OP trustees: Building dept. consultants too costly

Reinventing Government Committee rejects bids


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By Anna Lothson

Staff Reporter

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."

Email: anna@oakpark.com Twitter: @AnnaLothson

Reader Comments

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John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 27th, 2013 11:48 PM

SIDEBAR - Jaames Harris, said "Upgrading the permit system for the Building and Property Standards Department would improve technology processes across all departments." What Harris describes is an Enterprise System (connecting all business processes). Is the Standards Dept software being debated an Enterprise System? How long will the software in question take to connect all departments and at what additional cost? Why was Standards chosen as the pilot project? Yes, I do have a continuing case of PeopleSoft fever!

Bill from Oak Park  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 10:09 PM

OP Res 253 and Q make pertinent comments. The village should have a business case that proves the software will streamline things and improve quality. Also should have some metrics to measure sucess and proof that union members will play ball. That can be done before you sign a contract for software and configuration. Maybe this was done already.? Seems strange that after three competitive bids the village knows that the cost is too much when they admit they don't know what they want

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 7:25 PM

When the government bailed out GM, it also bailed out the workers and retirees. The bankruptcy was painful for everyone. All of us had our pensions cut, lost benefits, etc. The choice by the government appears to be a good one. GM is back on its feet as a company no longer riddled by a bureaucracy that refused to change. They are in a position to finish paying off the debt to the taxpayers and will as soon as the federal government says so. It hurt a lot but in the end it was a victory.

OP Res 253  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 6:42 PM

Automating bad processes based on misguided priorities is a money sink. Software doesn't solve problems, it streamlines solutions. OP is looking to software consultants for what every business owner, landlord and contractor will give them for free! And public unions have no place because the other side (salary and benefit funder/tax paying employer) is not invited to the negotiating table. Public unions bastardized the process private unions fought for. So said FDR.

OP Transplant  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 6:13 PM

Defenders of unions tend to cite decades-old gains. It's hard to argue with the fact, though, that some unions have given foreign competitors an advantage and contributed to the loss of US jobs. Or to the need for taxpayer-funded bailouts of private companies. In a modern, global economy, unions can look like an anachronism.

Profits up  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 5:34 PM

Corp profits are at record highs. 20 yr olds are not being hired NOT because of money. Maybe companies are trying to do more with less, something govt doesnt understand. Another way to put it- Efficient

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 5:22 PM

Tom Peters, the noted Business Management Practices Author has stated: "For the blue-collar worker, the driving force behind change was factory automation using programmable machine tools. The office workers automation is computer technology: enterprise-resource-planning systems, groupware, intranets, extranets, expert systems, the Web, e-commerce iPads, hi tech phones, etc." Consider that in 1970, it took five days to unload a ship full of timber, today it would take one day and 8 people. I sympathize with the lament of Right on Reality Check! when he wrote, "We wonder why there are no jobs for the 20 year olds.. I suspect that he or she is from my generation. Getting a first job in the early 60's when I graduated HS was easy. Show a high school degree and within a week you were a clerk, secretary, business machine operator, etc. The pay was good, the jobs were easy, and advancement was available. Those jobs don't exist anymore. Computer programmers replaced many in the 1970's. By the mid-1990's, the programmers were replaced by computers that did its own programming. Most programmers were gone by Y@K. In 1999, in "Reinventing Work" Peters opened his book by writing: "The White Collar Revolution will embrace 90% of workers in the next ten or so years." Most businesses have completed the White Collar transition. Many that did not embrace the change are gone. Most government entities are not close to completing the change ?" Detroit; for instance.

Unions Cost too much  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 4:50 PM

Unions have no place in the PUBLIC sector where profits are not generated.

OP Resident # 545 from Oak Park  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 4:06 PM

The unions that cost too much are PUBLIC unions. Public unions did NOT build the middle class. Public unions, in the form of the Public Union/Democrat Complex are killing the middle class. JBM & Reality Check are missing the point here.

Right on Reality Check!  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 3:17 PM

We wonder why there are no jobs for the 20 year olds. Could it be we do not want to pay?

Reality Check  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 2:51 PM

Unions built the Middle Class. If you turn your back on Unions, you're turning your back on the US being a First World country. If you say Unions cost too much, you're saying it costs too much for the US to be anything more than a Third World country with a tiny powerful elite and the masses in poverty.

Unions Cost too much  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 2:05 PM

John 2 words Legacy Costs. GM was just bailed out by the US Govt.....NOT the workers. The waste and corruption in the leadership of Unions is paramount. Nothing good has ever come from such

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 12:58 PM

UNIONS COST TOO MUCH ?" I spent 35 years at GM. Most of those years were in corporate ?" a bad place to learn and a great place to observe. The unions did not destroy GM ?" the leadership did. The cause was a failure to address change. In the 80's when most companies were downsizing, GM was upsizing and adding complex organizational structures that resulted in super-fiefdoms. It is easy to blame the worker. I am sure that Imhotep, the lead engineer of the Pyramids blamed delays on the rock crushers. ADAM SMITH - Most organization hire consultant for the wrong reasons. A common cause is a lack of trust in its workforce. That goes hand in hand with consultants being a patsy for whatever goes wrong. There are times when consultant's knowledge is critical to making change. Ignored, is the fact that consultant provide ideas and recommendations, not decisions and solutions. Solutions are the province of the organization's leadership and the blame for failure. MAGGIE ?" The village has no shortage of talent in its fiefdoms. What it lacks is a clear vision to guide the talent and the authority to implement change. MY RECOMMENDATION ?" Do an in depth study of why PeopleSoft was such a colossal failure. Knowledge of the past is the first step to the future.

Too Much  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 11:02 AM

always love the person who works in the field that thinks the price looks about right. LOL So says the defense contractor making 345K for a hammer.

Bill from Oak Park  

Posted: August 26th, 2013 9:41 AM

I'm in the industry and my first thought was - this is cheap. You simply can't put in new software and expect it to work (especially with our building department). You need to have clear requirements, design and process in place or it won;t work. Not the job of inspectors. That said, I think the real question is whether the building process can adopt change and use the new software efficiently, assuming the village even has the capability to implement on time, within cost. (doubtful)

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 25th, 2013 11:17 PM

More than $160,000,000.00 of local tax dollars have been grabbed by Oak Park's TIF districts since 1983. If residents and taxpayers really want to get serious about government mismanagment and waste; we have to demand an independent forensic accounting of the books. There's currently no way for the average citizen to learn exactly how this money has been spent and who has benefited from these funds. No real oversight, accountabilty or transparency. Is there any elected official willing to stand up and speak out for change?

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: August 25th, 2013 10:53 PM

Abu-Taleb and Johnson are both correct before wasting money. First find out why the department is having problems. You only need to spend a day following the lack of organization at the building department. The staff have only one idea and that is to fine where ever they can to bring in revenue. Organization is not difficult when you know how to do it. The other part is you do go to other villages and access what problems if any with how they handle it. No consultant needed.


Posted: August 25th, 2013 2:48 PM

http://oakpark.suntimes.com/news/reinvent-OAK-08222013:article For more on this subject, go to the link for The Oak Leaves article. If a budget of $125,000 is considered too much, how do you feel about the Village Manager and staff recommending one of the higher bidders for the job?

Adam Smith  

Posted: August 25th, 2013 9:47 AM

A lot of organizations use consultants to cover their a**. If things go wrong, blame the consultants. If things go right, take credit.

Unions cost too much  

Posted: August 25th, 2013 9:40 AM

I 2nd what OPRF achievement said. So true. We saw when Unions cant compromise and almost allow companies to go bankrupt. GM comes to mind. Again the TAX dollars save the unions.


Posted: August 25th, 2013 9:35 AM

Why, when looking for something new, do organizations, municipalities, school districts, etc... need consultants?? Is there no one within who could consult, meaning basically, look for what is needed? It has been a total waste of money, taxpayer $$$$$'s. There is no smart person within any of these staffs who could do the looking? Or research needed?

Adam Smith  

Posted: August 25th, 2013 8:18 AM

This issue is not unique to Oak Park. The first thing staff should do is find a comparably sized Village/City who is doing it correctly to model themselves after and then see what needs to be done to get there. It may or may not include expensive software but at least you can make an intelligent decision.

OPRF Achievement  

Posted: August 25th, 2013 7:42 AM

@Jim your comment about Unions building help creating the middle class - if this is true it was Unions from the private sector - being paid for by PROFITs made be private companies selling their products and services. What we are talking about here is robbery - Unions in the public sector where there are no profits, just TAXES to pay for things that end up as WASTE. Unions have No BUSINESS in Gov


Posted: August 25th, 2013 4:30 AM

This is perfect example of overanalysis vs. execution. Should not cost this much to implement this system not take too long. OP government is ineffective - trying to please everyone/over compliciate the process. As my boss often reminds me, we pay for results not efforts/analysis.

Unions cost too much  

Posted: August 24th, 2013 7:52 PM

Unions clearly take more than they need. The waste and surplus is outrageous

Mike Lennox from Oak Park  

Posted: August 24th, 2013 7:10 PM

Mr . Johnson's explaination of one common "customer" complaint about inconsistency between inspectors, I don't know how a software program would fix that? If the first inspector says XYZ, then the second inspector needs to respect the decision and go with the XYZ. Anan -- keep the belt tight. Fix the problem from within!

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 24th, 2013 4:10 PM

Michael - all good questions. Jim C Never been in a union when I worked, but I agree with you 100!

MichaelO from Oak Park  

Posted: August 24th, 2013 3:59 PM

For crying out loud. What does it take to find a program to attach to the VOP web site to streamline application submissions and follow ups? How many applications are there annually? How and why did the board come up with the budget amount of $125,000. Why not budget $25,000 and let the bidders really bid rather then set the floor so high?

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 24th, 2013 3:52 PM

Off topic posting deserves an off topic response. Unions helped build the middle class in the country and gained many benefits for workers that too people nowadays take for granted.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 24th, 2013 12:15 PM

The third paragraph, Anna Lothson's summarized the issue facing the board perfectly. That is; the issue is new software to streamline the department's permitting and building inspection process." In fact, you could probably find the same statement during the discussions about PeopleSoft in the early 2000's. The flaw in buying PeopleSoft software was not with the product. It was the lack of a understanding of how the software would be used and how it would increase productivity by the entire village staff. The result of the PeopleSoft software purchase was a less productive staff and an expenditure that was excessive. Evaluating the productivity and service improvements of the entire organization, from the top down must occur before considering software. It is clear to all that the OP business processes are broken and fully understood that software will be a important element to improvement. The danger in moving too fast is complicating the future. For instance, if you are doing a MAJOR renovation of your house, start by having the foundation inspected rather than painting the living room.

Unions cost too much  

Posted: August 24th, 2013 11:20 AM

Unions cost Municipalities all over the US way too much. They tend to have millions in their coffers and waste alot of it on political crap. The Villages and Cities around the Country are the ones funding this.

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 24th, 2013 9:40 AM

Not sure what "four letter word" Trustee Tucker is referring to but all too often consultant contracts are simply a form of white collar patronage. Millions of tax dollars regularly funneled to these "experts" via no bid deals that seem to produce few benefits or practical solutions. John Walsh is right that staff should be responsible for providing trustees with the critical study of an issue.

john walsh from woooddale  

Posted: August 24th, 2013 9:02 AM

why are consulants needed when employees can accomplish the same result

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