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
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250,000-499,999 Population Category

Click points on the map above to learn more about each winner. Red indicates 1st place winners, yellow indicates 2nd place winners, green indicates 3rd place winners, and blue indicates winners that placed 4th through 10th.

1st Dutchess County, N.Y.

Dutchess County, N.Y., claimed the top spot in its population category this year by putting significant emphasis on connecting with residents and finding new ways to innovate and create efficiencies countywide. The county’s Office of Central and Information Services (OCIS) lists citizen engagement as its No. 1 priority, an effort clearly evident in its robust social media presence to communicate and maintain transparency with residents. Expansion of online services, including GIS, electronic payments and more, has created $15 million in annual savings for the public. Further, OCIS is working on redesigning its online presence with a focus on mobile-first and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as industry standard best practices for county Web applications, including headlines that can be read by Amazon Echo devices. Citizen-centric plans for the next one to two years also include texting, Google Home capabilities, chatbots and more.

Shared services are key to OCIS’ work and include the appointment of a county shared services coordinator and 32 shared services available for cities. The county also offers a $1 million annual grant program to incentivize cities to use more shared services. Along these lines, one of Dutchess County’s big projects for 2018 is to upgrade its Emergency Public Safety Program, including 911 computer-aided dispatch among other public safety technologies. The county has announced an agreement to partner with the city of Poughkeepsie Police on these upgrades, which has already saved the town $500,000 before the system even goes live later this year.

To strengthen its workforce, OCIS is expanding business partnerships with area colleges to recruit diverse tech talent and foster an inclusive environment. The agency has also invested heavily in cybersecurity training for county staff, and has made investments in cyberinsurance, as well as ransomware prevention and response to bolster its security enterprisewide.

2nd Chesterfield County, Va.

Chesterfield County recently updated its open data policy and created an enterprise data governance strategy, a backdrop on which it can encourage more information sharing between departments.

The county has worked with regional partners on several projects, including a cross-jurisdictional cybersecurity partnership, creating a website to promote education and awareness about opioids in the area, participating in a health and human services-related platform to share data and help cut down on duplicate entry, and police department teamwork on mapping crime.

Chesterfield IT has invested real resources into establishing a culture of creativity and relationships, setting up the technology infrastructure to allow telecommuting, which 65 percent of its staff takes advantage of for parts of each week. The department also uses a competency tool to identify specific areas where staff could use training or career development, and then recognizes and rewards them for pursuing that new knowledge. There’s also a mentorship program that pairs up employees with leaders. Since 2013, the vacancy rate has dropped from 18 percent to 7 percent.

The teleworking option, along with the county’s heavy use of the cloud for email, file storage and other applications, is also central to its plans to keep working in case of emergency.

The county’s budget for the next fiscal year includes a $1 million increase to support innovation and enterprise initiatives. Among the work it’s taking on: Setting up a cloud-based enterprise business intelligence platform, setting up big data analytics for police and fire department sensors and identifying commonly-FOIA’d information so it can be published on the county’s open data platform.

3rd Frederick County, Md.

Frederick County, Md., which ranked third among agencies with 150,000-249,999 residents in the 2016 Digital Counties Survey, leveraged agency collaborations, citizen engagement, key new tools and population growth to earn third place this year in the 250,000-499,999 population category. Its IT organization leads an IT Technology Council to further interagency collaboration between county and municipal public safety, library and education agencies. The Livable Frederick Master Plan offers a collaboration framework for other agencies, the private sector and community groups. In the next year, county emergency management will link its computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system to adjoining counties to reduce dispatch times.

The county executive has made citizen engagement a priority; the agency surveyed residents in support of the agency’s budget and streams budget presentations and town halls, addressing comments in real time via Facebook Live. It also held an online chat with parks and recreation and reaches residents through many social media platforms. The county, which now serves more than 252,000 residents, reaches them via a responsively-designed website; online apps that use mapping to enable the reporting and tracking of road conditions and issues; and a Notify Me app that offers text or email notification on specific issues, job and bid postings and emergency alerts. The county is seeking a consultant to identify key performance indicators that could be displayed in public-facing dashboards.

The county’s IT organization is using a project portfolio management tool to prioritize and assign staff to key projects. It recently deployed a security incident event management tool using artificial intelligence and machine learning to scrutinize real-time information for potential security issues, and stood up a new Cyber Security Operations Center offering real-time assessment and analysis. Going forward, security officials plan to procure penetration testing tools and mount a phishing awareness campaign.

4th Douglas County, Colo.

After finishing first in last year’s 250,000-499,999 population category, Douglas County, Colo., has dropped to fourth in the current survey, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t progress being made there. In fact, the jurisdiction has a pretty long list of new tech and innovation projects that have gone live or into development this year, including an Ask Douglas County skill for Amazon’s Alexa, a multitude of new GIS apps for both internal and public use, an elaborate expansion of its existing open data portal, a new GeoHub with a wide breadth of layered maps, integrated Waze data to help new transportation projects, and more. As Douglas County notes, its population is tech savvy, and 90 percent of constituents have high-speed Internet connections at home, which has led to a situation where citizen demands require that the jurisdiction’s tech and innovation work keep pace. This is varied work, ranging from publication of financial data dating back five years to expanding the range and speed of Wi-Fi available at the Douglas County Fair.

Internally Douglas continues to do important work in the area of cybersecurity, faced as all jurisdictions are by an ever-evolving set of more complex threats. To this end, Douglas County is using new security technologies, extensive security awareness training for its IT staff and improved cyberincident response plans. As many jurisdictions have, the county has also moved to using DocuSign, which enables electronic signatures that lead to more efficient internal workflows, as well as new e-procurement systems. In terms of the future, innovation work continues. Douglas County is, for example, working to grow its GeoHub into its primary open data site by 2019. Drone usage also continues to expand, with new uses for that tech including for search and rescue and weed control.

5th Durham County, N.C.

Durham County, N.C. — population 312,000 — has jumped from its previous 10th place to fifth place this year in the Digital Counties Survey. The county’s strategic plan focuses on five goals: Community and Family, Health, Secure Community, Environment and Visionary Government. The Computers 4 Kids program is part of the Information Services and Technology department’s commitment to Community and Family. The program refurbishes computers and partners with local organizations to redistribute the computers to area nonprofits, Durham Public Schools and North Carolina Central University.

New apps from Durham County indicate its extensive efforts to meet citizen needs. The county Department of Social Services launched a mobile app to let citizens submit documents for Food and Nutrition Services, Medicaid, Work First (employment services) benefits or Crisis Services applications. The goal is to help people avoid multiple in-person trips to county offices.

A joint city-county portal and app, Durham One Call, gives residents information on the latest city/county services, and lets citizens report issues and request services such as trash pickup, recycling, potholes and other street repairs, blighted property, and water and storm services. Requests are routed to the appropriate city or county department.

Durham County runs more than 35 social media accounts from various agencies on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Nextdoor, Periscope and Pinterest. The county has utilized Facebook Live and YouTube to host interactive chat forums, which address citizen issues and highlight county programs. The county’s Nextdoor account reaches more than 38,000 residents regarding local issues.

6th Dakota County, Minn.

Dakota County wants to meet its constituents where they are — whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Nextdoor, YouTube or Instagram. The county has expanded its presence across these six social media platforms as part of its mission to use technology to better engage with residents. The IT department also developed an informational smartphone app in summer 2017. Users can check library events, park locations, scroll through the jail roster, locate property tax information and more. In November 2017 the Dakota County IT department implemented an online payment portal on its website, allowing residents to more easily make required payments.

Located just south of St. Paul, Dakota County is in the process of upgrading its boardroom equipment to allow for high-definition video as well as closed captioning. The county also plans to add touchscreen kiosks in the Law Enforcement Center as well as online payments for the Sheriff’s Civil Division services, birth and death certificates, licenses for marriage, and liquor and tobacco sales, among other payments.

The Dakota County Fleet was named the No. 1 small fleet and No. 2 overall municipal fleet in North America in 2017 by Government Fleet magazine and the American Public Works Association, in part because of the in-vehicle monitoring system that tracks fuel usage, mileage, driving behaviors, idling vehicles, maintenance, seat belt use and more. And in the smart cities area, Dakota County plans to upgrade its fiber-optic connectivity in the next 12 to 18 months. The improvements will connect 17 traffic signals and intersections.

6th Santa Cruz County, Calif.

Santa Cruz County, Calif., population 262,382, was one of the many California communities that faced wildfire and flooding this past year, and the county IT department was required to rise to the occasion. When mudslides caused by heavy rain disrupted roads, power and communications within the county, the IT team brought a business continuity center online in order to maintain important functions like payroll, accounting and tax systems. A loss of the wide area network connection, caused by a wildfire, led the county to begin implementing BGP (Border Gateway Protocol). This setup will establish a redundant link between two Internet service providers — AT&T, which currently provides Internet for county employees and services, and Cruzio, the local ISP with which Santa Cruz County partners to provide free public Wi-Fi — so that if one goes down, the other can continue to provide a connection.

Reorganization and modernization was a focus for the county IT department, which evaluated and rewrote all of its job classifications, thus attracting better applicants with modern job titles and descriptions. The IT team also finally finished a two-year effort to get everyone into the same room (literally). The improved work environment includes state-of-the-art workstations and equipment and a community space where everyone can get together.

Cannabis was recently made legal in the state of California, and Santa Cruz County IT has been lending its services in facilitating this new market. First, the team built a licensing system for cultivators, and then expanded it to include dispensaries. Countywide code enforcement for cannabis also just went live.

And an interesting piece of tech that the county adopted recently is a set of smart refrigerators for storing vaccines, which alert staff of temperature changes so they can save the vaccines from spoiling if the refrigerators malfunction or lose power.

7th Hamilton County, Ind.

Located near Indianapolis, Indiana’s state capital, Hamilton County has nearly 300,000 residents. Population growth has increased demands for government services, making technology and digital solutions more critical. The county relies on third-party solutions — both purchased and hosted — as well as shared IT services to increase collaboration while mitigating the cost of IT. Hamilton is pursuing data transparency on several fronts, most notably with its GIS data sets, which are now more accessible on an intuitive website. Residents and businesses also have easy access to property and tax reports, assessment documents, finance data and all meeting agendas and minutes.

Transparency has boosted citizen engagement, which is supported by a robust social media program that includes multiple ways for residents to interact with the county. In addition, Hamilton has added numerous online services, including nine new payment services, totaling 32 available forms for public use. While these may sound like standard features of any county, what makes Hamilton unique is how it has used responsive design and Lean methodologies to create a digital government that is both innovative and valuable. By using Lean processes, the county has made the role of its IT staff more interchangeable, while streamlining how systems are designed, boosting the number of hosted and shared services, and reducing the amount of in-house training that’s needed. Staff roles are more interchangeable, which has reduced the amount of time it takes to get critical tasks done.

8th Washoe County, Nev.

Washoe County, Nev., is facing a conundrum that a number of other counties face — a reduction in state funding coupled with a growing number of state-mandated responsibilities. But despite fewer state funds and other monetary issues, such as a repayment of $4.6 million to a taxpayer, $200 million in property tax abatement following the Great Recession, and two disasters in the past year that were declared worthy of federal assistance, Washoe County has managed to continue to innovate.

Home to more than 450,000 residents and ranked eighth in its Digital Counties population category in 2018, Washoe County completed its Quick Map application last year. The app allows citizens to save maps and data via integrated authentication and perform analysis in a range of areas from real estate sales to land development and more. With its new responsive and user-friendly design, citizens can locate information more easily.

And to keep things on track, Washoe County’s IT leaders also took the valuable step of linking plans and projects to county commissioners’ strategic objectives. The IT department also has its Technology Advisory Committee that serves as a governance board, which reviews proposed projects and prioritizes them, as well as monitoring their progress.

9th Erie County, Pa.

Although no major IT policy exists, the county touts open data/transparency as a major IT initiative. Visitors to the county website are able to access Open Budget and Open Spending to see county financial transactions. It’s a Socrata open data interface that is intuitive and easy to use, with updates on a weekly basis.

Another initiative was to digitize the job application process, both for outside applications and for internal processes. Security enhancement is another priority as employees undergo a robust security training program in relation to malware, phishing, spear phishing, etc. The IT department gauges employees’ responses to possible attacks by sending out fake, malicious emails through the application, Phishme. The county is using a signature software to combat spear phishing. The software creates a standard signature on all county emails combined with an official county image to verify its authenticity. Internal security has also been upgraded with a standardized process for employee activation, suspension and deletion of accounts in active directory and other applications. The systems are audited monthly by IT staff. The county will have a new, consolidated data center, taking over for six separate centers. The new center will have a geo-diverse secondary data center where information will be replicated in real time.

9th Leon County, Fla.

In Leon County, Fla., technology plays an increasing role in the delivery of internal and external services. While residents rely on access to the suite of open data sets, county employees and partner agencies rely on resilient and reliable solutions from the county’s Office of Information and Technology (OIT). In addition to serving the needs of the Board of County Commissioners, OIT has taken point in several other areas including shared services agreements with the state attorney’s office, the supervisor of elections, office of the sheriff, tax appraiser and others. The county also manages an enterprise Justice Information System and the Northwest Florida Pawn Shop portal for law enforcement coordination with local shops across 30 counties in Florida and Georgia.

When it comes to protecting the resources and data OIT manages across 72 buildings in six counties, cybersecurity efforts are not overlooked. The county maintains cyberinsurance, has implemented intrusion prevention systems and undergoes regular cybersecurity audits every three to five years. Additionally, county staff are encouraged to seek degrees with the promise of pay increases, and a liberal training budget is maintained.

The efforts, however, have not been without challenge. Homestead exemptions created a $7 million shortfall in property tax revenues and resulted in stagnant operating and capital budgets, forcing the county to think more creatively. Additionally, the state has continued to load more responsibilities on counties, meaning modernizations are needed for agency case management systems and changing service models.

10th Bell County, Texas

Located in the booming area of Central Texas, Bell County is dealing with fast population growth and a lot of new economic activity. At the same time, the county needs to meet unfunded mandates from the state and federal governments while simultaneously dealing with narrow revenue options because of state tax limits.

So the county’s leadership has given its IT staff a directive: Make sure the government can handle it by automating services where possible and making others flexible enough to accommodate expanding use.

IT has made paper-based processes more digital and automated, and worked with outside partners to develop a new legal defense system for the poor that saved on both direct costs and employee time. Recognizing its success, the Texas Conference of Urban Counties went on to spread that system to other jurisdictions. The staff has also moved citizen services such as vehicle registration, taxes and fine and fee payment online to make those processes more efficient.

The county shows solid use of best practices, such as using IT Infrastructure Library standards and leaning on technology to ensure adherence to governance processes. It’s also demonstrated a collaborative spirit, involving putting together a good lineup of experts for a large procurement effort for a new court case management system and partnering with local and state agencies on cybersecurity as well as infrastructure consolidation.

10th Clackamas County, Ore.

Clackamas County (population 420,000) is Oregon’s third-most populous county, and the Technology Services Department embraces several policy priorities established by the county Board of Commissioners, including: Grow a vibrant economy; build a strong infrastructure; and ensure safe, healthy and secure communities. The Clackamas Broadband Exchange (CBX), the county’s fiber backbone, supports these particular priorities by extending new and increased services throughout the county. The CBX has become a self-sustaining dark fiber service with revenues from private and public agencies using the network. Population growth in the rural parts of the county has increased the demand for Internet connectivity. Rescue services also benefit from improved connectivity, with greater ability to locate emergencies that happen in the rural Mt. Hood area. Fire districts in the county get better information en route to remote areas via the CBX and new software as well.

The county also offers GIS services to constituents through its open data portal. Users can get voting information, public services information, survey documents and natural hazard information using a map interface or address lookup. Other Web-based services offer additional convenience for residents, such as dog licensing, county fairground reservations, tax payments, traffic ticket payments, and building and alarm permits.

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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.