City of Chicago leverages Office 365

Lindsay James
Lindsay James
By Lindsay James on 18 December 2015
City of Chicago leverages Office 365

Maintaining city streets, arranging refuse collection, issuing building permits, safeguarding neighbourhoods – all of these tasks fall are the responsibility of the City of Chicago government. Although its 30 departments have distinct responsibilities, they often work together to deliver top-notch service to residents.

Until recently, City employees had a difficult time finding and connecting with the right colleagues across departments. This disconnect also posed efficiency and security challenges. “Some employees lacked email capabilities due to budget restrictions, so it was doubly hard to communicate in certain cases,” says Brenna Berman, chief information officer at the City of Chicago. “We also struggled with duplication of effort across the City in terms of system management and associated costs.”

The City wanted not only to improve its staff’s ability to collaborate but also to put itself in a better position to meet residents’ expectations. “Over the last decade, the consumer experience has changed,” says Berman. “People are now used to doing their banking online at any hour and ordering products from the comfort of home. They’ve also come to expect 24-hour service from their government, which challenges us to find different ways to tailor our services to them.” For example, some residents prefer self-service options for reporting problems or getting information, while others want a more comprehensive in-person experience in which employees have complete information.

The City knew that it needed different underlying technologies to support its goal of continuous improvement. Management determined that moving to the cloud would provide the functionality that employees needed while making it possible for the City to shed some of its on-premises infrastructure, which was expensive and time-consuming to maintain. The City conducted a direct comparison of enterprise-class cloud services, reviewing cost, security, functionality such as mobility, ease of user adoption, and other factors. “When we looked across all the categories, we saw that Microsoft Office 365 would best fit our needs,” says Berman.

After making its selection, the City worked with a service delivery executive from Microsoft Premier Support who developed a detailed plan for the new architecture. Microsoft brought in Planet Technologies to help the City move its messaging systems to Microsoft Exchange Online and help with end-user training, which was important because the City was adding employees to its user base.

“We appreciate how we can match the different Office 365 plans with our wide variety of users,” says Berman. “Because of that flexibility, we were able to extend capabilities to all employees, including the field workers who make up more than a third of our staff and use kiosks to access Office 365. With our labourers, pipefitters, and other field employees connected to Office 365, we have smoother intradepartmental communication, less need for physical meetings and paper printouts, and a more consistent conduit for information sharing.”

Employees take advantage of secure, cloud-based Microsoft Office Online for the freedom to work from anywhere on any device, from Android smartphones to BlackBerry devices to tablets. “Although some employees choose to use the full Microsoft Office client, it’s helpful to have easy access to Office programs from outside our network,” says Berman. “Employees no longer have to be in one of our facilities to be productive.” Some City employees also use Microsoft OneDrive for Business for cloud-based document storage, making it easier to access relevant information from anywhere.

But perhaps the biggest change in how the City operates has to do with an upsurge in process automation. For example, the Chicago Department of Transportation and Department of Finance recently overhauled their methods for processing contractor invoices. The departments used to receive paper invoices through the mail or by personal delivery, and it became increasingly difficult to ensure that invoices progressed through the payment process properly and to track down information if there were questions later. “Each project’s paperwork could fill up to 50 boxes, creating a storage issue,” says Mohammed Pakshir, manager of finance at the Chicago Department of Transportation. “Maintaining the integrity of the information was a real problem. We had so many paper copies going in so many directions that it was difficult to know which document was the right one.”

The departments also faced time pressure to submit reimbursement requests to state and federal agencies. “Reimbursements have expiration dates, and if we don’t claim those funds in time, we lose them,” says Pakshir. “Our manual processes made it extremely hard to gather all relevant information and submit requests within the timeframe. We risked losing US$1.4 million in transportation funding.”

The departments solved for these obstacles by developing an e-invoice solution using Microsoft SharePoint Online. Contractors submit invoices electronically and receive confirmation that the department received them, and it’s easier for City employees to find documents without wading through boxes of paper. “In the past, it could take multiple days to track down a piece of information,” says Cheryl Donegan, Director of Administration for Finance at the Chicago Department of Transportation. “Now it takes just a few minutes, so we’re operating more efficiently while providing greater transparency to the contractors who work on our projects.” Best of all, the City is more agile when it comes to submitting reimbursement requests, mitigating the chance of losing funds.

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