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Comprehensive Feedback and Agile Testing Helped a U.S. City Modernize Its System for Helping Residents




LaWanda Crayton, PMP, left, and Cortez McKinney, PMP, Department of Innovation and Technology PMO, City of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Report potholes. Rat out rodents. Replace a busted garbage can.

One of the largest cities in the United States has made it radically easier for residents to request public services and resolve nonemergency problems. A team in Chicago, Illinois completed a 27-month, US$35 million project in December to modernize and streamline the system that serves 2.7 million residents.

The Chicago 311 project delivered a new website and rolled out a mobile app to better serve residents, and it developed a unified back-end system for handling work orders more efficiently across city departments. The system was designed to reduce wait times and increase the ability to track the status of requests—all major improvements on the antiquated, call-based service it replaced.

Now, instead of dialing 311 on a phone, residents can simply tap their smartphones to address more than 200 issues and file complaints ranging from excessive airplane noise to broken streetlights to a bad taxi driver. And the digital platform means 311 system workers no longer get bogged down with paperwork that could slow response times.

The high-tech overhaul required a team from the city's Department of Innovation and Technology project management office (PMO) to execute a complex and comprehensive engagement strategy from start to finish. The team had to maintain alignment and build buy-in among three groups of critical stakeholders: 18 city departments and corresponding agencies that offer 311 services, the mayor's office and elected officials from the city's 50 wards who served as executive sponsors, and residents whose feedback helped fine-tune development of the system.



“From the technology that was needed to the resources that were needed to the implementation to the community outreach—everyone understood the magnitude of what needed to happen to get this transition going,” says LaWanda Crayton, PMP, project manager, Department of Innovation and Technology PMO, City of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

—LaWanda Crayton, PMP, City of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA


Scaling new technology across an entire city wouldn't be possible without crystal-clear requirements. By breaking the project into two primary phases—one year of planning and 15 months of development and implementation—project managers were able to establish clear expectations from the start. This helped the team quickly clamp down on the budget and timeline to ensure ROI for taxpayers in a city of mounting debts and deficits.

In 2016, the team began meeting with the core departments of 311 to review all existing workflows used by those departments. “It was important to get the buy-in from departments early for their active participation and to begin business process requirements,” says Cortez McKinney, PMP, project manager, Department of Innovation and Technology PMO, City of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

Each department had six to 12 planning meetings with the team—and each session lasted at least two hours. “We did a lot of drawings on the board, diagramming everything, creating workflows from scratch, really walking through the life cycle of all 250 business processes,” Ms. Crayton says.

To tailor the engagement with city departments, the team divided departments into “cohorts” based on size, relevance and impact of impending changes to their departments, Mr. McKinney says. The team started with the departments that deliver the largest number of services, to ensure they had enough time to work through business process improvements. “Cohorts were phased into the project timeline and invited to monthly steering committee meetings accordingly.”


Call to Action

September 2016: Planning and business analysis begins to establish scope and budget.

September 2017: System development begins.

October 2018: Test site launches and feedback is collected from city departments and residents.

December 2018: Project completed and new system goes live.

Gathering early and constant feedback from key stakeholders also helped identify and prioritize risks. The team had each department participate in business process reengineering, with a goal of optimizing the system, streamlining services and providing transparency to residents and city staff.

The team also developed reports on a regular basis for the mayor's office and submitted monthly reports to the City Council. It established steering committees to keep city departments and executive sponsors in the loop. But the team had no problem going beyond those cadences to quickly resolve problems.

“Anytime one of our user departments felt any unease, we'd get right in front of them and have a whole departmental meeting,” Ms. Crayton says. “We'd get their questions and concerns out on the table and let them know how we planned on addressing those.”


—LaWanda Crayton, PMP


Nothing was more important than developing a system that residents would embrace. But merely educating the public about the new 311 wasn't enough. To ensure it didn't overlook any critical functions, the team gave residents a clear voice in what system features and capabilities would be most helpful to them. The team hired a community engagement vendor to facilitate outreach, and it held 11 public forums early on, with each group averaging 20 resident participants per session.

Those meetings included exercises such as having residents fill out “postcards from the future” to describe what 311 services could look like in the year 2035. Residents also participated in activities such as sorting notecards with city services and grouping them by intuitive categories. Such exercises helped residents ideate around future needs and improve the new system's user experience.


LaWanda Crayton, PMP,
project manager, Department of Innovation and Technology project management office, City of Chicago
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Experience: 20 years

Why did this project have special meaning to you?
It's an honor to be able to give something back to the city. It brightens my day to see the city evolving and to know that the team and I had a hand in that.

What career lesson did you learn on this project?
Understand where you need to delegate. I found that project manager within, and I realized I needed to leverage every skill to do this project. From time management to resource management and especially from an environmental perspective—all of it mattered.

What's your next project?
I'm juggling multiple initiatives simultaneously, beyond our efforts to continue enhancements on the 311 system. This includes a citywide personal computer replacement initiative as well as modernizing the finance department's call center.


Residents can simply tap their smartphones to address more than 200 issues and file service requests including tree trimming and graffiti removal, below.

The focus groups also uncovered a need to centralize information about city services. “Seventy percent of calls to 311 are for information,” Mr. McKinney says. In the old system, residents had to go to each department's website to find answers. The new system consolidated critical information and FAQs about each department and reduced confusion when residents search the new system.

“I'm most proud of the interaction with the public,” Mr. McKinney says. “This level of community engagement is unique to Chicago's project. It really made a difference in all respects—design, functionality, usage. With that, this truly becomes a product that was built with Chicagoans and for Chicagoans, and that can truly become a central access point for residents and the city.”

—Cortez McKinney, PMP, City of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA


Given the need for continuous development across the three products, the team opted to use agile approaches. Only one-off additions to the products uncovered by community outreach meetings were handled with a hybrid of agile and waterfall (or predictive) approaches, since such additions wouldn't require iterative testing.

“At the end of every development sprint, we would do a sprint review,” Ms. Crayton says. “And it would be every user department in the room. We told them this is what we expected to do, and then we'd demonstrate the product.”


The team used libraries and community colleges as sites where residents could test the new system and share their thoughts. While the development team performed back-end and accessibility testing, user departments conducted their own independent tests after each sprint review, which helped iron out all technical kinks to maximize user experience. For example: Could city crew workers in the field clearly view all images submitted by residents to illustrate their unique problems?

The iterative approach helped streamline project progress dramatically. By adopting agile approaches, the team was able to develop the system more quickly than originally planned. As a result, it was able to speed up delivery by a month.


Prior to launch, the project team made sure all key stakeholders were well situated for success. The team developed training materials—both instructor-led and online training. The instructor-led training used gamification to build skills within the new system. All certified users in city departments were provided with access to an online learning management system. Other specialists provide one-on-one digital skills training for residents at libraries throughout the city.

“For the first two to three days of go-live, we sent out staff to all city and ward offices and had a war room to support our staff out in the field and help troubleshoot issues,” Mr. McKinney says. Stakeholder management didn't end there: Site demonstrations to increase public awareness will continue through 2019, and the team is creating video tutorials that residents will have free access to.

—Cortez McKinney, PMP

The team incorporated robust reporting capabilities into the system's back end to help quantify the long-term project benefits. Those tools will enable the team to automatically evaluate usage across the three new platforms, measure request response times and track app downloads. Preliminary data is promising: In the first three months, there were 17,000 mobile app downloads and nearly 400,000 service requests logged via the new system. The system will generate data so the city can analyze geographic trends, such as where certain services are requested most.

“I've been able to work on a number of great projects and give back to the city, but not to this magnitude,” Ms. Crayton says. “311 services touch so many different people in so many different ways. It just warms my heart that we're giving people all these different avenues by which to get what they need.” PM

—LaWanda Crayton, PMP

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