EPISODE 1

RESPONDING TO A PANDEMIC

Play Now

Jen is joined by James Farrell, Chief Information Officer for the Village of Bolingbrook, IL, as they look back on the many challenges the Pandemic brought to Bolingbrook, as well as communities across the country. They also discuss how priorities needed to shift immediately and what challenges still lie ahead.

Full Episode Transcript

Recording:

This is the Peers in Public Records Podcast with Jen Snyder, brought to you by GovQA.

Jen Snyder:

Good morning, everyone. And thank you for joining us on the GovQA podcast. Today we have the pleasure of speaking with James Farrell from the Village of Bolingbrook. James, I believe you are the CIO of the Village of Bolingbrook?

James Farrell:

Yes, I am.

Jen Snyder:

Wonderful. So if you could take a couple of minutes and just give the audience a little bit of background on who James Farrell is, and then we’ll go ahead and get started.

James Farrell:

Okay. Thank you very much. Again, my name is James Farrell. I am the Chief Information Officer for the Village of Bolingbrook. I’ve been a resident of Bolingbrook for about 22 years now. And I’ve been working for the Village of Bolingbrook for almost 15 years. Part of my responsibility here right now is really trying to come up with the vision, the goals and the strategies and the direction on the Village of Bolingbrook and the direction that we need to take as far as technology is concerned. A lot of what I do, although I still dabble in the hands-on here because I’m an IT person, I’m a geek by nature, but I still have to focus more on the executive and administrative portion of Information Technology for the Village.

Jen Snyder:

Wonderful. Wonderful. So then you get to see everything, not only on the ground floor but also from that 50,000-foot view.

James Farrell:

Oh yes, definitely. I think with my background, because I started off my career as what they call the IT grunt, laying the cables and doing all that from the help desk, the first level, second level, third level. So I’ve done it all. I think being a leader now gives me a different perspective, where I can see internally what it takes for your infrastructure to run an organization. But I just see that 50,000-foot view, because I’ve increased my education and knowledge of how a company should be run organizationally.

Jen Snyder:

Got it. Right. So it’s not only just the hands-on being able to actually do the work, but actually seeing the effects of what that work does from a business perspective.

James Farrell:

Exactly. That’s the words I’m looking for it. Yes, definitely.

Jen Snyder:

That’s great. You got a great background. So James, what we wanted to do today was take some time to talk about, unfortunately, the pandemic. We can’t hide it anymore. It’s here, right?

James Farrell:

Oh, definitely. Yes.

Jen Snyder:

The effects that it’s had, not only on the Village, but in particular, the public records space, as well. As you know, GovQA is the leading provider of public records technology today. We have seen quite a bit of changes happening with not only laws and legislation, but just rising in complexity and in volume. So we were really interested to see how the Village of Bolingbrook has been affected in both of those situations. If you could first share with me how you’ve approached the situation, how you started to approach the situation all the way back to the early days in March.

James Farrell:

Okay. So in March, this COVID-19, it caught everyone off guard, especially for government. All of your businesses and restaurants are affected, but government, we were affected in a way where basically a lot of your revenues depend on these entities that had to close their doors. So when you’re missing a large chunk of the revenues coming into your government and it’s affecting everybody, now you really need to pay a lot more attention. With that said, one thing that we had to do, we had to send everybody home to work remote. With that, we had to ramp up our infrastructure as far as providing laptops and just the remote capabilities of people to continue to do their day-to-day business.

Jen Snyder:

James, if you don’t mind me asking, did that affect all areas of the Village or was the remote workforce in very specific areas?

James Farrell:

It did affect all areas, per se. It did not really affect as much the Police Department or the Fire Department, because those are your public safety individuals. Those are your frontline people that really, they have no choice but to go in and try to handle issues. As far as other departments, like our finance and other town center departments, that did affect us because they did have to go home and work remote. Most of these people, they did not have the laptops or the ability to do that remote work. So what we did, we quickly ramped up. We went out and purchased enough laptops, which a lot of people tried to purchase laptops at this time and it was really hard to find a laptop from Best Buy.

I was driving around from city to city, personally, on Saturday mornings trying to find equipment. But once we did get everybody a laptop, we were fortunate to have the infrastructure in place to allow people to log into those laptops remotely. We also had the security in place. So being a CIO, everything that you do, you have to think about the future and how that technology is going to help you in the future. That’s how I’ve always run our department here in the Village of Bolingbrook. With that said, it was easier once we purchased the equipment to transition to that remote workforce.

Jen Snyder:

Absolutely. I’ve talked to several of our customers across the country and heard varying degrees of preparedness. A lot of our customers who are coastal, who deal with hurricanes and flooding or fires, they were in a situation where they sound like they were very much like yourself, where you had taken the proactive approach of making sure that that kind of infrastructure was in place and you could support that remote workforce. Then we’ve heard from folks who were like, “If we hadn’t moved forward with changes to some of our technologies, we would have all been furloughed, because we wouldn’t have been able to do a job.”

James Farrell:

Oh, yeah. You’re 100% correct there. Even with our Finance Department. Your Finance Department in any organization, especially a municipality, that’s where everything takes place. That’s all of the money coming in, money going. Without the Finance Department, how are you going to do business? We really definitely had to make sure that they were able to continue working like they would normally.

Jen Snyder:

Do you have the workforce back at this point? Or are they still remote?

James Farrell:

Yes. Now, our workforce, we are 100% back. We probably went remote for about three weeks. After that, which is surprising, we started slowly bringing everybody back to work. What we did, our public works and our public safety directors, they made sure that our environment here had the plexiglass, had certain distance between people that were working. We made a lot of changes internally. That’s how we felt comfortable coming back to work. Really, we were working remotely for about three weeks, came back. And I think it’s still some municipalities in Illinois that are still working remote.

Jen Snyder:

I can tell you, I have customers across the country who, some of them have been told, “We’ll see you July 1st.”

James Farrell:

Right! Exactly. Yes. We have some people in Illinois, same thing. I have not been concerned, because I see how everybody is interacting. There is a mandate. We have to wear a mask if we leave our office. We have the hand washing. We have the stations with a Purell and all of that stuff. So there is a difference on how we do work here, but I do feel comfortable with how people are taking it serious, because nobody wants to catch this disease.

Jen Snyder:

No, that’s for sure. Now, do you have new policies and procedures in place? Should you have an outbreak or an incident where someone is infected, what’s the standard operating procedure, if that should take place?

James Farrell:

Yeah, we do have policies in place. They implemented those right away. That’s a testament to the mayor and the directors and the Village administrators and the Village attorney. They put those policies in place where if somebody even reports that they feel ill, then that triggers the things that they need to do next. We have logs in place where you have to log your illnesses from home, a certain amount of days that you have to stay away from the workplace. I will say that they’re ever evolving policies, because things change every day, but we do have those in place.

Jen Snyder:

Gotcha. Was the Village in a situation where they had to furlough employees at any point?

James Farrell:

Yeah. Unfortunately, the downside of losing revenues, because I’ll just give you a number. I would say about 70% of Village revenues, we depend on hotel restaurant taxes. When you’re losing 70% of your revenues coming in, obviously that’s going to impact the bottom line and you have to make those tough decisions. We did have to furlough certain employees, the part-time employees, any seasonal employees. We actually had people, department heads, that actually would volunteer to take certain furlough weeks or days and things like that. So we did experience the furloughs, but right now I can say that everybody has come back and that is a good thing. But we did experience that.

Jen Snyder:

So let’s talk a little bit for a second about the public record space and I know you’re not 100% hands-on in the public record space, but I know you were very closely involved in the implementation of the GovQA platform, which obviously supported your remote workforce to be able to get that work done. Have you seen, or have you experienced any increases in the public records volume?

James Farrell:

I like to give long stories and answers. I’ll try to make this as short as possible. But the reason that we went with GovQA in the first place was because of the number of FOIAs [FOIAs 00:09:21] that we were receiving. We have a FOIA officer and a part-time FOIA officer. They were inundated with paper. I mean, if you see their desks, before we got the platform in place, I mean, they would have stacks of paper that you couldn’t see the individuals sitting at the desk anymore. That’s where I researched some options to make it easier, easier for us to handle FOIAs, easier for the FOIA officer to do their job, easier for whoever is putting in a FOIA, whether it’s a resident or a business, easier for them to track that FOIA and to receive that FOIA. I found GovQA. Did a lot of demos and just did a lot of due diligence. I thought that GovQA would fit the needs for the Village of Bolingbrook, which right now, and I’ll pat myself on the back, I was a 100% correct.

I had the FOIA officer and a lot of people kicking and screaming about the decision, because we had individuals that worked here for the Village for 20, 25 years and when you’re working for a place for so long, you’re used to doing certain things a certain way. A lot of people are afraid of computers. A lot of people are afraid of this digital age that we’re in right now. So we did have some pushback. But when people started seeing how this made their job easier and it wasn’t taking their job away, I think that’s when the buy-in started. And now people love the FOIA platform.

With that said, I give you this story because we looked at the FOIA platform and the workflow with GovQA. And we said, “Hey, this workflow actually matches some other processes here in the Village.” One of them was clearance letters in our Finance Department, where people would come in, the residents would come in and they would have to talk to a finance person at the counter to get a clearance letter. A clearance letter basically just says, “I’m buying a house or I’m selling a house and I need to know that there’s no liens or this house is clear to buy or sell.” So this process was really a manual process also. This is a process that stalled, especially when COVID-19 came, because when you had everybody working remotely, we did close the Village so that residents could not come to the Village for a certain amount of time.

When we came back to work, we still had our doors closed to the public. Now, with the clearance letters, people weren’t able to do that. We put our heads together and we said, “What can we do? How can we make this process digital, where people don’t have to come in and get this done?” And a light bulb came on and said, “Wait a minute, GovQA, the FOIA process is very similar to the clearance letter.” Whereas a resident puts in a request. Somebody gets the request. They assign it out to a department to make sure that the house is clear. Then the request comes back to the Finance Department and then it goes to the resident. Very similar to a FOIA. So we went to GovQA and we asked them, “Hey, can you do our clearance requests in your platform?” And they said, “We’ve never done this before, but you know what? It sounds like we can do it.” And within a couple of months, we were up and running on GovQA platform with clearance requests.

That helped us tremendously through this pandemic that we’re experiencing right now. We’ve probably had over 200 clearance letters now going through the GovQA system. That’s helped us and the residents tremendously.

Jen Snyder:

That’s fantastic. That brings up a great point. Because you are a CIO and you look at everything from a very technical, logical standpoint, I’m seeing that as a trend across government right now, where in the past we experienced a lot of organizations where it was everyone had a lot of disparate systems. Everyone picked their product du jour for their department. They didn’t all talk together. They weren’t all compatible. And what I’m seeing as a trend now is that IT is taking a bigger role, especially our CIO community. They’re saying, “Okay, wait a minute. Let’s take a look back at what these business units are all using. And where does this make most sense to combine efforts, use the same technology and actually use a platform-type of system, instead of all of these separated systems that I now have to try to manage people on remotely?” That’s actually great, that your story actually tied right into what I’m seeing in this space. So that was really good.

What we have seen with the PRA requests is, we have seen that not only is the volume increasing, but the look and feel of the requester is changing. We’ve got a lot more national interest in our local communities, because they want data around COVID or around civil unrest and they want research data so that they can do studies on how your community was affected. That’s really changing the landscape of what public records managers were dealing with in the past. So just curious if any of that has been your experience.

James Farrell:

As we talk, I actually have the GovQA platform open. I always keep it open. That’s one of the first things I open in the morning. But I can say that we have not experienced that national type of request, especially from the FOIA standpoint, have still been similar requests. And we get a lot. I’ve taken a poll of other communities. We are by far, we get a lot more than our surrounding neighbors here. Most of the requests are still very similar in nature. The only thing though that is different, obviously, is when I open up that dashboard, I see clearance letters. Then we also have our citizen request module in there where citizens are actually reporting potholes or trees down, because we recently just added that platform from GovQA. But as far as FOIA requests, I have not seen a different type of request coming in on a regular basis.

Jen Snyder:

Gotcha. Same type of requests.

James Farrell:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jen Snyder:

Another question, just based on the whole pandemic and how long it’s lasted, are you planning or anticipating any further changes to accommodate this new normal that we’re in?

James Farrell:

Oh, yes. I literally have six projects ongoing right now to change the way we do business. You’ll hear this statement, every CIO worth their grain of salt will tell you this statement, that COVID-19 has done more for technology, enhancing or advancing technology, than any CTO, IT Director or CIO has ever done. Because we realize that we have to take advantage of a digital presence, an online presence, to allow people to continue to do business, especially with your government. Now it’s easier to sell that to the business units within your organization, because they realize, “Oh, wait, people can’t do permits online? People can’t do this online? How can I get it done? I need it done now!” So it’s actually making my job easier. Again, I literally have six different projects ongoing right now that’s really going to transform… Six months from now, the Village of Bolingbrook is going to look 100% different than how we look now as far as how we do business.

Jen Snyder:

What was the status of your electronic documentation versus paper-based? Were you still in a heavy paper-based environment or had you already made that switch?

James Farrell:

I’ll put it like this, we still have a lot of paper. And I give you the 20 to 25 year employee. When you been at a business for so long, you’re still going to try to do business the same way. But we have started making that transition. We have a document management system where we say, “Why do we need to have duplicates of forms out there when we can easily store this in our document management system?” We have a lot of departments that are finally getting on board and starting to… We just had a change of leadership. We have a new mayor that started in August. We have two new Village administrators, they’re co-administrators. And they’re younger and they have that mindset of, we need to go digital. The new mayor? She hates paper. She hates it. And she says, “You know what? We got to figure out a way to do this better.” And again, that’s just making my job easier.

Jen Snyder:

Are you doing all of this so that it’s cloud-based or are you still on servers in the village?

James Farrell:

Yeah, so we do have some servers, but a lot of my projects right now are going to the cloud. So we are looking at cloud-based resources, cloud-based technology, because again, with COVID, if you can’t come to work, if you can’t physically come there, you still need your employees to access certain resources. But yeah, they can connect with VPN and RDP and things like that. But if you have cloud-based resources, it’s going to be easier if you face an outage. Or, let’s say that there’s some type of temporary shutdown in your company where there’s a natural disaster, cloud-based is the solution to allow everybody to continue work. So yes, a lot of my projects, I would say 90% of my projects, are cloud-based, moving from physical to the cloud.

Jen Snyder:

In putting a workforce remote, as you did so quickly, and thinking about other things that have been happening in this past year, all the hacking and the cyber attacks, et cetera, what have you done, or what are you doing as one of maybe your current projects to really address security and make sure that you’re in a situation that’s going to be the most protective?

James Farrell:

I like that you say that, because the people in my building, or people in my organization, they always call me the security police. That’s the only thing I’m always preaching. The good thing is, when you talk about security, security is, there’s no one silver bullet. You have to have layers upon layers to help you to become a secure environment. That’s one thing that I pride myself on. We literally have layers. If someone has a link in an email and they click on that link, there’s a pop-up that will come up and tell them, “Hey, are you sure you want to click on this link?” And then when they click on that link, there’s another layer that tells them, “Are you 100% sure?” So we have these things in place that’s going to make people question what they’re doing. And that’s just for email, but we still have other layers as far as visibility and auditing. I know when someone creates a user or changes their password in our network, I get alerts about that.

I am so proud of the layers of security that I had in place before COVID. And so now it’s highlighting that, “Hey, we’ve been a very secure environment.” And one thing, right before this interview, I’m taking a course at the University of Chicago School of Business. It’s a cybersecurity for executives. I was literally online for an hour, because I had a webinar about the course. So these are the things that I take serious. I try to talk to my employees. I try to talk to administration. And the mayor, she says that she’s tired of me coming into her office telling her about security all the time. But they do appreciate it. They feel comfortable that we have put some things in place that makes everyone feel comfortable, even if they’re working remote.

Jen Snyder:

Absolutely. Well, James, as we wrap things up I just have to say I really commend you. I have talked to a lot of folks in the government space recently, many of which are miles behind you. You have done a great job of making sure that the Village was in a situation to manage successfully and take care of the community and provide all the services that are necessary during the such a rocky time that we’re in right now. But I did want to ask if anybody who is a listener of our podcast, wanted to reach out to you, maybe they want to hear some of your experience or understand some of the things that you’ve done as far as some of these initiatives that you’ve taken on this year, how can they get ahold of you?

James Farrell:

I appreciate that because I do want to share my experience. My email address is jfarrell, F-A-R-R-E-L-L@bolingbrook.com. Also, I have a LinkedIn presence. If you go to James Farrell LinkedIn, you’ll see that I am very active. You can see some of the initiatives that I have taken here at the Village of Bolingbrook, again, because I’m proud of what we do here. So you can go to our village website, www.bolingbrook.com. You can look up the IT Department and you can find my information or you can see some of the things that we’re doing and some of the initiatives that we have taken. Those are some of the ways that you can get in touch with me.

Jen Snyder:

Excellent. Well, James, I want to thank you so much for carving out a little time to chat with us today. I’d love to keep the invitation open as time goes on and maybe revisit with some other topics or just understand how some of those large initiatives that you’ve taken on this year have come together. But again, thank you so much. Folks, you’ve been listening to the GovQA podcast with James Farrell from the Village of Bolingbrook. Thanks again, everyone for listening and we’ll be seeing you again soon.

James Farrell:

Thanks so much, Jennifer.

Jen Snyder:

Thank you. Bye, James.

James Farrell:

Bye.

Recording:

Thank you for listening to the Peers in Public Records Podcast. To continue the conversation and learn more about public records, visit us @govqa.com or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

HOSTED BY

JEN SNYDER

Chief Evangelist

As GovQA’s Chief Evangelist, Jen is interested in meaningful conversations that look both at the big picture, as well as dig deep into nitty-gritty best-practice working sessions on all government challenges and opportunities including those related to technology, transparency, security, procurement, legislative mandates, compliance, staffing challenges, and more. Jen’s 15 years of experience in the state and local government space includes guest speaking and moderating for government events, roundtables, and associations. She has another 10 years of experience managing local and international business development initiatives for B2B tech companies.

SUBSCRIBE TO THE PEERS IN PUBLIC RECORDS NEWSLETTER

Let GovQA do the heavy lifting and receive the latest trends in public record requests and government transparency initiatives around the U.S., right to your inbox.

Share your expertise, a ‘quick tip’, or a positive story to be featured in Peers in Public Records. Send your submissions to peers@govqa.com

110
Of Top 300 U.S. Cities
45
Of Top U.S. Counties
80
State Agencies

Leave a Reply