Naperville officials log on to talk of IT upgrades

Naperville has some e-housecleaning to do. That comes as no surprise to staff or officials.

City Council members set their sights high last year when they identified the objective of making the city an innovator in electronic government as one of three strategic goals for the next five years. This week they heard more detail about what that will take — including time and money.

“Technology is a very complex topic, and it’s also a very expensive one,” City Manager Doug Krieger said at the start of a council workshop focused on the goal, projected eventually to cost nearly $7.6 million.

The good news: the city does especially well with its mapping capabilities, and its fundamental technology “architecture” is sound.

“In other areas, we have started to fall behind,” Krieger said.

Part of the problem, he said, is that the city’s computers currently use some 130 separate systems — a number staff members say could be cut in half, saving about $300,000 in maintenance expenses annually.

“Most of those systems do not talk to each other,” Krieger said.

The biggest challenges include bringing IT into sync with the city’s current direction, and improving the functioning of its website, particularly its interaction with business functions.

“We cannot launch a website that is business-ready and allows customers to make online transactions unless we first become (Payment Card Industry) compliant,” City Clerk Pam LaFeber, who also directs information technology, wrote in a council memo. “Furthermore, at this time, the backend financial systems are not equipped to accept payments.”

Many staff processes also become bogged down by inefficiencies and lack of automation, LaFeber said, noting that much more storage capacity is needed as well. That leads to employees storing files on flash drives and sometimes sending information to their personal computers to accomplish work tasks.

System tricks

“This is a security risk that must be mitigated,” LaFeber said.

Other risks also plague the existing system. Consultant Zig Berzins — who recently conducted comprehensive staff interviews, surveys and 19 workshops — said employees have devised assorted ways of their own to navigate the array of systems.

Among his findings was broad employee dissatisfaction with cumbersome security-related access hurdles that sometimes cause employees to need multiple passwords to get into the various systems where they need to work.

“That was a frustration that came out through the surveys,” said Berzins, managing principal of ZCo Consulting, reporting that 70 percent of the staff members surveyed want a single-sign on process. “Folks have started creating work-arounds. They have started to create their own systems in their back pocket.”

Also revealed in the surveys, he said, was a lack of needed training — in some cases because departing employees have taken the knowledge without passing it on.

The system flaws affect city departments in different ways. Finance Director Rachel Mayer said looking up account balances for residents poised to sell their homes in some cases requires accessing at least three systems. When a customer calls after having the electricity shut off, she said, the person answering the phone sometimes has to access five separate systems to help them have the power restored.

“I found that process to be very interesting, and a little bit surprising,” Mayer said.

LaFeber reported that the processes needed to satisfy Freedom of Information Act requests can take days — and state law requires her office to respond within five days unless an extension is granted.

And Bill Novack, head of engineering, development and transportation, brought along an enormous roll of blueprints to underscore his point that customers are frustrated by some processes, such as securing building permits, that remain antiquated in Naperville while other towns have converted them to electronic means.

e-language

Council members were supportive of what they heard. Steve Chirico urged prompt action on the improvements, predicting that delays will add to the cost. Bob Fieseler agreed, saying while he initially had doubts about the investment involved, it’s important for the city to be positioned to respond quickly to scenarios such as an electric utility customer sitting at home on a hot day with the power turned off.

“I think if we’re going to do this, I think this is what it’s going to cost, or close to it,” Fieseler said. “So I’m not having sticker shock from this anymore.”

Grant Wehrli suggested the endeavor’s semantics, specifically the word “innovator,” might need revisiting.

“I think that’s a little lofty. We don’t want to innovate. We just want to get with the times, basically,” Wehrli said, suggesting it’s better to “rescope” the objective. “Innovation to me sounds like we’re leading the charge, and quite honestly, we’re not.”

While she commended the “show and tell” that helped get the message across, Councilwoman Judy Brodhead said the undertaking’s value will be keenly felt by the people who live in the city as well.

“This will enable us to give a lot better service to our residents,” said Brodhead, a North Central College English professor, suggesting the “e-innovation” term alludes to internal corrections that will demand some spending. “This is innovation for us, to correct and streamline and modernize these systems.”

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