Naperville, IL goes back to basics to build IT foundation
The city is focusing its efforts on bringing in the right people, establishing the right priorities, setting up the right technology, and documenting the right processes.
There are no shortages of groundbreaking ideas in local government innovation: “Smart” cities, artificial intelligence, and digital currency are just a few. At Govlaunch we’ve been following the pioneers implementing these projects and the communities they’re transforming.
But only focusing on these norm-breaking advancements skips over a big part of the local government innovation story: the beginning.
As the adage goes, you can’t run before you walk. Local governments cannot innovate without first nailing down the fundamentals.
Naperville, IL, knows this well. Rather than chase the next shiny idea in the innovation space, the Chicago suburb is embracing a back-to-basics approach, ensuring it has the right people, priorities, processes, and technology in place to build a solid IT foundation and a sustainable overall system.
Many, if not most, local governments are in a similar position to Naperville. (Even though some may not realize it.) And before any government sets out on its innovation journey, it should take a page out of Naperville’s playbook, and make sure its essential elements are in order.
As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Innovators — cities, towns, and counties who are implementing transformative ideas and fostering a culture of innovation. We chatted with Russell Rogers to learn about how Naperville is reinforcing its IT foundations, and building a program that will lead to future innovation.
Finding the right people
Hiring an IT team in the public sector isn’t an easy process — especially in the current climate. Yet in order to set an organization up for success, it’s critical to have the right people in place. For Russell Rogers, IT Project Manager at the City of Naperville, this starts with looking at where the biggest needs are and trying to fill that gap:
“We’re looking at the teams we have today, the skillsets of those individuals, and trying to see where this new person fits in.”
One of the qualities he looks for is people who have changed roles or have a diverse career background. This may seem counterintuitive to those used to requiring public sector experience, but it’s something more and more local governments are embracing. Now more than ever, people in local government need to be nimble, and adapt to changes both internal and external. Those who have had to take on new roles are often adept at this, and bring fresh new perspectives to solving government problems.
Other skills include people who are good communicators, team players, and people who have worked with users. Says Rogers:
“Being a small IT shop, we can’t afford to have the old traditional back-office IT person, where they’re just focusing on coding or supporting something. Every single person within IT has some sort of interaction with the users across the city.”
In Naperville, hiring isn’t just about adding new skills to a team — it’s about reinforcing all the existing team players. Often, managers will include their team in the hiring process, says Rogers:
“It gives them the opportunity to pause and reflect, and ask, ‘Where do you want to go, and what do you want to take the lead on?’ That way you’re keeping the team motivated, keeping them focused where their passions are, and then filling the gaps.”
Establishing your priorities
When Jackie Nguyen, was named Naperville’s Director of Information Technology,, she worked to create a 1-pager that detailed the department’s goals and what it does. In doing so, she helped define the IT organization’s core priorities, which the team broke into four focus areas:
The first pillar includes working on the perimeter, setting up continual testing, and coming up with incident management playbook — which Rogers says didn’t exist previously:
“We’re getting IT to talk to the businesses about continuity to understand what applications would be important to them if something were to happen and we were to lose our links to the outside world.”
Rogers says Naperville’s IT infrastructure pillar includes focusing on back office upgrades and its data center, moving things from the cloud back on premise (more on that below), updating databases, and identifying how strategic applications are used, such as GIS.
As Rogers noted, everyone in the IT department plays a role with supporting front-end users. So it’s not surprising that this customer support forms another key priority. In Naperville, this includes setting expectations around the user experience, then communicating those expectations and SLAs to people inside and outside the agency.
We’ll dive into this more below, but as is the case with any IT shop, technology is a major priority in Naperville. Rogers notes that this extends beyond the products and projects themselves, but also focuses on establishing an intake and prioritization process, as well as introducing an enterprise architecture.
Taking the time to document a team’s pillars and mission is harder than it sounds, but it’s an incredibly valuable step that too many teams skip over. Doing this sets clear expectations across the organization about what the IT department will be focusing on. It also establishes priorities internally, to help sometimes overworked associates balance the tasks they’re being asked to do.
Assessing your processes
One of the biggest misses a local government department can make, from IT to procurement to public works, is not taking the time to assess and critique processes and how work is done.
An example of this in Naperville is the city’s walk-back from a cloud-based system. Many IT departments are moving fully to cloud-based solutions these days, and this works well for some organizations. For Naperville, it did not.
After moving everything to the cloud, the IT team started seeing pricing increase — and change unpredictably. Control and performance were also challenges — things like uploading and downloading large CAD files to the cloud slowed down the process and caused frustration. Rogers explains:
“For a while we took a cloud-first approach. We realized it was very costly, and the gains that we were expecting to get from that in terms of getting time back to cover the cost didn't materialize.”
Rather than dig into the system they had adopted, Rogers and his team assessed how the cloud setup was affecting the organization’s operations. They then made a change:
“We’ve started to build a hybrid environment where we're looking to move more things into our data center. We’re changing our blueprint, but in doing that, getting modern technology.”
(This isn’t to say that Rogers thinks cities should avoid using the cloud — he just recommends they start small. Continue to assess where you’re at.)
After stress-testing your processes, it’s important to write them down. Says Rogers:
“Along the way we're documenting our processes. That's another thing that goes back once again, to basics: truly documenting, or in some cases, putting our procedures together and documenting processes.”
You can’t talk about IT fundamentals without a focus on technology.
Naperville is putting a lot of effort into upgrading its tech stack, including a big push to migrate the city’s ERP, a move which affects nearly every department in the local government. The city is also moving onto a uniform work order and asset management system, says Rogers:
“In the past, every department seemed to be purchasing technology in their own silo. IT would maybe get involved at the very end, once the purchase has gone through. We’re now trying to change the conversation around, where IT and the business come together beforehand and talk about things.”
This approach redefines the role IT plays in the local government. IT becomes more of a facilitator, and a leader, rather than a behind the scenes support resource, and the process overall becomes more collaborative.
Communicating the initiative
All of Naperville’s undertakings add up to a huge amount of work. But much of it happens behind the scenes. It’s important, therefore, for IT teams going through changes like Naperville’s to educate others in the local government or community about what’s going on.
Rogers says his team is keeping government partners in the loop via meetings with leaders across the city, user groups who provide feedback on the applications they use, and a technology steering committee with representatives from almost every department. Says Rogers:
“They are the voices of the different users, and different departments. And they are great members to help spread the word. They then go back and can translate and use language that makes sense to their appropriate businesses. And in these meetings we get their feedback, so we get the complete loop.”
Outside of government, when it comes to educating the greater community, Naperville’s approach is to show, more than tell. Rather than broadcasting all the changes going on, Russell’s team takes a look at the citizen experience, and whether they’re getting what they want or need out of their interaction with the city.
“Most citizens aren’t going to understand what it means to move things from the cloud back to on-premise. How can we connect that back to them, in terms that make sense? The way we can tell them is in our service level and in providing quality services to our residents.”
No matter how well a team communicates the updates they’re pursuing, these changes put a lot of stress on employees, who may be faced with learning new ways of working. The process isn’t perfect, says Rogers:
“A lot of times when you’re solving one problem you’re creating another problem. You may raise questions that never would have come up before. You need to listen to the users and address them. Have compassion.”
It’s therefore critical for IT teams to be empathetic. To put themselves in their users’ shoes. To seek out input from users — whether through user groups or meetings or pilots. Equally important is patience: change does not happen overnight.
But ultimately, by working to establish the right foundations, by getting the right people in place, and by communicating with all relevant stakeholders, an IT department can position itself for additional advances in the future.
These changes also allow the full organization to think about the workplace in a different way, from processes to job responsibilities. This, says Rogers, can have a major impact on the way local governments work:
“We’re not only talking about changing technology, we’re talking about changing people’s jobs and how they view their work.”