The Impact of Basic Continuous Improvement on the City of Chicago: A quick look at the City Clerk’s Office

The Chicago City Clerk – the most visited office in City Government – could be saving millions tax payer dollars if it took some common sense steps often employed by the private sector.  The Clerk’s Office -- which maintains all City Council Legislation and distributes city stickers and business licenses -- maintains a staff of 100 employees with an $8M budget, while overseeing about $100M in revenue.  We can do better.

Continuous Improvement requires metrics.   If Office’s primary service is legislative tracking and city sticker distribution, it needs to develop KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) to measure how well or poorly the Office is doing.  If the Office currently has any KPIs, they are not available for the public to view on the website.  The Clerk should develop and publish these KPIs.  A good starting place is cost per: cost per city sticker issued, cost per business license issued, cost per dog permit issued, etc.  This at least provides a baseline which can be used to measure year over year performance.  Continuous Improvement 101 tells us that, once you start to measure it, you will improve it.

Along those lines, the City Clerk should publish detailed process maps for each of its processes. For example, once a piece of legislation is proposed or passed, exactly what happens?  Who out of the 100 employees does what, in what order, and for what purpose?  Once you have processes clearly defined and mapped, you can begin to evaluate each for efficiencies, and ensure there is no overlap among employees, groups, or departments.   Safely assuming that there are no current Process Maps in place, expect an easy 10% ($800K) cost reduction by implementing and brainstorming around these tools. 

Using these simple tools will also improve service quality.  For example, the Office should be measuring and publishing the amount of time on average each license takes to complete its entire life cycle (evaluation/issuance process).  It should create an expectation of what is acceptable (i.e. any permit that takes more than X days to issue is unacceptable).   The measurement then becomes the % of permits that took more than X days to issue.  Following a similar theme, the Office should implement customer satisfaction surveys and post those results online.   A simple numerical score is a great start to measuring how well the tax payers are satisfied with the services they are paying for.

Unlike private companies that compete in the marketplace, the City Clerk’s Office is a monopoly.  Customers are forced to use it, and have no alternative options.  Because of this, it is critical that the Office instill trust.  The current City Clerk made the following promise in one of her Editorial Board Questionnaire answers in January of 2011,

“I'll encourage citizens to propose legislation directly through the Clerk and am excited about the potential the office could have to influence and/or craft policy.”

A very simple way for her to “encourage” is to place a form on the City Clerk’s website that allows residents to contribute a legislative or administrative proposal.  She should make it extremely visible and simple for anyone to do.

The current officeholder frequently reminds us that it is the most visited office in Chicago.  Assuming its website is highly-frequented as well, why not sell advertising space on it?  Depending on the amount of traffic the website enjoys, the Office could generate anywhere between $10K and $10M per year and lower the cost of permits or city stickers.  This is not rocket science; its common sense and practical business management.

Filed under: Public Policy

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    Professor Podgorski

    Matt Podgorski is an adjunct professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University and a Supply Chain Professional within the CPG Industry. He holds a Master’s Degree in Economics and Public Policy from Pepperdine University, as well as a Black-Belt in Lean-Six Sigma. Contact him at

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