IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Consultant: Chicago Badly Needs Software, IT Upgrades

An IT consultant hired by City Hall to diagnose the city’s technological woes urged a drastic revamp of software and an increase of investments in IT infrastructure after years of city neglect and cost inefficiencies.

(TNS) — An IT consultant hired by City Hall to diagnose the city’s wide array of technological woes urged aldermen Tuesday to drastically revamp its software and up its investments in information technology infrastructure after years of city neglect and cost inefficiencies.

Nitesh Dixit, senior managing partner at Gartner Consulting, provided the update two years after the release of a report commissioned by the Chicago City Council under the direction of Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, who is chairman of the economic, capital and technology development committee. Dixit told council members the city needs to act now to better deliver services, save taxpayer money and streamline city processes for residents and business owners.

From Chicago residents being unable to easily use city websites on smartphones to a confusing system that makes it difficult for home and business owners to challenge high water bills, Dixit said the city’s menu of websites are not serving Chicagoans well.

“To the question about (if) it works, I think it works only barely,” Dixit said during the hearing in which no vote was taken. “There is a lot of patching that has been done. … The applications don’t talk to each other in what I call a ‘spaghetti mess.’”

Dixit criticized the city’s current “hub and spoke model,” where data is transferred through a single source versus via multiple entry points, as one reason information flow has been inefficient.

“All of those investments have not been done in the past,” Dixit said. “So it’s been historical mismanagement, which has allowed technology to be where it is at this point.”

The City Council presentation is part of a multiyear push by Villegas and other officials to overhaul the city’s IT infrastructure that stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic but could see new life heading into Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first budget season, where about $350 million for such upgrades remains untapped from a previous capital bonds, according to Villegas. The question, however, is where to start.

“We need to reimagine how technology can be helpful for both the constituents but also getting businesses up and running quicker,” Villegas said. “There are savings attached to this, and hundreds of millions of dollars. And so as a good steward, we need to do that.”

Dixit noted that “outcomes for Chicagoans is the North Star” in stressing that online self-services have been dismal, inaccessible on smartphones and at times catastrophic when it comes to exorbitant water bills for residents who struggle to dispute them. The system that manages the Department of Water Management’s billing, Banner, is “a heavily customized system that’s expensive to maintain. And it’s a source of risk to the city,” Dixit said.

“That’s where you got me,” said Ald. Ruth Cruz, 30th. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ … We just talked about how some of our constituents, their water bills have skyrocketed even not twice, but triple the amount of what they have been paying. So this will be, definitely, a key component.”

Dixit also recommended redoing the city’s human resources system as well as its platforms for finance and budget management and procurement. He noted most of the city’s IT budget — 86% — went toward operations even as 61% of city applications have been aging for decades and should be replaced.

Dixit said the city is in the midst of negotiations with potential vendors who would implement these improvements.

Furthermore, he said Chicago’s government IT staff is woefully bare bones. Only 1.1% of the city workforce across all departments is IT support, a figure that is about 3.6% in other large cities. And about one-third of Chicago’s IT workers are nearing retirement and will introduce another “significant source of risk for the city” when they take their knowledge with them.

“The IT staffing levels, and the organizational structure at the city of Chicago lags the peer cities,” Dixit said. “The positions are outdated, and they impede the city’s ability to retain and attract talent.”

However, Ald. Gregory Mitchell, 7th, suggested some of the consultant’s suggestions will be a moonshot, especially when budget deliberations begin.

“When you ask about time, you said minimum five years,” Mitchell said on the estimate of when the infrastructure will be modernized. “Yeah, that’s optimistic. That’s really optimistic. Our infrastructure is antiquated. We can’t get in our walls if we wanted to do a whole new infrastructure. If we really want to do this, we really have to be very thoughtful.”

© 2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.