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Digital Counties Survey 2016: Winners Make Collaboration, Innovation, Civic Engagement Top Priorities

In this year's survey, the Center for Digital Government recognizes 55 counties that understand technology's value, empower their tech leaders, and implement new ideas to make life better for those who live and work there.

The results of the 14th Annual Digital Counties Survey are in and that means two things: a new batch of winners after which other counties can model their own digital projects, and new data on the latest trends and forecasts in the gov tech sector.

Key findings of this year's survey include few surprises and many reinforcements of the narratives found in recent issues of Government Technology. Cybersecurity remains atop the list of project areas where organizations expect to spend more time and energy, while citizen engagement made its first appearance on the list in recent years at the No. 7 spot. A list of this year's top 10 areas where technology leaders expect to have an increased focus next year can be found below, as compared with priorities from 2015 and 2014.




Cybersecurity Cybersecurity Cybersecurity
Mobility/Mobile Applications Hire and Retain Competent IT Personnel Hire & Retain Competent IT Personnel
Hire/Retain IT Personnel; and Open Government Mobility / Mobile Applications Shared Services
Disaster Recovery/Continuity of Operations Open Government/ Transparency/ Open Data Budget and Cost Control
Budget and Cost Control Disaster Recovery/ Continuity of Operations Mobility/Mobile Applications
Portal/ E-government Budget and Cost Control Disaster Recovery/Continuity of Operations
Citizen Engagement Virtualization: Server, Desktop/ Client, Storage, Applications Open Government/ Transparency/ Open Data
Shared or Collaborative Services Shared Services Virtualization: Server, Desktop/Client, Storage, Applications; and Portal/E-government
Business Process Automation; and Virtualization Portal/ E-government Broadband & Connectivity
Business Intelligence/Analytics Cloud Computing Governance, Data Center Consolidation and Cloud Computing

The Internet of Everything (IoE) is slowly gaining the attention of leaders, as 59 percent of survey respondents reported considering its potential in their strategic planning, a 5 percent increase over last year.

Government's migration to the cloud is also plodding along, with 50 percent of respondents reporting that a mere 10 percent or less of their systems have been migrated. Just 3 percent reported more than 50 percent being migrated. Most respondents also indicated that the cloud isn't the ultimate destination for most of their systems. While predictions of what percentage can be migrated to the cloud are more optimistic than last year, still just 35 percent of respondents predicted that more than 50 percent of systems could be migrated.

Of the counties that entered this year's survey, presented by the Center for Digital Government* in partnership with the National Association of Counties (NACo), 55 have been recognized as the top achievers in four population categories. Top-ranking counties will receive awards July 23 during NACo's annual conference in Long Beach, Calif.

Obvious trends emerged among the winners in the form of collaboration, innovation and civic engagement. Those counties that are most effective at delivering technology-based solutions are also ones that are ready to cooperate with others, both internally and with the public, and are also flexible and thoughtful enough to recognize the value in taking measured risk in search of better outcomes.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/AbbyLadyBug


In the 500,000 or more population category, Wake County, N.C., took top honors, impressing judges with its overall governance of technology projects aligned with community goals, an easy-to-use and GIS-enabled open data portal, a well-rounded staffing program, and a community outreach and social media program that embodies the spirit of today's cutting-edge public-sector technology efforts.

And its social media presence also was noteworthy; it isn't meant to be yet another channel for government to blast the public with information, said CIO Bill Greeves, but a way to endear itself to the public through genuine discourse.

"We have a social media outreach program we use to promote information coming out of the county, but the reason the program is successful for us is that we try to be extremely responsive when a dialog starts," said Greeves. "We try to turn it into a conversation whenever possible, which I think still not everybody gets that. We do get positive feedback and kudos and thanks directly, but I think the better metric for us is we're able to see an increase in secondary engagement. In other words, retweets or shares; we can see that a lot of our stories get traction."

A solid social media presence and policy also allows government to move at the same pace as the rest of the world, Greeves pointed out. When Pokemon Go became a huge news story, social media gave Wake County an opportunity to join the phenomenon with minimal effort and zero financial investment.

"I think Pikachu was at one of our animal shelters, so we let people know that," Greeves said. "So we said, 'Hey, if you're over there looking at Pikachu, why not come in and consider adopting a real animal.' That was not a spur-of-the-moment thing, but we had to strike while the iron was hot."

Whether it's social media or open data or overall project management, Wake County's success stems from two things, Greeves said: a willingness to collaborate and an alignment with innovation that runs throughout the county. Collaboration, Greeves explained, means people are willing to help one another on projects that they're not necessarily responsible for. If the library is trying to do something it's never done before, other county offices are willing to lend their expertise, even if they're not necessarily associated with the library.

"The other thing that helps us to be successful these days is we have a strong advocacy for innovation across the organization -- from our elected leaders, through our county manager's office down into the departments," Greeves said. "People are willing to try new things, to take calculated risk, do some experimentation all with the drive of trying to improve upon the service. You can't say that everywhere."

Sonoma+County%2C+Calif.Photo courtesy of Flickr/Erick Gonzalez

In Sonoma County, Calif., first place winner in the 250,000 to 499,999 population category, it's a similar story, explained John Hartwig, director of the Information Systems Department. It's the alignment of the board, administrative office and departments that allows them to succeed, he said.

Sonoma County was recognized for its managerial alignment and executive leadership, cross-jurisdiction collaboration, single point-of-entry Web presence, mobile infrastructure, and emphasis on transparency and open data. The beauty of social media is that it allows government to reach a wider group of people, Hartwig said, and that's what they're doing in the county.

"Anytime you're stretching to add more value across the spectrum of communicating to the public to your partners, you tend to have a better product in the outcome — hopefully better involvement, better volunteerism and things like that," Hartwig said. "I think that here in our county, the dynamic isn't one dimension, it's across the board involvement, whether it be responding to community events or hardships or challenges or working with the different types of datasets that start to get people interested. You just never know what draws people and what they might think of doing with it."

Open data holds so much potential for government, because one ever knows what opportunities might be uncovered, he said, whether those opportunities come in the form of economic development, reduced visits to government's physical counters, or increased accountability for an office's operations. And which data sets will become popular is hard know until the data is opened, he said.

"There's been a lot of conversation about our food safety restaurant inspections and how to make it easier and simpler to view and use," said Hartwig. "One of the more dynamic ones that gets a lot of hits is baby names. That's what I mean is you put it up and you just don't know what people may drive to or click on."

By partnering with Google, Sonoma County used 360-degree cameras to map its coastal and redwood trails. Instructive videos on topics like water conservation, permitting and code enforcement take an entertainment-oriented approach to bring appeal to otherwise boring topics, Hartwig said. Overall, the county's idea is to use as many modern tools as possible to achieve its goals, and be flexible by using the techniques that work best for those platforms.

View of Rosslyn, Va., in Arlington County, from across a frozen Potomac. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Jason OX4.

Arlington County, Va., took first place in the 150,000 to 249,999 population category for its fast-paced approach to civic engagement, shared services, and an innovative, collaborative management structure. Based on the book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Arlington's management structure empowers everyone in the organization to share their ideas and make change happen faster, explained CIO Jack Belcher.

Everyone in the "team of teams" structure gets five minutes during meetings to be candid about their challenges and ideas, regardless of rank. The honesty that comes out of this is refreshing, Belcher said, and it allows him to gather information faster and adapt quickly.

"If there are ways my staff can be empowered to make decisions, as long as it's aligned with what I'm trying to do, then you have better execution," said Belcher. "As the CIO, or the director of IT, whatever you want to call me, you have to put your ego aside. And you've got to say you're open to ideas from any source."

Adopting this structure was sometimes tough, Belcher said, because his managers sometimes didn't understand why their employees were going around them to report information. But the strategy has been working and has been used to adopt new processes, such as a faster method of upgrading to Windows 10.

In conjunction with "team of teams," the Arlington IT organization is split into two parts — a traditional, risk-averse side that manages operations and the Digital Innovations Group, charged with failing fast to find new ideas.

"Their job is to fail, try, fail, fail fast, fail forward, keep moving, develop proof-of-concept ideas. And get them out," Belcher said. "Can they stand up? And if they can, then let's go back and try to perfect them, but the goal is not to find that perfection right away. It's to try to deliver value."

Nevada County, CaliforniaNevada County, Calif., took first place in the up to 150,000 population category for its exemplary county budget portal, BYOD policy, participation in the 18-county Central Valley Next Generation Broadband Infrastructure Project, and a strategic plan that allows the IT arm to finish each project smoothly. Nevada County Chief Information Officer Steve Monaghan is no smarter than his peers, he explained — it's that their organizational structure takes the pressure of politics and the need for lobbying and allows IT to focus purely on IT.

The quality and quantity of technology projects the county is able to complete can be attributed to Nevada County's comprehensive strategic plan, Monaghan said. The plan has four pieces that include governance, strategic planning, top-down planning, and service economics. By doing this foundational step so well, it allows everything else staff members do to succeed.

The county's technology governance is centered around the grouping of what would be silos into communities of organizations that participate in like-activities. Those offices with shared customers, funding streams and business processes partake in a logical collaboration across organizational boundaries. This collaboration guides the county's strategic planning.

It's nice to have a plan, but if the powers that be won't allow the plan to happen, then it's all for naught, but they have top-down support, Monaghan said, because the board of supervisors always invests in technology in recognition of the savings that projects can achieve in the face of reduced staffing. And the pricing and pricing structure of IT's services makes implementation a winning proposition for customers too, he explained.

"When a department wants to do a project, we have the organizational infrastructure to take that idea, turn it into a project, get it approved through governance, get it funded, get it supported by the board, get it implemented," said Monaghan. "We have that mechanical system in place to get that stuff done very smoothly. To me, that's the differentiator."

Visit page 2 of our story for detailed write-ups on each winner.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at

Ryan McCauley Former Staff Writer

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.

Jessica Mulholland Former Web Editor/Photographer

Jessica Mulholland served as the Web editor of Government Technology magazine from October 2012 through September 2017. She worked for the Government Technology editorial team for nearly 10 years.

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