Taking ERP Public -- a Conversation with Chicago CIO Chris O'Brien

'Citizens should be able to watch their government through an Internet portal that connects to the ERP -- see copies of contracts, disclosure affidavits, whether the vendor is a minority business or not, and search by vendor, department, date to see all the work the city is doing.'

by / November 16, 2004

Chris O'Brien

On November 16, Chicago CIO Chris O'Brien discussed the city's implementation of enterprise resource planning (ERP) in a Center for Digital Government (CDG) teleconference. One of the more interesting aspects of Chicago's ERP system is Web-based public access to city financial information. As O'Brien put it, the city has had a reputation for "creative" financing, and Mayor Daley decided to put contract and other financial information online so the media and public would have access to it.

While O'Brien believes it has improved public confidence in the city's handling of contracts, it has dissuaded some vendors from participating in IT projects, as they feared public disclosure of proprietary information. Nevertheless, said O'Brien, the value of public disclosure is worth the cost, and the mayor has not backed down.

Susan Benton, CDG's director of strategic initiatives, introduced O'Brien, saying that the Center -- while developing an ERP guide for local governments -- was so impressed with Chicago's "transparency in government" initiative, and its approach to ERP that it awarded the city a Digital Government Achievement Award for the "Contract, Vendor and Payment Search Web Site."

The CDG's ERP guide -- developed with local government and sponsored by SAP and BearingPoint -- will be released in late December, according to Benton.

The city has about 300 full-time IT employees and the network, desktop and infrastructure areas are outsourced.

ERP Begins
O'Brien reports directly to Mayor Daley and has about 300 full-time IT staff. Network, desktop and infrastructure areas are outsourced. He explained that in the mid-90s the city's technology was reaching a crisis. It had a 1970s-era mainframe-based legacy system that had been customized so much it was "frozen in time," and couldn't be upgraded. There were only a few staff who knew how to maintain it and the documentation was poor, putting purchasing, payroll and other financial systems at risk.

In addition, said O'Brien, the system was limited, mainly supporting "closing the books and cutting checks." Detailed financial analysis and information was beyond the system's capability. "Payroll, HR, purchasing, fixed assets, hiring, budgeting -- that are core to the city -- needed an integrated way to look at those things," said O'Brien.

Thus, driven by both technology and business needs, the city assembled a steering committee, with the comptroller and the CIO as partners. "I had the tech project management side, and the comptroller had the business side," said O'Brien, who explained that arrangement was critical to the project's success, as was direct access and involvement of the mayor.

At its peak, the project had 35 or 40 people working full time on it, said O'Brien, with another 100 participating part time.

"We selected Oracle as the software we were going to use," said O'Brien. "Unless there was some critical function, we would map the work to the software and not the other way around." Change management was integrated into the project team, and the project development lead handled training and reaching out to constituent groups.

Best practices helped, said O'Brien, and took into account how government does transaction processing. Even though end-users had to make some significant changes -- from green screens to graphical user interfaces for example -- he said the workflow didn't change too much.

The project was put out to bid in 1998, and signed at the end of that year. However, in 1999, it was put into "slowdown mode" for eight months to incorporate Oracle's new Internet-based version which was about to be released. "We went live in Oct 2002."

O'Brien said that while the ERP system was the

most difficult project he's handled -- and the value of it is not immediately obvious to executives and end users -- it has been very successful. "It absolutely revolutionized the way we do finance, and how we interact with citizens on the Web and do business," he explained.

And while the media is still suspicious, said O'Brien, an important precedent was set with public access to contracting data. "Citizens should be able to watch their government [through] an Internet portal that connects to the ERP -- see copies of contracts, disclosure affidavits, whether the vendor is a minority business or not, [and] search by vendor, department, date [to] see all the work the city is doing."

Knowing the public is watching also helps keep city government on its toes, he said. "We are being honest and sharing everything."

The internal business value has also been gratifying. Before ERP, said O'Brien, people would hold off on paying vendors till the end of the year, and the city would be hit with a massive and unexpected cash drain. "Now we can see how many invoices are in the pipeline that need to be paid out." The mayor refers questions about finances, contracting etc., to the Web site. And while the site is not as popular as paying parking tickets online, or ordering event tickets, said O'Brien, it is used, and it does inspire confidence in the public.

Next, said O'Brien, the city would like to tie the ERP and 311 customer service system together. That would enable tracking how much it costs to fix a pothole or pick up garbage -- who does the work, how long it takes, and how best to allocate resources.
Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.

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