Free Advice for Struggling Governments

An alliance of consultants is helping Chicago and Cook County save money and improve services. And you can’t beat the price.
by | December 1, 2011 AT 1:00 PM

The Chicago area certainly hasn't been spared the effects of the Great Recession. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in May, he found a hole of more than $600 million in a $9 billion budget.

In many ways, Cook County, which includes Chicago, was in even worse shape. When County Board President Toni Preckwinkle took office a year ago, she faced a deficit of nearly $500 million on a $3 billion budget. To make matters worse, it was already a week into the new fiscal year and, thanks to a quirky provision that doesn't require a county budget to be in place until the end of the first quarter, work hadn't even begun on the spending plan.

But the county budget that passed in February closed a $487 million gap, and even included a $200 million sales-tax rollback that Preckwinkle had promised during her campaign. In November, Emanuel followed suit, signing a balanced city budget.

One reason for these successes is the Civic Consulting Alliance, a Chicago-area nonprofit that builds teams that include leading consulting, financial-services, legal, accounting and academic institutions to provide free help to local governments. During fiscal 2011, 385 organizations provided more than $20 million worth of pro bono services to localities.

Once government and business leaders have agreed on local priorities, Civic Consulting works to maximize its impact by structuring a long-term series of pro bono projects. It then finds the partners best suited to address each challenge. Civic Consulting also helps develop the scope of work and augments the teams working on each issue with members of its own staff to leverage partner efforts and ensure seamless service for clients.

The consultants began working with Emanuel and Preckwinkle even before they took office, helping them develop their transition plans. In Chicago, Bain & Company. McKinsey & Company and McGladrey helped the Office of Budget and Management outline $75 million in 2011 savings. In August, when Emanuel reached the 100-day mark of his term, $50 million had already been saved.

When Accenture, SNR Denton and PeopleScout helped Preckwinkle with her transition plan, criminal-justice reform was one of the main priorities. Cook County was spending about $500 million annually to operate jails.

Instead of throwing those accused of a nonviolent crime in jail if they couldn't make bail, corrections spending has been reduced by using electronic ankle bracelets to monitor them 24/7. The number of ankle bracelets in use has risen from 300 to about 1,100. Savings are substantial, since the cost of monitoring them is $65 a day, compared to $145 a day to incarcerate each individual while they await trial.

And because spending time in jail often results in the accused losing their jobs, an important benefit of the ankle bracelets is that they allow the alleged offenders, many of whom have families to support, to work while awaiting trial. With only 3 percent of the alleged offenders accused of committing another crime while they were being monitored, even a local victims' rights group approves of the change.

More cost-saving measures are in the pipeline. In June, with the help of at least five Civic Consulting partners, a seven-member Joint Committee on City-County Collaboration outlined annual savings of $66 million to $140 million that it said could be achieved by pooling resources and eliminating duplicative services. Some of the changes will take up to three years to implement, but $11 million in savings already have been realized.

Pro bono government consulting is nothing new, but the Civic Consulting Alliance takes it to a new level by strategically maximizing its impact. If replicated elsewhere, similar organizations would undoubtedly take on different characteristics based on each metropolitan area's makeup. For example, New York City partners would be likely to lean heavily toward financial-services firms, while in Boston universities would probably play a larger role.

Regardless of local variations, Chicago and Cook County are proving that using pro bono partners to dramatically increase the capacity of local governments is a winner for taxpayers.