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Partnerships, Collaboration a Consistent Theme in Illinois

At the first-ever Chicago Digital Government Summit, chief information officers from Chicago, Cook County and elsewhere discussed why collaboration works and how to make it happen.

CHICAGO — State, county and local governments are working to modernize their information technology systems, but officials in Illinois say they must also update how they communicate with one another.

Agency leaders at all levels discussed the paradigm during the inaugural Chicago Digital Government Summit May 9.

The need for open communication is something Chicago CIO Danielle DuMerer’s team understands all too well. The Department of Information Technology (DoIT) supports 30 other city departments, handling everything from roads to information access, she said during opening remarks.

While managing external needs, her organization is working on other large projects like prototypes for a 311 system modernization slated to go live later this year, DuMerer told Government Technology following her morning remarks.

But collaboration, too, can help drive services from departments and agencies down to residents, DuMerer said.

“Find some opportunity to collaborate with someone who is not in your organization. I think that’s the challenge for today that I would like to set out,” she said in her remarks.

While she acknowledged a “healthy competition between cities,” she also recognized the need for cooperation.

Building Partnerships that Benefit Citizens

Talk of partnering infused morning break-out sessions including a discussion about improving the citizen experience by moving away from a siloed, paper-based culture. Aurora CIO Michael R. Pegues and James Morrison, with Hyland Software, led the conversation.

Cook County is working with Hyland to transform finding lost dogs, Morrison told the room — geotagging animals found closest to where an electronic form is filed. Gartner estimates that responding to telephone calls from residents costs agencies between $4 and $12 each, depending upon the issue and process involved, he said.

“Paper should be out the window now. The reality is, IT has a whole lot they’re managing on the back end,” he said. Pegues agreed, but said it can be difficult to convince officials accustomed to handling paper to change their mindsets.

“So, the real challenge, it’s improving service for your constituents while reducing expenses internally. You do that with automation,” said Pegues, who has been buoyed by his mayor’s support to centralize IT and its procurement process, consolidate shadow IT, and drive for a truly smart city.

“There’s a lot of stuff to be done, and we’re kind of focusing on the service delivery there. I look at the customers as my stakeholders. We’re trying to shift our focus in terms of enhancing that customer service,” he added.

Collaborating to Innovate

After lunch, DuMerer joined CIOs Simona Rollinson from Cook County and Luke Stowe in Evanston; and moderator Teri Takai, executive director at the Center for Digital Government*, for a discussion of how to work collaboratively toward innovation.

The importance of working together can’t be overstated, the group agreed, with Rollinson going so far as to say that “nothing is possible” without it.

But Cook County’s CIO of four years reminded the room that while their business may center on technology, it’s about other concepts and humans as well.

“We’re not in the technology business, we’re in the people business. Million-dollar relationships are based on problem-solving and critical thinking but also on listening and negotiation,” said Rollinson.

She and others emphasized the role of soft skills like listening in forging good relationships.

“For me, first, it’s listening but also putting yourself in the position of the person who has to do that work, or that department head who has to speak to service levels for the work they’re trying to accomplish. In that way, I think you can build a commission together that’s going to be more successful,” DuMerer said.

Innovation may come incrementally, the CIOs said, and they suggested stimulating staffers’ innate creativity to enable it – holding Friday afternoon innovation meetings but being mindful that some discussions may not yield breakthroughs. At the city of Chicago, DuMerer said, she and another staffer enjoyed crafting and brought in their materials to convene others over felt, glitter and glue.

Stowe said his organization lets team members work remotely once a week, which enables both work-life balance and personal creativity and works hard to get to know staff at fellow Evanston agencies so that staffers on both sides are more than just names. Building those relationships, he said, will instill a spirit of teamwork while empowering more timely collaboration and problem-solving.

“I don’t want them to come to IT because they have to, I want them to come to IT because they want to. If you have that relationship … they’re more likely to come to you,” Stowe said. 

He added that, to remain friendly and avoid issues like shadow IT, “When they come to you, you have to move with a sense of urgency. You have to help them as quickly as you can.”

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.