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« Milwaukee Innovates with Technology to Run City Business More Cost-Efficiently »

Jim Owczarski has been the City of Milwaukee's Deputy City Clerk since October 2006. Before then he worked as Council Records Manager and as a Legislative Fiscal Analyst in the City's Legislative Reference Bureau. He previously worked as a metropolitan government reporter for the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel which paid the bills while he worked on his graduate studies in early modern history at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also spent 14 years working at the Bristol Renaissance Faire which has prevented him from judging the hobbies of others.

Milwaukee, despite its sometimes staid reputation, is a City of innovation. It has been at the forefront of the machine tool industry and the “Milwaukee” brand is still synonymous among tradespeople with quality and performance. Corporations like Johnson Controls and Rockwell Automation (known to many as Allen-Bradley) have long been leaders in their respective fields. More recently, the administration of Mayor Tom Barrett, working closely with the Milwaukee Common Council, has been positioning the City to be a leader in freshwater technologies; symbolized only in part by the efforts to grow the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, MI.

In fact, next week the City of Milwaukee will be hosting over 3,000 local government city and county managers at the 2011 ICMA Conference they will be meeting over four days to share innovative ideas and practical strategies on ways to deal with the challenges facing local governments today. On behalf of City Clerk Ronald Leonhardt and myself, I want to welcome all of the ICMA delegates to Milwaukee.

In the spirit of innovation, I'd like to share some advice with other local governments. It’s easy to overlook how technology can be a powerful catalyst for change. In today's reality of budgetary shortfalls and limited resources, technology innovation has been a lucrative discovery for us not only in terms of cost-savings, but also in terms of efficiency. For our city, deciding to automate the way we capture, manage, and track our official city business through technology has reaped many rewards. It’s enabled us to run more efficiently and with greater transparency. It’s also resulted in over $1.85 million in cost-savings, roughly $52,000 per year.

Here’s our story…

Eliminating Legislative Inefficiencies with Technology

One area where Milwaukee may not have risen above its peer cities is software development. After all, the Silicon Valley, which I confess I’d have a hard time locating on a map, and its conjoined twin “the Redmond Campus” is, at least notionally, the place from which all software wisdom seems to come.  If you look at the municipal governments of New York, Chicago, Miami, Oakland, Long Beach, and quite a few others, though, you’ll see the fruits of a long process of technological innovation that had its beginnings in Milwaukee. What these communities have in common is that they’ve chosen the Granicus Legislative Management Suite, featuring Legistar®, to conduct their legislative business.

The Legistar component of the Granicus solution began as part of a quest to solve a problem. In or about 1986, then-Deputy City Clerk Ronald Leonhardt knew his staff was not operating efficiently. It took hours to compile council files, place them on agendas, and then distribute them to interested parties. Matters got no better once the meetings were held. Minutes were taken by hand and then later typed onto hard copies. Certified copies, one of those things that most people don’t know clerks do but everyone working in government needs, had to be prepared manually. Annually, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, the proceedings of the Common Council were prepared and bound into volumes that were made available to those with access either to the Milwaukee Central Library or a handful of other repositories.

I still have some of the detritus from this era and I, quite honestly, admire the men and women who carried out the business of the Council under these conditions. I have, for example, the world’s largest collection of rubber stamps, each one a piece of the documents that were regularly created by the council records staff.  There are signature stamps, stamps with the various committee names on them (none better than “Committee on Committees”), and stamps with directives to staff.  Many of the latter are unintentionally funny lacking their original context, viz., “The extension of time requested by you as expired.  Please comply with your original instructions.” Somewhat more seriously, I also have the distribution list for agendas, minutes, and notices. It runs to over 200 names, each of which would receive dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces of paper each and every Council cycle.

Building a Solution Designed for Government

When Ron set out to automate all this, his first instinct was to look for an off-the-shelf solution. There wasn’t one. This was, after all, the late 1980’s. There were some who said this whole “computer thing” couldn’t last. Here in Milwaukee, we had a centralized purchasing agency for computers. One of its rubrics was that, in order to purchase a new PC terminal (with a mighty 20 MB hard drive), a department had to indicate which of its personnel would be summarily eliminated in exchange. Off-the-shelf solutions for most purposes were hard to come by and networked solutions were years away.

Abandoning the notion that he’d find the easy way out, Ron partnered with a company that had bid on other City business, with a notion of building a legislative tracking solution from scratch. That company was called Daystar Computer Systems (now owned by Granicus). His partner in those early days was Ron Cichon who remains in a key leadership role with Granicus.

Before the first line of code was written, though, Ron Leonhardt mapped out the entire legislative process of the Milwaukee Common Council on a “scroll” made of 8-1/2’’ x 11’’ sheets of paper taped together. That scroll still exists and, given how important the resulting software is to what I do every day, I have come to regard it as something akin to the laws of Lycurgus.

Seriously, though, the software the two Rons created, Legistar, was built from the ground-up to serve the needs of legislative bodies. Among its many innovations, it didn’t try to hard code document or file types into the system, allowing its work-flow logic to be essentially file-type agnostic.  Put another way, it didn’t matter whether a particular body passes ordinances, resolutions, motions, orders, or anything else.  It allowed users to establish workflows based on what their processes required and gave them the tools to automate the whole thing.

Technology that Evolves with the City's Changing Needs

More innovations to the product came over the years. Attachments to files could be kept electronically with their “parents” for easier reference and retrieval. The creation of agendas was automated such that what once took hours took minutes and permitted ready agenda editing and re-publishing.  Hearing notices could be sent by a variety of means including, eventually, e-mail. Minutes no longer needed to be taken by hand, but, as is now the case in Milwaukee, live while the meeting takes place. Certified copies could be prepared automatically and transmitted electronically. Even the Proceedings of the Common Council, for which I will always have a certain fondness, was put to bed in the early 1990s, saving the tax-payers a sizable annual sum.

The software has continued to evolve, and now that Granicus has integrated the product into its portfolio it is already boosting the spirit of innovation behind this product. For me, the greatest change has been the maturation of the InSite web  research center. Once an experimental add-on, Milwaukee now calls it its Legislative Research Center and it is without exception that portion of our Granicus suite that gets used by the public most frequently.  

In an era when the demand for open government grows ever louder, the City receives consistently high marks from its customers relating to the usability and user-friendliness of this product. I am not exaggerating when I say that it has taken me out of the business of providing the records of the Common Council to the public. The line item in my budget that anticipated revenue from complying with open records requests -- which I think we all know never covered the real costs -- has been gone for years.

One change that I’m proud to have been a part of is the automation and digitization of the process of creating briefing books. The Milwaukee Common Council has eight standing committees, all but one of which is composed of five members. For years, each committee member received a three-hole-punched binder filled with the materials necessary for a particular meeting. This included the file itself, supporting documentation and, honestly, anything else submitted to assist or persuade the body. These binders could get really, really big. I checked the other day and the briefing book for our Public Works Committee tipped the scales at over 800 pages. It was almost five years ago, then, that one council member, who also happened to be the chairman of two committees, said he had attended a meeting at the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, another Granicus customer. He said district members each received a .pdf version of their briefing books and wondered why we hadn’t done the same?  I promised him we’d try to make that happen for his two committees. I’ll skip the sometimes entertaining, sometimes frustrating middle parts of this story and tell you that, working with our own staff and the folks at Granicus, we have now automated the briefing book creation process. Committee members receive a disc or a download of their briefing books in .pdf format, and a copy is loaded onto a set of committee laptops we provide for their use at every meeting. These books are available to the public online and are retained as a portion of the permanent record of the deliberation of the body.

And, not so many months ago, we passed our one millionth piece of paper saved!

I and those I work with are proud of what we and Granicus have done over the years, and I’m always happy to share this story with those who are considering automating their legislative processes.

Over the past several months, we’ve been working closely to bring this same solution to the Milwaukee County Board, co-hosting the solution on our Granicus server and saving City of Milwaukee tax-payers money in the bargain. Please, if you ever have any questions about Milwaukee’s experience with Granicus, never hesitate to contact me at

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Reader Comments (2)

That's a pretty good move for Milwaukee. And these times, you really have to innovate or else you'll be left behind. Soon, Milwaukee will no longer be seen as a staid state.
This is my first time i visit here. I found so many entertaining stuff in your blog, especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your posts, I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! Keep up the excellent work.

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