Explosive IT: Cook County, Ill., Stands at the Brink of a Massive Infrastructure Overhaul

And CIO Simona Rollinson says it's long overdue.

by / August 10, 2015
Illustration by Michele Melcher

Simona Rollinson is a fast learner. After just a year as chief information officer of Cook County, Ill., her first job in the public sector, she was dispensing advice of her own to the rest of the industry. By contrasting the world of government IT with her experience in the private sector, Rollinson identified government’s difficulty in executing projects, the importance of interdepartmental relationships, where to innovate and how to embrace government’s slower pace, all while upholding the keystone of human capital.

Now 16 months in office, Rollinson is taking charge of a huge IT overhaul. Four major systems that enable operations and services for a government overseeing 5.3 million residents will finally enter the modern age. Cook County runs on decades-old technology, but Rollinson’s office is leading a “Big Bang” effort that will unify and modernize IT infrastructure within the next five years.

Rollinson took a break to tell Public CIO all about Cook County’s Big Bang, and share her thoughts on the importance of collaboration and where the county is headed.

Q: What kind of experience did you bring to your role as county CIO?

I spent 17 years in the private world, in software for K-12. I started as a developer after college in 1996, and then I went back and forth several times to get my Ph.D., which I didn’t finish. But I spent 17 years, starting as a developer and ending as president of a $100 million software company [Follett Software] developing K-12 library automation and learning management systems.

Q: Has that experience been relevant in the public sector?

Obviously I found a lot of commonalities. There’s a lot of convergence between the private and the public worlds. The expectation in the public world is quite similar to the expectations in the private world. The citizens are our end users, expecting to interact with us the same way they would Amazon or other companies.

Technology is the easy part that carries across, but the stuff that’s different in government is the pace of approval. In government, it’s slower and execution is harder ... The complexity is greater. You can’t just roll over and execute the project.

Q: What are the biggest projects you’re working on in Cook County?

I’m bringing four huge projects in front of the board this summer. They are around integrated justice, integrated property, integrated revenue and a new ERP system. So basically it’s like a Big Bang. I’m trying to take systems that have existed for between 20 and 40 years and move them to the new digital universe, get them integrated and get everybody to play in the same sandbox.

Integrated property is a big project. Cook County is the second biggest county in the United States. We generate $12 billion in taxes. We have 5.3 million citizens, so obviously property taxation is a big, big revenue source, and a lot of municipalities, governments, services and citizens rely on this revenue. But our property system is 40 years old, so this is a landmark collaboration — basically a new, best-of-breed system will manage these 1.8 million land parcels in a much more holistic way. Rather than individual systems, we’ll have a unified system.

Integrated justice might not be the sexiest thing, but it’s really hard to execute in Cook County. We finally are bringing it to the board to put a service-oriented architecture in place to connect all the justice agencies — we have a lot of those. In other counties, they have the state’s attorney and the public defender, but here we also have the chief judge and the clerks. We have five different elected officials with separate systems and mandates, so we have to get them to exchange information seamlessly through this architecture. They can change individual case management systems going forward, but they need to stay consistent and we need to have one view of a detainee throughout all the proceedings.

Q: Was it difficult to get everyone to buy in?

Yes. It took us a year, and the most difficult thing was first we had to innovate in authority. We had to create a memorandum of agreement and they all had to commit to what it means. Then obviously we need to have leadership who get the funding goals to align to this agreement: Lead the charge and make it a political priority, but also come up with the corresponding funding.

It starts with leadership, like President Preckwinkle’s [Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle] leadership around public safety, but we also had to very carefully balance all the agencies’ needs. We worked through this document day and night. We worked with the lawyers to mix and match the technical and legal needs of each agency and come to some compromises in terms of language around security, privacy of data, visibility and all kinds of things they care about. It really was a win-win for everyone to get a consensus.

Q: What other projects are on your agenda?

The others are integrated revenue, which brings together diverse tax sites. We generate $500 million of revenue from centralized taxation and permits and different types of taxes, so we are bringing it into a completely paper-free application. It will allow us to increase citizen engagement and have mobile applications and portals that work off the system.

At the top of my list is the new ERP system, which is a big undertaking. This is the biggest investment for the county. It would allow us to collect, store and manage data across all the county operations. We are literally integrating multiple ERP systems into one major enterprise system. When you have something so big, it requires a lot of support and business engineering from financial, supply chain management, HR, payroll and analytics. A lot of those involve managed services, so it’s a private-public relationship.

We are evolving from a full-service provider of services from 10 years ago to being more and more a broker of services for the county. All of those new projects will bring not only new systems technologically but they might change the business model of how we do technology business in the county. That’s my desire, as well.

Q: Why work on all these projects at once?

We are late, so I don’t have the luxury to slow any of them. Some of those, in my opinion, are five to 10 years late.

Q: It sounds like collaboration will be key to making these projects successful. What is your approach to collaboration?

Collaboration is paramount. It’s not easy. It’s hard. But it’s also very rewarding when you get different people to understand their drivers and motivations, and try to broker a win-win situation for everyone.
We have one representative from each separately elected agency and some bureaus and departments that meet for a monthly CIO roundtable. We talk and it’s a great success, not only on reporting, but we are also calibrating during those roundtables. We are starting to talk a lot more on the front end of strategic planning, so when we are working on budgeting, we are hearing some of the conversations around inventories and about the acceptable life cycles of systems. In the past, there had been what I call a Chinese wall. We were in a stalemate and I think we’re getting beyond the stalemate and the engagement is increasing. It wasn’t easy to start and it’s not always comfortable, but you’ve got to continuously increase the level of engagement with other CIOs in the roundtable.

Q: Why did you come to the public sector?

I was at the right place at the right time in my career and in my growth process as a professional and also as an individual. I did feel like there was a compelling civic duty case for me. I also felt that there was the right leadership in place at the county, with the president understanding the role that technology can play in streamlining government.

And you want to have civic-minded innovators. You don’t just want to have people who are building a career to pass through just trying to amass experience, which you get in government projects. The scale of those projects is unbelievable. You get to work on $100-million-a-year projects and systems that process 3 million calls. So a lot of the technical problems, they are big and meaningful, but that’s not an end in and of itself. It has to do with looking beyond the implementation. What exactly are we doing with this? What is the definition of success? You want to have more civic-minded people that come into government as well.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.