Chesterfield County, Va., is upgrading county infrastructure and citizen-centric services in an attempt to continue the county’s critically acclaimed success of the past few years. The county placed first in 2010 and third in 2011 in its division of the Digital Counties Survey, which annually ranks participating governments on their usage of technology to achieve outcomes. County CIO Barry Condrey said gaining recognition took time, but he encourages underdogs to not be deterred.
Through the awards, Chesterfield County was commended for its commitment to citizen service and the efficiency of its investments — two areas the county began focusing on six years ago, Condrey said. “We began looking at our technology money as investments, not just cost items,” he said. “We came up with an investment model, which gives us scoring criteria and involves looking at [county] departments from the lens of efficiency, effectiveness, citizen service — six or seven different criteria. That provides a scoring model for how to assess these projects.”
That change in philosophy, combined with an emphasis on enterprisewide systems and transparent government, was the starting point for the success that followed for Chesterfield County, Condrey said.
The county updated its website to be more user-friendly and transparent, receiving a rare grade of A+ from a government transparency clearinghouse called the Sunshine Review. The county also began offering services requested by citizens, such as Internet access in public buildings, online access to county GIS information, live webcasts of county meetings, an online archive of recorded meetings, and online form submission for common tasks like marriage license application. The county listened to what people wanted, gave it to them, and then continued listening to see how things could be improved further, Condrey said.
This approach also helps the county’s internal operations, Condrey said. Citizen access to county map layers was heavily requested and citizens were happy to get it, he said, but offering that information online allowed the county to close a physical help desk for county mapping that had thus become obsolete. The employee who worked at that desk was then free to work on other things the county needed help with, such as future IT projects.
One of Chesterfield County’s main goals is to virtualize operations, Condrey said. “I don’t want any PCs in the county five years from now,” he said. “We do all server virtualization [now]; we still have an attended data center with a mainframe that we’re looking to re-host.”
Other future projects include a service-oriented architecture to bridge county operations, an emergency alert system for citizens, and a website redesign that will integrate social media and other recent Internet trends. The county will also implement automated, remote controlled sprinkler and lighting systems for the county’s many sports fields. “This is very manpower intensive to manage all this stuff, and if you can do it from a central office it’s far more efficient,” Condrey said.
Now a county of 316,000 residents, Chesterfield grew rapidly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, changing from a farming community into a hybrid of farming, suburban and urban communities.
Chesterfield County is one of fewer than 25 counties in the country to retain AAA bond ratings from all three major rating agencies. Even rarer is the county’s additional AAA-rated water utility. As such, the county had been able to cope with the economic downturn better than many other communities.
In addition to financial stability and a sub-6 percent unemployment rate, the residents of Chesterfield County enjoy a good quality of life, Condrey said. “We’re two hours from Washington, D.C., two hours from the research triangle in North Carolina, two hours from the beach and two hours from the mountains.”
The county is home to historical landmarks such as Henricus, the second English settlement in the New World; Falling Creek Ironworks, North America’s first iron production facility; and, of course, many Civil War sites.
“It’s an outstanding place to live,” Condrey said. “I’ve raised two kids in Chesterfield and lived here all but about 10 years of my life. I’ve been around a lot of places, and Chesterfield is definitely a quality place to live and raise a family.”
The county’s IT efforts have augmented those community assets.
“I think the problem a lot of people make is they feel like they don’t do enough to really be considered in competition for the [Digital Counties] Survey, so they don’t bother,” Condrey said. “It’s almost like, ‘If I’m not going to be in the top 10, why bother?’”
Chesterfield County filled out the survey out for several years before it was included in the top ten, Condrey said. But just being part of the survey was of great benefit to the county, he said. The county received feedback from the Center for Digital Government (operated by e.Republic, Digital Communities’ parent company), which helped Chesterfield County proceed in the right direction, he said. And when recognition finally came, it was all the more sweet.
“That recognition is really very valuable,” he said. “That independent peer recognition by Digital Communities and the Center for Digital Government is recognized by our board, it’s recognized by our citizens, and it’s proof to our governing bodies that when you give us money to invest in technology for citizens, here’s independent verification that that’s money well spent.”