- Chicago's Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) does not consistently adhere to best practices for selecting and executing information technology (IT) projects, according to an audit report from the city's Office of the Inspector General (OIG). This can increase the risk of projects costing more, taking a longer time to complete and not meeting requirements or goals.
- OIG also found DoIT does not consistently and accurately monitor project performance, evaluate performance after project completion or apply lessons learned to future projects.
- The report offers recommendations to help DoIT improve, including that the department evaluates past performance and uses effective project management to make sure projects are delivered on time and on budget. "It is critical that DoIT fully implement a process for selecting projects that not only meet departments' needs and aligns with the City's strategic goals, but also allocates limited City resources in the most efficient manner possible," the report says.
The audit report reviewed eight projects that DoIT initiated in 2016 and 2017. It shows DoIT employees did not estimate the complete costs, benefits and risks before selecting which projects to pursue. The department also did not identify project performance goals or consistently monitor spending or progress. Most of the reviewed projects took more time to complete than scheduled. In short, the department lacks important policies in some areas and in others it has policies that it doesn't follow or enforce; both issues generate negative consequences.
Suboptimal IT program implementation and execution not only wastes time and money, but it also can compromise security, an OIG spokesperson told Smart Cities Dive via email. It could lead to the theft of personal, identifying information or ransomware attacks. Ensuring proper IT program execution reduces the risk of potentially costly and dangerous cybersecurity breaches.
Two of the eight projects investigated in the audit have been especially high-profile: Chicago's 311 system modernization and the Array of Things (AoT), one of Chicago's flagship smart city projects. The research and development project is a collaborative effort among city government, scientists, universities and communities to install streetlight-mounted sensors for collecting real-time data on urban livability elements including traffic, air quality, noise pollution and climate conditions.
AoT is held up by many in the industry as an example of a smart city application to emulate. Such a widely-known and imitated project facing scrutiny suggests that even initiatives launched by innovation leaders can use re-calibration and improvement from time to time.
City leaders are increasingly shying away from innovation for innovation's sake to instead devise and follow a comprehensive smart city plan. Successful comprehensive plans smoothly integrate various projects that have clear public benefits. The best plans also tend to incorporate accountability measures to make sure projects are carried out efficiently and government employees use best practices and failure insights to influence future projects.
The OIG report describes five stages of project maturity, and the lowest level involves organizations making information technology (IT) investment decisions in an unstructured, ad hoc manner. This approach is considered suboptimal. The audit says Chicago's DoIT is at stage one and working toward stage two. Stage five — the highest level — is when an organization optimizes its processes and IT investments drive strategic organizational change.
Moving up in the maturity model allows cities to scale for a larger innovation and technology portfolio. "The downsides of ad hoc processes only increase the larger a portfolio gets," the OIG spokesperson said.
The OIG audit points out that certain projects might succeed without consistent enterprise-wide management, but that's not the norm and usually is due to extraordinary individual efforts instead of repeatable and effective processes. "Effective management of an IT portfolio requires consistent and repeatable organizational processes," the report says.
One challenge that Chicago's — and presumably, other cities' — IT department struggles with is high turnover because of the tight labor market for IT professionals, given governmental financial constraints, according to the OIG spokesperson. The turnover rate makes it even more important to design and use consistent, replicable and well-documented processes that will endure even when employees leave their positions.
The OIG report does not suggest stopping or slowing digital innovation projects, but rather improving processes to achieve greater public benefits. "There is an enormous amount of efficiency in government services that could be unlocked if we had accurate, reliable data," the spokesperson said.
Chicago's DoIT agreed with the audit recommendations and reportedly already is making changes to address the issues raised. Changes include updating policies, requiring project managers to adhere to all written policies for project selection, monitoring and evaluating projects and requiring all city departments to engage in standardized IT oversight processes.