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By Sean Thornton

Brenna Berman

The City of Chicago has a new top techie.  On July 24, Chicago’s City Council officially confirmed Brenna Berman as its Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Commissioner of the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT). 

Berman, who served as First Deputy Commissioner under former CIO & Chief Data Officer (CDO) Brett Goldstein, now holds the reigns for continuing a new course for technology in Chicago. 

“I am honored to continue to serve the people of Chicago, and excited to continue building upon the groundbreaking projects we’ve developed over the past two years to keep Chicago at the forefront of government innovation,” Berman stated in a press release following her nomination.

In 2011, Berman joined the Emanuel administration as a Deputy Budget Director in the Office of Budget and Management, where she focused on citywide enterprise initiatives and performance management.   In 2012, she then became First Deputy Commissioner at DoIT, and worked to deliver a range of transformations to the department. 

As Deputy Commissioner, Berman led initiatives to deliver enterprise IT consolidation to Chicago. She also oversaw the beginnings of Chicago’s integration of advanced analytics and real-time data-driven decision making into operations across the city, and was involved in the expansion of the City’s Data Portal into one of the largest in the country.  

“In working with a lot of government agencies and seeing how they approach change driven by technology, I think the strongest lesson I bring this job is that lasting change is driven by the needs of the residents,” Berman says.

As CIO, Berman plans to continue the path she began, furthering Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s directive to enable more efficient, effective and open government on a platform of innovative technology.  Her first year at DoIT was largely focused on establishing foundational changes to the way the department operates.  During that period, DoIT’s internal capacity was expanded to incorporate a greater variety of skills, providing new room for in-house innovation.

This has been beneficial for a new frontier of initiatives in store for the Berman era, which includes operationalizing the analytics program into the City’s departments and modernizing Chicago’s service applications. 

“With more in-house capacity for innovation, we’ve been able to develop core applications like WindyGrid, which we will continue to expand,” Berman notes. “We’re excited to develop other new areas for analytics as well.  This will include our continued work on the SmartData Platform, and work on new innovations, such as mobile apps and applications that take on new problems.”

Berman will also lead the charge on modernizing and enhancing the City’s IT infrastructure.  

“As we continue to grow our predictive analytics program, we’re also focusing on new kinds of computing models—like cloud computing—which are cost-efficient, and help provide optimal services for Chicago,” says Berman.  Chicago’s IT consolidation projects, which include migration of the City’s email system to Microsoft’s O365 cloud, enhance DoIT’s operational efficiency and effectiveness while reducing expenses.  It also improves DoIT’s ability to focus on other projects, with ones that relate to resident-focused services in particular.

Putting Residents First

Prior to public service, Berman spent more than ten years as a consultant at IBM, where she worked closely with local, state and federal governments worldwide on ways to leverage technology and analytics to improve service delivery to residents.  Through work with more than 20 governments on six continents, she developed an expertise in developing modernization plans for service delivery models, ranging from payment systems to human services initiatives to job-training programs.   

“In working with a lot of government agencies and seeing how they approach change driven by technology, I think the strongest lesson I bring this job—one that aligns very strongly with the Mayor’s vision—is that lasting change is driven by the needs of the residents,” Berman says.  “That sets the tone for what we do here at DoIT.” 

Berman’s vision of resident-centered technology and innovation is evident in her work thus far, and in DoIT’s priorities for the present and future.  In addition to the department’s focus on predictive analytics and IT consolidation, Berman says other key areas include expanding the City’s relationship with civic developers, honing in on information and cyber security, and modernizing resident-focused applications.    

 “Our priorities really are focused on the services DoIT needs to deliver to support departments across the City and residents directly.  We need to make sure that the City is delivering the strongest level of service possible to meet the needs of its residents.”  

Looking Ahead

While enthusiastic about her new role, Berman is also keen to mention that Chicago’s new course for technology is not without its challenges.  “We will always be challenged by resources,” she notes.  “The speed of change is great at this point in time—and while that’s a huge opportunity, having the skills and resources to meet those changes is always something we’ll be working to address, both internally and through partnerships.”

Considering the pace of technological change, Berman also notes that maintaining a focus on communications is critical.

“We need to make sure that people understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” says Berman.  “This is more than making our initiatives known—it’s about our City understanding technology and the role that it plays in service delivery.  Most importantly, it’s about empowering residents to participate in the democratic process.”

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Note: While Berman will serve as Chicago’s chief technology leader, she will not serve as both CIO and CDO.  The City will appoint a separate CDO in the near future. 

Topics: Civic Data

About the Author

Sean Thornton

Sean Thornton is a Research Fellow for Data-Smart City Solutions.  Based in Chicago, Sean serves as a researcher, archivist, and documentarian of the Chicago Department of Innovations and Technology’s efforts to build a smarter, more efficient city government.  He also provides Chicago’s Chief Information Officer with research and communications support. Sean holds two Masters’ degrees from the University of Chicago, in Public Policy and Social Service Administration, and a Bachelors’ Degree from DePaul University in Psychology and Political Science.  During his time at the University of Chicago, he gained experience in the city’s public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors.

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