing obstacles to achieving the goal of providing high quality and client centered representation?

Leaders offer data as a tool to improve representation. However, in the day to day life of public defense staff doing the data entry, it is often experienced as an obstacle.

Onerous data collection tasks are often added to a workload with no discussion of how the time is to be re-allocated or re-prioritized. Directives to collect data sometimes roll out in emails worded like this: you are all now directed to collect the following 941 data points for each case, using the 443 drop down menus described in the accompanying 231 page technical guide, and to log this information into the case management system by the close of business on the day of the court appearance. I now spend 25 minutes logging data points for a 5 minute court appearance.

The ABA’s Well-Being Toolkit includes in its definition of a healthy workplace that tasks and responsibilities can be accomplished successfully within the time available. (Well-Being Toolkit For Lawyers and Legal Employers, by Anne Brafford for the American Bar Association, August 2018, at p. 9.) In most public defense assignments, this is laughable. We are continually triaging essential tasks like communicating with the people we represent, completing investigation and legal research for their cases, consulting with experts on everything from complex DNA analysis to immigration consequences of a charge or conviction, coordinating with advocates and other county agencies to address housing, mental health and substance use treatment needs. We work long hours into the evening and weekends and still don’t complete important tasks. There is never enough time.

Public defenders do not have “spare time.” When a time-consuming task such as data entry is added, something else must give. The two most likely responses are: (1) sacrifice non-work hours in the evening and weekend, instead of spending that time with loved ones and/or engaging in activities of rest, recreation and resilience building; or (2) displace other tasks, which then fill lists to be completed later or not completed at all– such as client communications, motions and investigation.

This is experienced as a negative impact on well-being, both by forcing work into non-work time and by de-prioritizing direct client service in favor of data entry. This obstacle to the goal of providing direct client service –at a high level and in a client-centered way– is experienced as moral injury, the betrayal of our motivating purpose for becoming and remaining public defenders.

If we are to embrace data as a tool, aren’t there better collection models? Can’t we be creative in finding resources to add staff at the onerous collection stages at the front end, not just in using the collected data to advocate for more resources in the future? Can certain data be collected for a period of weeks, or must we live with the constant adding of new toggles and drop down menus to data entry checklists that grow so long it seems farcical? How can this new category of work be thoughtfully allocated? Integrated into staff workflow in a way that still respects autonomy to prioritize tasks?

Each time onerous data tasks are added, there has to be discussion of how this impacts other task priorities. The discussion needs to include the cost of reducing basic human communication and collaboration. The shift from anecdotal to data can feel like a shift away from listening and being heard. The people we represent feel it when we look away from them to navigate drop down menus on computer screens. Requiring simultaneous data collection conflicts with best practices of building trust through eye contact and periods of listening without note taking.

Similarly, public defense staff members feel unheard if they describe their actual human experience and are told by leaders that the experience isn’t valid until supported with data. The tool of data cannot replace the listening, anecdotal storytelling, and empathy that are central to public defense at all levels.

I would love to hear examples of places in which data collection has been rolled out smoothly, welcomed by those doing the collection, and recognized as a valuable tool rather than an obstacle to providing high quality representation. I hope you’ll post and reply with your success stories, so that we can all learn how to better use data collection as a tool, rather than experience it as an obstacle to our work and a negative impact on our well-being.

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