SEP 30, 2021
Put the gas on $400M overhaul of city IT infrastructure, aldermen urge assets department
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5) asks questions of Department of Assets, Information and Services Comm. David Reynolds during a hearing on Wednesday.
Chicago has already kicked the tires on a decade-long, $400 million endeavor to upgrade its outdated constellation of information technology — but the work isn’t moving fast enough, some aldermen said on Wednesday.
Comm. David Reynolds, who heads the city’s $514 million Department of Assets, Information and Service, detailed the early stages of the tech overhaul during the department’s budget hearing Wednesday afternoon. He also previewed the city’s plans to transition publicly-owned buildings and vehicles to renewable energy and fielded challenges from aldermen over minority participation and residency requirements in the department’s contracting practices.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2022 spending plan calls to grow the department’s budget from the approximately $460.3 million allocated for 2021, while boosting the staff with an additional 26 full-time positions “due to increased duties for facility management and fleet operations,” Reynolds said Wednesday. The commissioner chalked up most of the budget hike to rising fuel prices and other maintenance costs, including the cost of taking over stewardship of Millennium Park from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
But he also said about 10 percent of the department’s existing 920 staff positions are vacant following an unusually high number of departures in 2021.
Assets, Information and Services is one of multiple departments facing a staffing crunch headed into next year. Officials in the Department of Family and Support Services on Monday said the department also has nearly 100 vacancies, pushing aldermen to press leaders of the city’s Department of Human Resources on Tuesday about how they plan to speed up hiring.
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Reynolds faced questions from multiple aldermen, including Ald. Leslie Hairston (5), about his department’s progress on the city’s long-range “IT Strategic Plan.” The department launched the plan after a city-hired consultant issued a 167-page report identifying dozens of fixes the city needs implement to modernize its technology landscape.
Hairston asked Reynolds how the plan was being mapped out in each of the city’s successive annual spending plans.
“We need to have that budgeted so that we can keep moving with the time, as opposed to a kneejerk response and just trying to band-aid to keep all the balls in the air,” Hairston said.
Reynolds said the department plans to start by upgrading or replacing the “five different systems within the city that are the most important to get updated first,” including software that handles online payments, attendance records, human resources and budgeting. Each system will cost about $30 million to modernize, he said.
“Those are the systems that are the most important, because they’re old, [and] we’re being held hostage to vendors who have proprietary software that only they can fix, and we’d be in big trouble if one of them failed,” Reynolds said. “So that’s the starting point, and then we’ll move into the next group.”
The department has also “started filling IT director positions” to improve the city’s website and 311 system, and it has eliminated three city applications that “no one took ownership of,” Reynolds added.
But Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36), who chairs the City Council Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology development, challenged Reynolds over whether the department is looking to reimagine its systems, instead of just updating them.
“What innovation has the department done as it relates to putting technology at the forefront?” Villegas asked. “You haven’t done anything yet because you haven’t had the funding, but now with this proposed budget, you’re going to come up with the innovation ideas?”
Reynolds noted in response that he has only been overseeing the city’s information technology since 2019, when the assets, information and services department was born through the merger of the Departments of Fleet and Facilities Management and the Department of Innovation and Technology.
“IT has been within this department for 22 months now, and all but two or three of those months has been in a pandemic, which sucked resources off in that direction,” Reynolds said.
Villegas has repeatedly pushed to reverse the 2019 merger, and he introduced a resolution (R2021-993) this month calling to spin off the Bureau of Information Technology into a standalone department again.
Villegas sounded the call again on Wednesday and was backed up by Ald. Andre Vasquez (40), who said the department consolidation “wasn’t the right idea.”
“I do believe that...our assets that are physical, compared to our IT technology, should be decoupled, not because of lack of execution, but just the nature of what those focuses are,” Vasquez said.
Ald. Raymond Lopez (15) also heaped criticism on the department’s management of information technology, calling it “wholly unacceptable” for Reynolds to blame a lack of innovation on the pandemic.
“Everybody in your department, I believe, has still been getting paid throughout the entirety of this pandemic,” Lopez said. “We understand limited progress, but we still want to see progress, regardless.”
Decarbonization of city buildings, vehicles
Reynolds also said Wednesday that his department has set a goal of powering all city-owned buildings with renewable energy by 2025, with an ultimate aspiration to electrify all of the city’s buildings with renewably sourced power by 2035. He said the department has issued a Request for Proposals for new solar power generation, potentially with a new solar plant built in downstate Illinois.
Department leaders also hope to electrify the city’s vehicle fleet, but that process could be slower, Reynolds said. The city today owns just six electric vehicles and is hampered by a lack of charging stations.
Under the solar project, like most deals executed through the city’s Job Order Contracts program, the department would not be able to require participation by workers who live in the city or partner with minority-owned firms — exclusions that chafed at Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11) and Ald. Walter Burnett (27).
“The city is underpopulated…and one of the main ways we keep people in the city of Chicago is by having government employees live in the city,” Burnett said. “We lose out economically when we allow folks to do city work and don’t live in the city.”
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