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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1,000,000 or More 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 Montgomery County, Md.

To become the No. 1 digital county in the largest population category requires an unprecedented level of achievement across a broad set of categories, a stellar workforce and a willingness to push the technological envelope. Montgomery County has done this and more. That point is driven home by the fact that Montgomery is the only county to be a finalist in Amazon’s search for a second headquarters, in part because of its robust digital infrastructure.

The county’s tech achievements are rock solid. It was the first large county to establish an open government program, which has resulted in in more than 150 published data sets that are widely consumed by third-party apps. The county is a national leader when it comes to setting practical standards for publishing data relating to public safety, budgeting, spending and performance. It has robust cybersecurity practices in place. The county also has set a high bar with its citizen-centric practices that allow citizens and agencies to interact through a variety of channels that can be found in its 311 platform, an AI-assisted website and on social media.

Montgomery County spends $2 million annually on cyberpractices and is a nationally recognized leader for its response and coordination center. The impact on cyber has been clear: security vulnerabilities have plunged, thanks to analytics and aggressive endpoint management, and will be further improved by a planned upgrade to identity management. The county’s digital infrastructure also stands out for its exceptional broadband planning, execution and capability.

Not one to rest on its laurels, the county has boosted its tech expertise by hiring a chief data officer, chief innovation officer and enterprise security officer. With sound tech leadership in place, Montgomery County continues to innovate, with projects underway that will test the capabilities of  artificial intelligence and blockchain.

2nd Wake County, N.C.

Wake County, N.C., again finds itself near the top of the pack in this year’s Digital Counties Survey for its ongoing commitment to align IT with broader county strategies. The county has strong citizen engagement and inclusion efforts, like a program that automatically texts or phones appointment reminders for people enrolled in the WIC program, resulting in a cost savings of more than $50k annually. They also work to make sure resources are available on mobile devices for communities that primarily use smartphones to access the Internet. To expand accessibility, this year the county Board of Commissioners put into play its strategic fiber goal, overseen by the chief information and innovation officer. Among other initiatives, the board is developing a plan to extend fiber service to underconnected areas in the eastern part of the county.

The county cites cybersecurity as its No. 1 priority, and robust efforts include an emphasis on staff training and making information about phishing and other attacks as easy to use as possible. In March 2018, the county started using a hosted cloud data backup system to maintain resiliency, and in April it began planning a tabletop cybersecurity response drill.

As the second-fastest-growing county in the U.S. and home to Raleigh, Wake County has tough competition for hiring skilled tech talent. However, the IT department sees very low turnover, and staff members have worked with human resources to offer flexible benefits and pay that's on par with national averages. A data scientist hired in 2017 is working to continue the county’s data-driven initiatives, including implementing Next Request to streamline public records requests and other public portals that assist citizens, such as GIS-driven maps.

3rd Fairfax County, Va.

In Fairfax County, Va., a region with a population of more than 1.1 million, technology plays an integral role in how the regional government plans for growth and meets the needs of its increasingly diverse and digital citizenry. That mission relies on an agile strategy and the understanding that residents need and want online access to their government. Through online transparency tools, like the financial transparency and real estate tax applications, residents are offered a clear view into where the county invests tax dollars. 

Projects like the CAD2CAD program, a coordinated effort between public safety dispatch systems in the region, is proof-positive of the county’s leadership and collaborative abilities. The system, which connects multiple dispatch centers for better information-sharing, serves a population of more than 5 million people and helps improve emergency responses. 

Fairfax County is also using cutting-edge tools to protect the public. Predictive analytics is used by health and human services to head off communicable diseases and detect outbreaks in advance. In addition, eight health and human services departments are currently collaborating on an enterprise technology solution, which will need to overcome the fact that many of the approximately 20 information systems are not set up to share data effectively. Where it comes to supporting the resilience of the county’s mission-critical applications, officials have established state-of-the-art replication and recovery processes and tools.

But these efforts have not been without challenges — even from the state itself. The Dillon Rule, adopted in 1896, places a considerable financial burden on the county by capping non-real-estate revenue, while at the same time limiting its authority to collect revenue through other means. Along with the ongoing challenge of bringing in new IT talent, these issues force the county to look to technology to fill the gaps and support their mission. As with every other digital government, cybersecurity continues to pose challenges for the jurisdiction, but its focus on preparation, resilience and the deployment of next-gen tools has kept the county breach-free for more than 16 years.

3rd King County, Wash.

The Pacific Northwest’s most populous county fell from first place in its population category last year, but it still has plenty going on, including continued work on some of the same initiatives it took on in 2016, like setting up data warehouses that span entire departments and work between agencies as well.

King County underwent a round of capacity-building in the data arena in 2017, adding a Data Service that included a chief data officer, the establishment of a countywide data governance framework and investment in platforms to support business intelligence and data-driven operations. Meanwhile, it ramped up collaboration with the public — it’s crowdsourcing content translation work for its website and weaving user experience research into its development process — as well as regional governments, in the form of cloud on-ramping and cross-jurisdictional vehicle licensing.

The county has shown it is planning for the future as well, making business continuity planning part of its daily operations. So far, IT has completed continuity plans for about half of its identified essential services, including flexible cloud infrastructure to support resiliency in the event of emergencies.

Staff have found ways to pursue innovation as well, and in the last year they tried out augmented reality with the Microsoft HoloLens. Using the goggles, King County set up a program for training people to do work on specialized wastewater treatment equipment using 3-D imaging and sensor data. It’s also either testing or researching drones, AI chatbots, blockchain and other emerging technology.

4th Los Angeles County, Calif.

Easily the most populous county in the country, Los Angeles County serves its 10 million residents with coordinated approaches that share data and technology. Officials helped develop and advocate for a state law to facilitate data sharing among the many stakeholders, including external service providers, involved in providing services to the homeless. A similar coordinated approach is afoot for health-care services, with the aim of enabling a holistic view of the patient across different health departments and streamlining online services for users. The Department of Public Social Services has also automated many aspects of its public assistance eligibility and case management system. The new LEADER Replacement System, which distributes more than $4 billion in benefits per year, makes caseworkers more productive and serves clients more efficiently.

In Los Angeles County, two dedicated funds are earmarked for technology to encourage innovation and cross-agency efforts like the chatbots now in use by animal care and the library. Emerging tech is also being smartly deployed to convince residents to explore parks they haven’t visited before. The park experience has been gamified by county staff, with rare virtual items placed at parks with lower usage. The Public Works Department has a 311 app of sorts called The Works to give residents an easy route to report issues like illegal dumping and graffiti, and to track the county’s progress in dealing with them.

A major data center modernization effort is also in the works for L.A. County, in which many aging data centers will be rotated out of service and “mission-critical” applications will migrate to their own private cloud in a new facility. The process will begin in the next calendar year, with department data expected to move to the new facility by 2021.

4th Oakland County, Mich.

Oakland County tied with Montgomery County, Md., for second place in 2017 and remained a contender this year, tying Los Angeles County for fourth place with a commitment to engage citizens and governments on issues big and small. The agency has begun a Universal Communications and Collaboration strategy that will include a new phone system. It recently released an RFP for a new voice over Internet protocol system. The county sheriff’s office has joined FirstNet, already deploying more than 200 network-enabled smartphones, and is in the process of migrating mobile modems to AT&T. Its FirstNet pilot is the first in the state in public safety field use, and is the largest in the Midwest. The county also worked with a provider to stand up a secure next-gen 911 fiber ESiNET (emergency services IP network).

During 2017, the county made two-factor authentication the standard for administrative access to servers; going forward, it will implement an identity and access management tool for a consolidated approach to identity and single sign-on. Its reference architecture program uses modular infrastructure to facilitate the offering of IT services, efficient app deployment and real-time data replication at the storage level.

The agency went live in July with an open data portal educating its more than 1.2 million residents on the opioid epidemic, logging more than 4,400 sessions to date. It has also used crowdsourcing to reach residents, populating a geoform with data on alternative health resources; and at the holidays, creating a map identifying public light displays. Its Board of Commissioners promoted a human trafficking awareness event across county social media, drawing a sold-out crowd.

5th Sacramento County, Calif.

Sacramento County is fifth this year among jurisdictions of more than 1 million residents, and California’s capital has recently initiated plans to vastly overhaul its use of technology, with leadership voting to adopt its CIO’s Technology Improvement Plan. This plan calls for replacing a number of systems, including budget management, criminal justice, county clerk recording, voter registration equipment and county property tax information. The effort is slated to extend through 2023, with the CIO publishing annual updates as it progresses. Sacramento has also worked to add other public-facing tech improvements, including 311 capability for service requests, complete with a mobile app. Data from the 311 platform is also driving decision-making processes, subsequently being used to “implement holistic solutions to community problems.” Other ongoing efficiency work includes an internal effort to go paperless.

Another area of note for Sacramento County is its use of tech to solve problems, specifically to address homelessness via an online self-service portal developed for homeless families to register for emergency shelter services. This program has already yielded results, with 1,395 online reservations submitted in the first two months. Open data work has also progressed, with the county now publishing more than 100 open data sets online, as well as deploying a new online portal to make and track requests for public records. Sacramento County’s CIO also maintains the Sacramento Regional Radio Communications System, a network that supports regional public safety partnerships by providing two-way voice radio communications for more than 100 participating agencies. A multi-year project to enhance the current radio system with a 30-channel replacement is underway. Finally, Sacramento County has initiated an analysis of gaps in its cybersecurity, aiming to soon implement an improvement plan that adheres to industry best practices.

6th Miami-Dade County, Fla.

Miami-Dade County, which ranks sixth in its population category for the second year in a row, continues to make solid strides in tech, despite expecting 11 to 20 percent of its IT workforce to retire in the coming year. But as the county grapples with the prospect of losing such a large slug of its tech staff, it has developed a number of innovative workarounds. One is a teleworking program, which has helped with staff retention. Permanent employees with at least an “above satisfactory” evaluation performance rating are allowed to work from home at least once a week. The county also uses conference rooms equipped with WebEx or Skype capabilities, which not only keeps staff members in contact with one another, but also has the benefit of shifting the county to a paperless environment by eliminating paper faxes, agendas and files by sharing the information digitally through the teleconferencing programs.

Automation has also aided the county in getting more work done with fewer people and has provided a way to work more efficiently. One solution includes using an automated skills assessment application to match priority needs with those employees who have the appropriate skills to perform the work.

Creation of online and self-service options is another way automation has allowed Miami-Dade County to provide extended hours to its 2.7 million residents despite a reduced staff level. For example, the county’s Waste Carts Inventory, Routing and Work Order processing application automates and streamlines the garbage division’s service request process. Additionally, the county’s redesign of its miamidade.gov website, which is currently in beta, is transforming it to a citizen-centric site featuring a mobile-friendly dashboard that can provide real-time information such as traffic congestion, road closure and signal problems, rather than its previous versions that featured specific department and agency information and focused on elected officials.

6th San Bernardino County, Calif.

Recent tech efforts in San Bernardino County, Calif., have secured it a sixth-place showing in this year's Digital Counties Survey. For example, an increasing number of face-to-face interactions with county government are migrating online. These include development and building permits, building inspections, requests for county supervisor appearances and other services that can be handled remotely, saving residents and businesses valuable travel time, rather than driving to the county seat. This is not insignificant, as San Bernardino County covers a larger area than any other county in the lower 48 states. In fact, it is larger than Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined. Further easing citizen interactions, the county also has an “automated receptionist” named Alice that can handle many traditional receptionist tasks, including making payments to the county, and is expected to handle medical marijuana permit processing as well.

To reduce its data center carbon footprint, San Bernardino County is virtualizing much of its environment so that only 10 percent of the data servers are physical. The data center is also able to respond to department needs much quicker, and the servers include high-speed, flash-storage platforms to reduce latency and speed up response times.

Keeping with its mission to better serve a large county, often covering rugged and mountainous terrain, the county surveyor recently began using drones to conduct aerial mapping, which has resulted in reducing time and costs, and enabled mapping to be completed on shorter notice. Elsewhere, San Bernardino County has taken on smart and sustainable initiatives by designing solar and thermal innovations into its new and retrofitted buildings, such as the County High Desert Government Center.

6th San Diego County, Calif.

A main thrust of San Diego County’s Strategic Plan is to make San Diego the “safest and most resilient community in the nation,” and a key enabler of that is technology. The “Tell Us Now” mobile app provides easy access to key services that promote safety for residents in the unincorporated areas of the county. In addition, the Office of Emergency Services created a Web-based application called “Know Your Hazards,” a localized, easy-to-use, public hazard risk map. With this app, residents can identify local hazards by entering an address to access local preparedness and response recommendations for earthquake, fire, flood and tsunami risk.

One of the county’s goals of “operational excellence” by providing top-notch customer service, is reached through the use of innovative technology, including the use of more than a dozen mobile applications on the County Apps Center. The County News Center provides up-to-date information on matters of public interest and is updated in real time. The county actively uses social media for both disseminating information and garnering feedback from stakeholders and provides a channel for “customer sentiment” to improve the delivery of services. An example is Animal Services, which uses Facebook to highlight animals available for adoption and to provide information about how the public can volunteer and participate in events.

7th Alameda County, Calif.

Home to more than 1.6 million citizens, the Bay Area’s Alameda County has a lot on its plate. Despite dropping three spots from its fourth-place position last year, Alameda still aims to stay as citizen-centric as possible — while also homing in on its roots and utilizing technology to improve countless services. In the next 12-24 months, a digital help desk system leveraging Cortana will be available online to answer questions and refer citizens to relevant information. Jumping on the blockchain train, new tech will be used to register land and properties, and ownership and title disputes can be tracked transparently, immediately creating a digital backup. To top it all off, a Mobile Citizen app was unveiled last year, allowing constituents to report community problems from their smartphones.

A strong IT workforce starts with strong recruitment. Posting job openings on sites such as LinkedIn, Careers in Government and Twitter help create a social media presence to spread the word about new positions. The county’s ability to retain staff also played a key part in the success of important projects. Perhaps part of its success in retention can be credited to the Training and Education Center, which provides year-round classroom training for county employees that 55 percent of personnel participate in.

On the safety side, California’s October 2017 wildfires provided the foundation for a partnership with Sonoma County and MapBox where they use aerial drone imagery to collect pertinent data during natural disasters. Another Sonoma County partnership provides a much-needed reciprocal host for Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity infrastructure, using the cloud to provide storage to support redundant services and back up data. With 311 already implemented, E-911 came next, allowing the county to track the location of 911 calls.

8th Cook County, Ill.

The second-most populous county in the U.S., Cook County, Ill., moved from fifth to eighth place this year. Among its notable IT achievements were two open data releases that were the first of their kind in the nation. In March 2018, the county published felony criminal case data dating back to 2010 on the Cook County Open Data Portal. The release consisted of more than 45 million data points covering 300,000 distinct cases. And in February 2017, the county released on its website tools that allow residents to create geographic visuals of Medical Examiner data as far back as 2014. These tools allow users to view dashboards and interactive maps with information on cases of death within the county.

A number of changes occurred within the Cook County Bureau of Technology (BoT). Most notably, the county hired a new chief information security officer, Charles Ruehling. The new head of the Information Security Office has a wealth of security experience, including time at the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and NASA. BoT also hired a director of systems architecture and a data center manager, and created the position of asset manager, which it hopes to fill soon.

Cook County also completed the backbone of its 10-gig broadband network, laying high-speed fiber cables to connect major county buildings. Thanks to an agreement with the Chicago Transit Authority, the county extended its fiber lines along CTA’s tracks to connect to core locations. Connected hospitals and courthouses are already seeing benefits from faster speeds and greater bandwidth. And on Dec. 1, 2017, the county launched Cook Central, a hub for sharing mapping and geographic data with residents — a one-stop shop for all things related to the Cook County Department of Geographic Information Systems.

8th Tarrant County, Texas

Tarrant County, Texas, is home to 1.9 million residents and is the sixth-fastest-growing county in the United States. From the county seat of Fort Worth, officials have worked diligently to make constituents a priority, which shows in the county’s move from 10th place to eighth place this year in the Digital Counties Survey. The county continues to implement its Vision 2020 Strategic Plan, which aims to align IT investments with ever-changing business concerns and county strategic goals. Objectives include investing wisely in IT solutions and giving county staff the skills and expertise necessary to meet citizen needs and expectations.

One such citizen-centric initiative is the Tarrant County Public Health Be Mosquito Free Campaign, which uses a vector map to inform the public of instances of diseases carried by mosquitoes, ticks and fleas, including West Nile virus and Lyme disease.

The county also offers a Waze website that lets users view road alerts and traffic congestion information in real time. Tarrant County further engages its residents online by maintaining a regular social media presence on Twitter, Facebook and Nextdoor at @TarrantCountyTX.

9th Orange County, Fla.

Home to more than 1.3 million residents and the city of Orlando, Orange County, Fla.’s technology must live up to its residents’ needs, and in 2017 it was put to the test. The IT department has been focused on how the agency handled the disaster that ensued during and after Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm that reached central Florida last September. The county was able to use several apps already in place to communicate with citizens in real time, including the mobile app OCFL Alert for emergency notifications, and OCFL311, which allowed residents to quickly report issues as they arose throughout the storm so they were fixed quickly. A GIS InfoMap system allowed communication of critical mapping information with county emergency operations and policymakers to keep county systems running during the hurricane. As part of ongoing public safety initiatives, the County Radio System is interoperable with several other jurisdictions, including the city of Orlando.

In other IT efforts, Orange County is being proactive with cybersecurity to combat the more than 30,000 hacking attempts it receives in a day and more than 16 million malicious emails each month, mostly phishing or ransomware attacks. The county's cybersecurity team uses analytics and data loss prevention tools to spot potential attacks, and staff have been trained to flag any suspicious activity. They are also looking into cyberinsurance and security-as-a-service options.

County IT remains committed to transparency for citizens, making county data available online, including streaming of board meetings. With more than 90,000 followers across multiple social platforms, citizen engagement efforts are strong, and online tools are available to streamline citizen services, such as the Fast Track Web portal, which allows 24-hour access to e-permitting for land developers and citizens.

10th Palm Beach County, Fla.

Tenth-place Palm Beach County, Fla., has an IT shop that handles most application and system development in house. This approach has led to an impressive list of internally developed tools to help the organization run smoothly for employees and citizens alike. Staff capabilities are especially noteworthy since the county has fewer IT staff today than it did in 2007 (before the Great Recession), despite a big population jump during that same period. Of particular note is an online public records request system that will go far to ensure the county is compliant with Florida’s transparency laws. The new system, which staff are currently working on, will issue a tracking number to people making records requests, allowing them to monitor status until the county provides the records they seek. Information System Services staff also created a performance measurement tool that helps them keep an eye on metrics by department and program. Information is available in text as well as visual formats. Efforts to engage beyond the confines of the Palm Beach County organization include technical partnerships, in the form of interlocal agreements, with cities, schools, medical facilities and nonprofits to share staff knowledge and county infrastructure in several areas, including GIS, hosting, applications and networking.

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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.