County clerk 'professionalizes' office

Cook County (Ill.) Circuit Court

When Dorothy Brown was elected clerk of Illinois' Cook County Circuit Court in November 2000, her office still operated on "woefully outdated" 1970s technology.

It was using mainframe systems without any relational databases, employees used green-screen dumb terminals, Cobol was used to develop reports and the office was not connected to the county's wide-area network (WAN). "So, we couldn't use the e-mail technology already in place," she said.

That situation was quite a handicap for an office that maintains more than 500 million records, has 2,300 employees and operates under a $120 million budget. Furthermore, Brown's staff processes up to 13 million online transactions a month, prints about 24 million pages of computer output, processes 17 million events of data a year and receives nearly 2 million new cases annually.

Brown — who also is a certified public accountant, an attorney and holds a master's degree in business administration — embarked on a process to "professionalize" the office. She hired Craig Wimberly from the private sector to be chief information officer; re-established relationships with other agency heads; provided new equipment, software tools and training to her employees; developed a strategic plan to integrate and upgrade systems; and ultimately improved customer service.

During the past two and a half years, Brown has spent an estimated $1.5 million on new infrastructure. That included equipping the office with thin clients, manufactured by Neoware Systems Inc., that are half the price of personal computers but provide the same functionality and performance. The expenditure also included a few personal computers, printers, servers, switches to connect to the county's WAN and wiring.

However, that's only the beginning. As the nation's largest unified court system, the clerk's office manages about 17 facilities, including child support, juvenile and domestic violence centers and a criminal felony building, in several locations.

In April, the Cook County Board of Commissioners awarded the clerk's office an "unprecedented" $5 million toward a new integrated cashiering and security system that will equip the office with new computerized cash registers, which will be tied into the case management and accounting systems, Brown said. That will take 12 to 18 months to implement.

The office also is developing a new records management system that will enable employees to locate files, among other things, Wimberly said, and it's adding more functionality to the clerk's Web site, including posting 400 forms. It is also embarking on a new integrated criminal justice information system, although plans are still being developed and funding still being sought.

Wimberly said the office's biggest challenges have been to improve and redefine its relationship with other county agencies as well as provide skills to its employees so they could adapt to the changing environment. "All this has been well received...because it requires us to plan it out and bring everyone to the table [who] have a stake in what we're doing," he said, adding that sharing best practices has also become an outcome of some of the initiatives.

Most of the early improvements were done in-house, Brown said, but the office will turn to competitive bidding for some of the upcoming major projects. To oversee proper implementation, she is hiring project managers for initiatives such as the integrated cashiering system, but will use in-house managers for smaller applications.

She said money is an issue, but it has to be channeled effectively. "I have seen that people have had problems really figuring out how to approach technology," she said. "A lot of times you have the dollars, but it's a problem with managing those dollars. You have the wrong person in place [or] the reporting structure for the [information technology] department goes the wrong way."

Instead of an executive vice president reviewing proposed project — as was done in the previous administration — project managers now come to her, she said. Brown also is emphasizing that her IT department take the lead in representing user agencies when dealing with vendors.

"Rome wasn't built in a day and we understand that," Brown said. "Every time we have a challenge we meet that challenge."

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