By Anna Lothson
The Reinventing Government Committee of the Oak Park village board is tasked with creating better systems and services for constituents at a competitive cost. But some bids are just too tough to swallow.
In fact, the bids from three consulting firms to help find a new Building and Property Standards Department software system were so high they made Trustee Ray Johnson "gulp."
At issue was new software to streamline the department's permitting and building inspection process. The budgeted amount for both the software upgrade and consulting costs was $125,000.
But the consulting bids alone were above that mark. Oak Park received three consultant bids, one local and two national, which ranged from roughly $132,000 to 164,000. The total project could top more than $200,000 with the necessary software.
At the meeting, trustees suggested the village should stay within a $50-$100,000 range but didn't settle on a specific amount until staff determines more about what exactly the village is looking for.
"Right out of the gate we were all concerned what direction this was possibly headed," Johnson said. "We really have to assess here where we have gaps [in the department] before we embark on something that expensive."
Improving services in the building department itself has been a village goal for some time. Now that one of its key services may go through an upgrade, the processes of the department itself are going to be reassessed. This means reviewing protocol for inspections and permits to make them more consistent.
Johnson explained one common customer complaint about the department is the inconsistency among inspectors in terms of what they approve. For example, the first inspector may sign off on a project and a second inspector may later provide a different opinion. This creates frustration for customers, Johnson said, and also has fed into the perception that Oak Park isn't business-friendly.
Because the village needs to evaluate that issue first, Johnson said this is not the time to hire an expensive consultant to provide expertise on a system that may or may not be what's best for the village's needs.
Before the permitting and inspection process is enhanced, the department must be functioning to the best of its ability, he said.
"A new technology system is not going to fix that."
Johnson did acknowledge the need to transition from the village's "manual intensive" forms and paperwork process to an online forms system that can be tracked through the inspection or permitting process.
"Hopefully it will streamline the process," he said. "It can't just be about speed, but about quality."
Allowing customers to see what stage their permit is in could reduce the number of customer complaints, Johnson said.
The high consulting bids, coupled with the need to evaluate the department, deterred the committee from making a decision.
"We are not anywhere ready to determine what pathway we want to go on," said Johnson, who wondered if the village could tap into its own resources, e.g. its own citizen commissions, instead of relying solely on consultants.
Johnson said Oak Park needs to turn the tide on how people view business and customer service in the village. Changes have been made, he said, but more is needed.
"If we're going to create the perception that Oak Park is the place to do business, then our business and property standards have to work in that manner," he said. "This is at least a step in that direction."
The next direction
Trustee Bob Tucker agreed the village needs to first determine the overall goals of the software before hiring consultants. He wants as much in-house work done before a third party jumps in.
Tucker sees the benefits of a consultant for specific projects because he said it's often a more cost-effective way to get the village the expertise needed. He also thinks the village should evaluate when work can be done with the village's own internal resources and when it should be sourced out. This is expected to be a topic of further discussion.
"For some in the village, consultant is almost a four-letter word," Tucker said. "But sometimes to get in and get out to do a single job, it can be a cost-saving measure."
Village President Anan Abu-Taleb is one skeptic who wants to see consultants used less. Instead he'd like the village to rely more on its commissions and networking abilities with nearby communities.
"We're consultant dependent. I think that we are addicted to consultants and I want to change that," Abu-Taleb said.
The village president was frustrated by the presentation given by the Reinventing Government Committee last week. He said he wants staff to come to the committee with a more concise, targeted plan of action for the permitting and inspection process before the group moves forward. He also wants more outreach done to other communities to see how municipalities face similar problems.
"We are not so unique in facing these challenges," stressed Abu-Taleb, who was among the supporters of reviewing the building department to determine where gaps are occurring.
"Do we need a consultant at one point, or do we need a third party to sort though it? Yes. Do we need them to this extent? No," he said.
The president, who has been a proponent of streamlining processes, said he wants technology and customer service to be a top priority in the village. He expressed frustration about customers calling village hall and never being able to reach a person and not having the ability to take care of simple permitting processes online.
Moving forward, Abu-Taleb wants staff to prepare a mission statement about what the new software for permitting processes should do and how it will benefit users. Until that's done, he's not ready to sign off on hiring a company to take the project forward.
Like Johnson, he is also a proponent of having the building department reviewed to see what's working and what's not. If technology were the only issue, Abu-Taleb said he'd be much more willing to sign off on the financials needed.
"The building department needs to be fixed independent of anything else," he said. "I'm glad people understand the issue to make that change. … We don't have to spend the bank just trying to fix it."
Abu-Taleb also said the discussions need to focus away from hiring consultants and turn toward where the village should be investing money.
"There's a difference between spending and investing," he said. "I want to invest in projects that streamline the processes, that can help us minimize mistakes, that can help us do with less staff, that can help us save money in the future, that can help us to be competitive."