07/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Three Ways to Better Government

There was a time when nobody would order a birth certificate at Cook County Vital Records unless they packed their favorite book and a lunch. They didn't know if it would take an hour, two or more to fill their order. Times have changed. Today, our office gets several letters a week thanking us because we deliver records within minutes. In a recent audit, Cook County tied Orange County for best customer service, and edged them out for speed.

Why is this? During my twenty years as Cook County Clerk I've made efficiency a top priority.

This November, the new County Board President will have a mandate to re-create a leaner County government. Most critical will be eliminating patronage abuses and waste. But here are three other methods the new president should also consider: using technology, cross-training staff and cutting duplicate services.

Technology is the familiar strategy, which has not only sped up vital records delivery, but now helps people chart their family trees. Our digitized website,, has eight million genealogy records that download instantly for a fee. It has more than paid for itself, becoming a profit center for Cook County. And like the private sector, we use the Internet to save time and money. For example, our election judge applications and judge trainings are online; we email judge newsletters and press releases, saving postage and a dozen trees a year.

But there are efficiencies that go beyond technology, like staff-sharing. Government offices go through cycles. At the Clerk's office, our election division is busiest in the months before and after Election Day. Our tax department is hectic during scavenger sales. Vital Records sees orders spike for June weddings and just before school begins.

How to avoid overstaffing during a lull or understaffing during a rush? We've implemented cross-training, giving employees the skills to work across offices, whenever needed. Vital Records clerks can help at the election warehouse; line staff from taxes can process voter registrations. It's like having in-house SWAT teams to deploy on short notice.

Cross-training diminishes the need for temporary workers and improves productivity. It also makes work more stimulating and enriching for our staff. There's no question that other public offices have seasonal ups and downs. Cross-training, adopted countywide, will save money and create a more satisfied workforce.

Finally, structural changes save taxpayers money. Just last summer our Vital Records Bureau assumed the duties of the Chicago Department of Health's Vital Records Office. Our efficiency and economy of scale let us replace a dozen of their staff with but a handful of ours, while simplifying the process for Chicago customers.

There are other redundancies and overlaps in local government. Who is to say that we couldn't do the same by merging the Cook County Clerk's election functions with the Chicago Board of Elections? We should also explore merging tax offices and other duplicate services.

Technology, cross-training and cutting duplicate services. The next Cook County Board president will want to weigh in on these ideas and many more. I look forward to joining the conversation.