An Alternative Way to Get Things Done in Chicago: Work With the City’s Aldermen

An East Village apartment in Chicago.

An East Village apartment in Chicago. photoiva /

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Sidestepping City Hall, some ward representatives are responding to service requests via Romulus, a new a new customer relationship management system.

Some elected officials’ offices still manage constituent service requests using Microsoft Excel, which is why startup Romulus is aggressively targeting local government clientele in places like Chicago.

One year after launch, the Redwood City, California-based cloud customer relationship management (CRM) provider already operates in six of the Windy City’s wards—representing about 320,000 people.

In Ward 1, the earliest adopter, the time it takes to resolve a request has dropped from 30 days to eight since introducing Romulus in June.

“I don’t think we’d work any less hard with or without Romulus, but where it comes in handy is it improves our following up with constituents,” Carlos Diaz, and aide to 1st Ward Alderman Joe Moreno, told Route Fifty in an interview. “It helps us build a rapport, when we speak to them directly, because they want to know we’re taking them into account.”

Romulus happened to reach out when the ward—which has about 55,000 residents and five staffers handling around 20 phone and email service requests daily—was searching for an alternative to Chicago’s internal City Service Request system.

Something as simple as a noise complaint took upwards of 10 minutes to enter in the legacy system versus 20 seconds in Romulus, which autofills custom fields when emailed requests come in.

Rather than pouring information on top of a spreadsheet, constituent inputs are tagged for tracking so workflow can be established and reminders sent. Ward 1 office staff logs all service requests into the system, even if they don’t come through Romulus, as a result.

Diaz, who handles water management requests in particular, can check on those assigned to him and preempt others.

“We’ve had problems with street flooding and recent heavy rain, so I can go back in the system and look for people who’ve previously had flooding in front of their homes or their basements,” he said. “Luckily, it seemed water management fixed it all, but people appreciate a follow-up when we anticipate problems they may have.”

Heat maps of the jurisdiction help Diaz flag trouble areas for city Water Management personnel so the agency can set a timeline for repairs, just like his transportation counterpart can point out roads in disrepair to the Chicago Department of Transportation.

The only Ward 1 staffer not on Romulus handles police requests because the jurisdiction’s system is not tied to 311 City Services.

Romulus is capable of 311 integration to maintain accountability across local police departments. Traditionally, residents submitting 311 complaints receive a service request ID number they have to check back on, but Romulus does the checking at desired intervals to notify staffers upon resolution.

Founded at the end of 2014 by former ZenPayroll employees, Romulus wants to do for local government constituent services what Zen did for small business payroll, namely, build much-needed software tools.

“Fundamentally, the tech problem is just about handling a lot of info,” Chris Maddox, the company’s co-founder and CEO, said in an interview. “Security and auditing wasn’t as much of a challenge as people expect going into the government space, but in payroll you know exactly what the definitions of success are because you have to conform to the laws the IRS and state tax bureaus lay out.”

Building a CRM means answering questions you can’t always predict along the way, he added, and adding flexibility to your analytics.

Romulus is initially targeting political offices in major cities like Chicago and Oakland, California, because they tend to be big adopters of technology, having to keep pace with the needs of their constituents, Maddox said. He was in Baltimore recently, a city with two or three people handling as many as 50 requests a day in any given City Council district.

Short term, the CRM provider remains focused on improving its core experience and productivity. Long term, Romulus will dive into other aspects of day-to-day local governing as sort of a one-stop shop.

“If we can solve the problems of the largest U.S. cities, we’ll know we have a system that can scale out to other cities across the country,” Maddox said. “Our early focus is on building a product we think can be really helpful to local government.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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