Spence proving to be an effective change agent at a critical time

Issue March 2013 By Tricia M. Oliver

At various speaking engagements in the last several weeks, Massachusetts Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence has centered his remarks on his initial assessments and progress during his inaugural nine months on the job. When listening to those remarks, one cannot question that he has hit the ground running at a pace necessary to achieve much change in the remaining four years of his five-year appointment.

Also hard to question are Spence's credentials for this pivotal role in the state's third branch of government.

"After many decades of lobbying by the MBA specifically calling for the appointment of a professional court administrator, we are extremely pleased to have an individual of Harry's intellectual and policy depth to work closely with," MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy said.

An expert in managing change, Spence has served in the public and private sectors at the state and local levels. A graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard College, Spence's skill and style have been tapped to turnaround operations in the City of Chelsea, New York City Board of Education and Massachusetts' Department of Social Services. He is applying much of what he learned in those arenas to his current task at hand.

According to Spence, no matter what size organization he's been a part of, somehow there is something magical about the third year. "That is when the process of change gains traction," he said. However, Spence is quick to clarify that the time leading up to his third year on the job is not void of activity.

"Good things are happening now," he said.

Spence has gained much information from his weekly visits to courthouses and results from a recent staff survey. Much of his attention has been devoted to evaluating staffing levels and department structure. The fiscal year 2014 budget request, technology enhancements and implementation and the Trial Court's current strategic planning process have also consumed most of Spence's energy and time. All add up to a tall order to be realized in Spence's relatively short appointment.

Spence remains optimistic. He is putting his confidence in a general principle of management that modest improvements in operations by department will lead to collaborative improvement to the system as a whole.


Following the lift of the hiring freeze in November, Spence has been working to replace 100 positions lost to attrition. He hopes to have that finalized by the end of May. He will also work to hire an additional 200 "desperately needed" positions.

As he begins acting on his careful assessment of his newest employer, Spence has been surprised by the lack of resistance to proposed change from court personnel. Nearly 50 percent of the 6,255 personnel responded to the recent staff survey. Results indicated 30 percent were interested in aggressive change, 90 percent were in favor of change and 10 percent were comfortable with the status quo.

Through the survey and his courthouse visits, Spence has been met with a fair share of skepticism.

"Skepticism is valid," said Spence. "Just set aside the cynicism." He said that "part of our task is to give incremental evidence over time that we have the capacity to change."

In less than a year, Spence has learned much from the conversations he has with staff at all levels. Many of the staff that Spence has interacted with have been asked to participate in meetings with local legislators to put a face to the effects of the lack of court funding. The Massachusetts Bar Association has coordinated two such meetings in Salem and Springfield, and it is evident that those staff have been provided a voice, thanks to Spence.

Spence likes to quote President of the Massachusetts Association of Magistrates and Assistant Clerks Daniel J. Hogan to describe the caliber of court personnel.

"The system is not as good as the people in it," Hogan told Spence during one of their first conversations.

Hogan, like many, is pleased with Spence's "refreshing approach" and work so far. "I look forward to much needed change to bring this branch of government back to the prominence it should enjoy," said Hogan.

According to Spence, courts previously did not have an essential "accountability for performance," which, according to him, is the most fundamental tool of management. "We are beginning to raise the floor on performance," he said.

As expected, he places much confidence in the court's ability to move change through its managers. Spence explains that any organization's management skills need to be "tethered to the craft of the organization." Said Spence, "We must connect management skills with the delivery of justice."

In addition to a strong management team, Spence sees technology playing a critical role in modernizing court operations. In addition to the 2013 roll out of MassCourts to the Superior Court, a request for proposal is currently out for e-filing. "Both will lead to rapid and dramatic improvement," Spence said.

"We want to move to as much digital storage as we can, saving us and attorneys significant amounts of money," he added.


Spence explains that the Trial Court culture is affected by the county-based system. He said that there is a tradition of localism. What is clear, Spence mentions, is that within the administration, "we need to strengthen Boston's capacity to support those around the commonwealth." He said, "our courts are our customers."

In speaking with the MBA House of Delegates in January, Spence voiced his opposition to the unification of the courts, a concept the MBA has long lobbied for in its many reports issued on court reform. Spence is, however, open to and seems to be working toward, consolidating many of the "back office" functions that support the various Trial Court departments. Spence realized there is duplication of overhead in many areas.


In a move to improve the culture of the courts, Spence has engaged the Trial Court in a strategic planning process. To help with landmark change in the system, The Ripples Group -- a Boston-based management consulting firm specializing in growth strategies and performance improvement -- has been tapped to help.

Cynthia Robinson-Markey, legal counsel to Boston Municipal Court Chief Justice Charles R. Johnson, serves as the project manager for this important process. "Strategic planning is a big part of Harry's agenda," said Robinson-Markey, who has seen the highs and lows of the system during her 16 years with the Trial Court.

"Other plans haven't had the push of one core, central person," she said. Robinson-Markey explains that fortunately Spence is that person currently. "He is a true visionary who knows what it takes to have an actionable, managed plan." Robinson-Markey differentiates the current strategic planning process as being bottom-up, when compared to others in the past that have been top-down.

Spence and Robinson-Markey estimate that the strategic plan will be presented to the SJC for evaluation and endorsement in the summer months, but Spence and Robinson-Markey, through the guidance of The Ripples Group, are not holding out on change until that happens.


As he works on the court's roadmap for the future, Spence's more immediate focus is securing adequate funding for Fiscal Year 2014. "I need to make sure the lifeblood continues to flow," Spence said to MBA delegates in January.

The court's budget request was submitted to Gov. Deval L. Patrick in November. In addition to the Massachusetts Trial Court's maintenance request of $589.5 million, Spence put together six other enhancements that the governor and/or the Legislature can decide to allocate funds to. Those "modules," as Spence refers to them, are:

  • Judicial pay increase, totaling $21 million;
  • Staffing to restore full public hours in certain courts, totaling $1 million;
  • Videoconferencing equipment, totaling $400,000;
  • Enhanced security systems and increased security personnel, totaling $2.5 million;
  • Information technology and phone system upgrades in the BMC, totaling $500,000; and
  • Drug court enhancements to reduce recidivism, totaling $500,000.

Released in late January, Patrick's recommended FY14 state budget allocated $577 million for court funding, $12 million shy of the Trial Court's request. The House and Senate will take up their own versions of the budget in April and May respectively.

Spence has been a featured speaker at the MBA-led events to advocate for funding, including the Feb. 14 Court Advocacy Day (see related article, page 8). He and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland have emphasized the critical funding needs of the courts to the larger legal community at the events.

"We are fortunate to have someone of Harry Spence's caliber in a leadership position in the court system. In the short time since becoming Court Administrator, Harry has been working diligently to modernize the operations of the Trial Court," said Ireland.

"He has already accomplished a great deal, and is doing an outstanding job," Ireland added.