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Bolingbrook, Ill., CIO Rapidly Modernizes Digital Services

James Farrell, CIO of Bolingbrook, Ill., outside Chicago, on his city's new chatbot, the importance of working with other jurisdictions and how he gets staff excited about tech projects.

James Farrell, CIO, Bolingbrook, Colorado
Bolingbrook, Ill., outside Chicago, is like many suburbs these days: Its population is getting younger. This creates a great set of working circumstances for Bolingbrook CIO James Farrell. There is more support of late for technology — inside and outside government — and Farrell and his department are capitalizing on this buy-in to rapidly digitize citizen services.

1. What projects are you working on?

We just launched a chatbot on our website. We also have an ongoing citizen services initiative, where we utilize OpenGov for permitting and licensing online. We got that stood up in about two months during the pandemic, and we’re in the process of doing more licensing and permitting on that. Our inspectors can do an inspection of any house or business in real time from a tablet now, and our finance department is allowing residents to apply for garage sale permits online.

We’re just continually moving through all our departments with that citizen services platform. We’re working with code enforcement, the police and our clerk’s department. We like to choose software that we can use for every department, because we’re public servants and stewards of tax dollars from the residents — and I’m a resident.

2. How do you let people know about your work?

I build champions in city departments. I try to know who power users are and create a good relationship with them, because they’re going to champion what we’re doing. I come from casinos, and I had to build excitement there. That’s how I work now, too. When we launched the chatbot, we talked to a lot of departments to get an understanding of the phone calls they handle on a regular basis that the chatbot could alleviate. So I talk about how it can do that. I pump it up. Then once we launch, I make a big deal of it.

We had a birthday party for the chatbot with two cakes — a pink cake and a blue cake. We tried to promote that artificial intelligence is a baby, and just like a baby, it has to learn. Then we walked around to every department and said, “Here’s the cake for the chatbot’s birthday.” Once you build excitement internally, it’s easier to talk about it to residents. We’re also going to start a contest for a resident to name the chatbot.

3. How important is elected leadership to tech work?

It’s everything. I’ve been with the village 16 years, and when I started I had a mayor who had been here 34 years. His question was why did everybody need a computer on their desk? When you’re working with that mindset, it’s hard. Technology wasn’t at the forefront of what we were doing. The last two years with Mayor Mary Alexander-Basta — she campaigned on technology. We have 76,000 residents, and they’re getting younger. Our administration understands the needs of a younger community.

4. How do you collaborate with other jurisdictions?

We’re not the private sector — we don’t have trade secrets. We have large cities near us, like Naperville and Aurora, the second largest city in Illinois. But we all try to help each other, whether it’s Plainfield, Romeoville or Woodridge. I’m always in contact with them. 

I’m also president of GMIS Illinois, an organization made up of CIOs and IT directors in government entities, as well as companies like OpenGov. We network and strategize and try to understand what everyone is doing. Over 100 cities are part of GMIS Illinois, and we have a Slack channel where we talk every day. We do a great job collaborating. Just yesterday, five cities were asking about adjudication software and what we use. It makes it so much easier to do our jobs.

This story originally appeared in the April/May issue of Government Technology magazine. Click hear to view the full digital edition online.
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.