Taking action: Lake County governments pave the way for future collaboration - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Taking action: Lake County governments pave the way for future collaboration

Flickr user Guido Musch (cc)

Lake County governments secured an initial win sharing elevator inspection services, generating momentum for further collaboration in the future.

Across the country, governments are investing in efficiency. Motivated by budget crunches, scarce resources, service duplication and the desire to spur economic development, public officials are exploring consolidation, collaboration and other means to better serve their constituents. In this series, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) will highlight efforts to improve government efficiency. Our fifth installment focuses on Lake County’s shared services initiative.

Governments that find themselves juggling tight budgets and costly responsibilities are seeking out ways to generate economies of scale and to reduce costs. More and more often, this means sharing services with other governments. One such successful collaboration is the Southeast Lake County Shared Services Working Group for building plan reviews, inspection services and administrative adjudication. The group is composed of more than 10 municipalities—including Highland Park, Lincolnshire, Lake Forest, Bannockburn and Deerfield—and Lake County itself. Since municipalities and county departments both provide these kinds of services, they have the potential to collaborate with one another in a cost-effective manner.

A year and a half ago, village administrators, economic development officials and building officials across the six Lake County entities began speaking informally with one another about potential partnership opportunities. The group issued its first joint bid for elevator inspection services on Nov. 8, 2013, through which the eight participating municipalities reduced their cost of providing the service by $22,059 per inspection—an impressive 50 percent decrease. Though admittedly Lake County has fewer elevators than, say, Cook County, the joint bid served as a pilot program for alternate service delivery—and as an opportunity to leverage a small success to generate momentum for more ambitious projects in the future.

In fact, the success of this initial endeavor paved the way for subsequent collaboration, as the group experienced less resistance toward (and expressed greater interest in) a joint bid for road salt this past winter, involving the participation of 28 municipalities. Unfortunately, due to the harsh winter, higher market demand drove up prices, which resulted in a lesser degree of savings realized that what perhaps would have been achieved under more favorable weather conditions. Nonetheless, the members put together the bid more smoothly following their initial success in tackling the bid for elevator inspection services.

Currently, the group is exploring the possibility of a shared permit tracking and workflow services system. At the moment, many municipalities have legacy systems (or no system) in place and require a new, more robust system. The municipal partners have expressed a strong interest, and such a system could potentially become regional in scope.

While these successes illustrate how effective consolidation can be, they haven’t come without challenges. The transition from mere talk about collaboration to actual implementation is fraught with difficulties that should not be underestimated. Working groups have few guidelines directing how they should be set up and raise a number of practical questions. How should members’ different schedules be coordinated? How should the group address grievances? How should it reconcile different specifications and measures of success across members? The answers to these questions were determined only after many planning meetings and through continued intergovernmental communication, a critical component of successful collaboration. Another challenge arises in the group’s interactions with other collaborative efforts, including the Northern Illinois Municipal Partnering Initiative and Lake County Municipal League. Though all three entities share similar purposes and end goals, they sometimes compete with one another politically and hinder overall progress.

Despite these challenges, the group was successful for a number of reasons. First, it looked to consolidate building plan reviews and inspection services, functions that could be better performed on a broader geographical basis and generate economies of scale. Because many communities worked together to purchase these services, vendors were open to negotiation with the promise of expanded business, as in the case of the Glenview­-Lake Forest Municipal Partnering Initiative. The group was also able to leverage the county’s existing service infrastructure. Most importantly, the group trusted its members, and this relationship of trust fueled future collaborations on joint bids for road salt and, potentially, for permit tracking and workflow services as well.

As a result, the participating Lake County governments saved tax dollars for their constituents while improving service levels, increasing efficiency and seizing the opportunity to review their own processes and share best practices. Though shared services initiatives are hardly a one-size-fits-all solution for reducing costs in a time of constrained budgets, this group’s success serves as one example of how securing easy wins can pave the way for more ambitious collaboration in the future—and of what can happen when different parties communicate to bring innovative ideas to the table.

Curious about other initiatives around the Chicago region and beyond? Take a look at the rest of the Taking Action series.

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