By Anna Lothson
James Harris has checked off his first month as Oak Park's budget and finance manager, a newly created position in the village to address budget efficiencies and help implement cohesion among departments when it comes to implementing fiscal strategies.
Following discussions among staff and the village board's finance committee last year, Craig Lesner, the village's chief financial officer, said it was determined having an in-house consultant would be beneficial for developing and executing a performance management program. He also said for each individual department and for the public's benefit, it's important to focus on generating a budget document that's more accessible.
Harris will lead the charge in the first steps of the performance management program, expected to be developed over a seven month period starting this week. On Thursday, April 26, the finance committee got its first look at the draft of the technical approach behind the initiative that Harris expects will offer a strategic approach to improving village services and the use of village resources.
Three key points to implementing the plan were discussed, which consisted of analyzing how services are delivered in the community, identifying aspects of service activities needing improvement, and challenging the village to invest in improvement in those areas.
Harris, an Oak Park native, came from a California consulting firm for the opportunity. His base salary for this year will be 80,000. Lesner said his experience analyzing various successful and unsuccessful municipal programs implemented in towns across the country will allow Oak Park officials to learn without recreating the wheel.
"I think he brings a lot of that consultant history," Lesner said. "In his position he dealt with the public. He's seen a lot of different things from a lot of different places."
Starting next week, Harris will be diving into the first-quarter budget results with each department to communicate the immediate situation and determine if there are ways to mitigate any shortfalls. Although he's part of the finance department, Lesner said Harris will be able to offer department's a well-rounded perspective from a financial angle.
"While we are the money people in the finance department, they are our customers," Lesner said. "We are trying to help them get their job done."
He explained most departments must stay focused on their own daily operations and don't often have the time to dive into financial logistics, but that's where Harris can help.
"We are there trying to help understand their operations better. We function as internal consultants," he said. "It doesn't matter where it's coming from. You don't approach it as a top-down approach. It's very much a collaborative effort."
From an organizational standpoint, Lesner said it's good timing for the village since he thinks village board and staff have the same vision for improvement.
"I think that's where he's really going to help – with what our failures were in the past," he said.
Harris said during the meeting that organizations which invest in "improving service performance" typically perform more effectively than those that don't, according to market research. Overall, the report explains the program "promotes organizational alignment among impacted stakeholders, established service performance measures and performance targets that are accurate, meaningful and clearly understood; and that empowers departments with the tools and resources to manage and improve services."
The village will flow through an eight-step process that starts by conducting kick-off activities with review from village management staff and the finance committee; forming a program charter; conducting visioning sessions with key stakeholders; creating a program outline; conducting departmental interviews and focus groups; presenting findings and recommendations and reviewing and validating the program, according to the draft report.
Harris, who thinks his "outsider's perspective" will benefit the process, called the performance management program timeline "aggressive, but possible," and said it can becomes part of Oak Park's culture once implemented properly.
Harris said in local government there is often a strain between managers and departments, but this method encourages engagement from a grassroots effort, addressing all stakeholders in the process.
"This is going across the spectrum," he said. "Everyone is going to be touched by this."