Digital Counties Survey 2018: Winners Prioritize Culture, Collaboration and Automation

This year's winners use tech to improve government, even when the odds are stacked against them.

by , / July 11, 2018
1 of 6

Click through the rest of our story for detailed write-ups on each winner.

A county IT leader may encounter any number of existential crises: Budget cuts shred the IT workforce. Wildfires literally burn half the county to the ground. A new business process dumps 80,000 new users on the system. These are the kinds of things that can break an IT shop.

The winners of the 16th Annual Digital Counties Survey, conducted by the Center for Digital Government,* have tackled these and a range of other seemingly mortal threats, and come out shining. They’ve learned to cope with the unexpected and seen their thoughtful investments bear fruit in the face of unexpected challenges.

When the going gets rough, this is how IT gets going.

Nevada County, Calif., 1st Place, up to 150,000 Population Category

In Nevada County, headcount is down 26 percent from pre-recession levels, and CIO Steve Monaghan is learning to do more with less. 

That means doing the big jobs first: Cybersecurity is critical and he’s attacked that. It also means leveraging IT assets. Investments in cloud have helped him to make the most of sparse resources. Mostly, though, Monaghan’s task as an IT leader has been to impart a sense of ownership to all involved in supporting the county’s technology needs. 

“We spend a lot of time building culture around taking an entrepreneurial approach,” he said. “We’ve done workshops, we have done a whole service-management initiative aimed at defining everything we offer, every piece of equipment we manage, so that everything has an owner within IT. Everybody knows who is responsible for what, and we ask people to be entrepreneurs over their own services. We want them to run with the ball.” 

Take for instance the network analyst in charge of the VMware farm. “His documentation is immaculate. He has a very tightly run ship. We know what we have, and as a result the service level is very high. We’ve never had an outage on that virtual farm, because he has really taken it to heart that those are his,” Monaghan said. 

Same goes for the analyst overseeing the replacement of the first-generation VPN platform. “He taps into other members to support that, but ultimately he owns that. There’s a sense of ownership that drives the project forward, which in turn leads to an enhanced, more reliable product for the customer,” Monaghan said.

How can a government IT leader spark that entrepreneurial spirit? Much of it comes down to setting expectations. “In the last six months we had a Ph.D. in organizational development come in for multiple sessions to refresh our Values and Expectations document, to do a workshop geared around what it means to take ownership,” he said. “As IT leaders, we have to build these cultural processes, something bigger than any one project. That’s the secret sauce of delivering excellent IT services.”

Click here to see all the winners in this category.

Arlington County, Va., 1st Place, 150,000-249,999 Population Category

CIO Jack Belcher doesn’t just want to be a back-end provider. He says his department’s job is to serve the public good, a mission he pursues with uncommon vigor. 

“If you make sure the network is running, that the servers are secure — well, that’s what you are expected to do,” he said. “Taking it to the next step is what distinguishes a CIO from an IT director. That next step is all about understanding your community.” 

It isn’t easy to know what the public wants or needs, or how IT can best facilitate. To meet the challenge, Belcher has gone right to the source, organizing a series of public gatherings around the theme of “Defining Arlington’s Digital Destiny.” 

“The idea is to bring together leaders from education, from the community, from government, to think about what might be possible,” Belcher said. He’s hosted events on the future of education, the nature of work, and what it means to be an intelligent community. 

These public gatherings have directly informed the IT agenda. Take for example the recently completed deployment of a countywide fiber-optic network. “These discussions transformed our vision of what to do with that asset,” he said. 

Sure, the fiber could spur development and drive economic growth — they knew that going in. But with community input, the vision evolved. “We saw that we could provide an immense value in the form of digital equity, providing people in affordable housing with free broadband access. That helps break the bonds of poverty,” Belcher said. “It took these discussions to bring that idea to the surface and make it possible.”

Community input likewise helped spur development of a mobile project-tracker app to help keep residents informed about civic undertakings. “We want to make that data available in a form where residents can easily find out what we are doing. How are we spending our money? We want to leverage the technology to provide that level of transparency.”

When the CIO seeks citizen input, there’s risk involved. What if they ask for something extravagant? What if they put something entirely unexpected on the table? Belcher said a strong relationship with county leadership gave him the confidence to open that door. “You can’t do this unless your elected officials have the confidence that you are doing the right thing. There has to be a level of mutual trust,” he said.

Click here to see all the winners in this category.

Dutchess County, N.Y., 1st Place. 250,000-499,999 Population Category

It’s not just that budgets are stagnant. It’s that, in a time of stagnant budgets, everybody still wants more. Towns want upgraded websites. Cops want cutting-edge technologies. For Glenn Marchi, commissioner of the Dutchess County Office of Central and Information Services, the challenge is to deliver on all that, without breaking the bank. 

“Shared services are key to doing that,” he said. 

This year Marchi’s team worked with public safety officials to bring online emergency 911 service, computer-aided dispatch, and new records managements systems for law enforcement and corrections. The initiative saved the police $500,000 by leveraging county IT resources, including existing hardware and multi-jurisdictional software licenses. 

Marchi has taken the same approach in beefing up the websites of half a dozen towns, police departments and fire districts. His IT professionals will design a site and host it on shared infrastructure. By leveraging these resources across multiple uses, “we can design to exactly their specifications, and we can do it at a lower cost than an outside vendor,” he said.

Towns are free to use outside vendors, and Marchi says isn’t looking to compete with local private-sector IT providers. But he adds that in many cases, the county’s shared-service approach will prove the logical economic choice. 

IT leaders looking to follow this model would do well to reach out actively to civic leaders. The Dutchess County executive hosts an annual Municipal Innovation Summit to ensure mayors and town council members know what is available to them. 

“Our county executive leads that discussion, and anytime an IT solution pops up, my job is to share how that technology can enable a business solution or solve a business problem. I’m there as the CIO for the county to share how technology can be employed to achieve our specific strategic goals,” Marchi said. 

Without such gatherings, it can be hard for a shared services initiative to pick up steam. “We have had seven newly elected town supervisors and mayors in the past year. They have no idea these services are even available,” he said. “It’s our job to tell that story.”

Click here to see all the winners in this category.

Sonoma County, Calif., 1st Place, 500,000-999,999 Population Category

When wildfires swept through Sonoma County, Calif. in the fall of 2017, Director of Information Systems John Hartwig found the IT landscape as radically transformed as the rolling hills, now scorched and scarred.

“The wildfires put a lot of things on hold. Everybody had to step back and take a new look at the situation,” he said. Geospatial systems suddenly were front and center, along with document management capabilities. Website volume blew up exponentially.

“GIS, for example, had a huge responsibility in things like tracking the fire, tracking the road closures. All that had a spatial component to it,” he said. “The volume on the websites went up at least three times from everybody trying to seek information and find resources. With document management, suddenly everybody was processing requests that would be essential to us filing for federal aid. That means we needed a lot of forms and a lot of document-capturing tools to make sure our record keeping was clean, consistent and available for future reference.”

The key to success: an early investment in virtualization. 

“We had made an advance move early on to virtual machines, where we were able to shift resources on the fly — storage, memory and processing capacity — to the applications that were most urgent,” Hartwig said. 

The county had begun roughly three years ago to virtualize its server environment: An original inventory of more than 700 servers is now about 90 percent virtualized. That infrastructure delivered the flexibility and agility needed to spin up IT capacity and balance workloads in the face of the new, unexpected demands. 

“It put us in a very good position to add to or share resources. If we have 50 applications that are critical to the response, it’s nice to be able to slide resources over to those applications,” Hartwig said. “I don’t think we could have had all these services up and running if we were still on dedicated equipment.”

Click here to see all the winners in this category.

Montgomery County, Md., 1st Place, 1,000,000 or More Population Category

In Montgomery County, Md., the county runs the booze business. Last year that became IT’s problem, and it triggered a renewed focus on cybersecurity.

“The liquor system needed automated support for warehousing, distribution and point of sale. So it was decided that we would incorporate that into our relatively new Oracle ERP system,” said CIO Sonny Segal. That meant a sudden leap in the user base. “We are up to almost 100,000 external identities in addition to the 20,000 county identities.”

Segal already had a watchful eye on cyberissues, but with the massive influx of non-county users on the system, security became the focus of renewed attention. The IT team put new mechanisms in place to guard against spam and phishing attacks. They also tightened end-point management, effectively cutting enterprise vulnerabilities in half.

“We have taken a very aggressive stance on eliminating endpoint vulnerabilities through continual scanning and remediation,” Segal said. “We are not shy about taking end points offline and pursuing replacement and reimaging on a very aggressive schedule. Those things have paid off in the form of greatly reduced risk.”

Segal upped the security game by implementing tighter controls around IT devices, ensuring that all devices that touch county systems are registered for IT security oversight. He also uses dashboards and other reporting mechanisms to hold individuals and departments more publicly liable for their role in supporting the cybereffort.

“We have implemented risk-based dashboards that include the number of people who didn’t take cybertraining, the number of security instances that can be assigned to specific business units,” he said. “That all connects to our dedication to managing by measurement. Our chief administrative officer has each of the department heads accountable in public sessions for measurements in their business areas. Now security is one of those measured scorecards, and as result we have seen significant improvements in risk reduction.”

Click here to see all the winners in this category, and click through the rest of our story for detailed write-ups on each winner.

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.

1 of 6
Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.