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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1st Arlington County, Va.

Arlington County is a first-place digital county for the third year running. Of note among an impressive array of comprehensive initiatives are the county’s engagement efforts, where they continually demonstrate a commitment to service delivery that aligns with citizen priorities. To standardize on their own proven strategies, the county has published a six-step public engagement guide outlining a process for capital projects guided by principles including inclusion and mutual respect, timely and accessible communication, transparency, and accountability. The county is also making strides on open data, with an advisory group weighing in on efforts like an inventory of countywide data, identifying data-sharing opportunities, establishing governance policies and partnering with local universities to extend analytics capabilities. New online tools include an internally developed library app that offers users geolocation, bar code scanning, notifications, meeting room booking and catalog search features.

Collaborative endeavors include serving as host to the first regional government chief information officer summit to facilitate coordination between local jurisdictions on technology and innovation-related issues. Along those same lines, the county is looking into a partnership with area public schools to share network and telephone systems to make operations more efficient. When it comes to cybersecurity, Arlington County has added many new and upgraded tools to its arsenal to guard against phishing emails, ransomware and malware, as well as other threats to the network. A “quick-step” button gives staff a simple way of passing suspicious emails along to IT staff as attachments. To fortify its disaster recovery posture, the county is transitioning from its two county-based data centers to an “active-active” data center setup off-premise in colocation facilities.

2nd Charles County, Md.

Advancing into second place since last year, Charles County has a long-running history with the Digital Counties survey — and 2018 is no different. The county’s ability to build upon its citizen-centric focus plays a large part in its success. Transparency between the locality and constituents is key — and making strides to connect broadband in rural communities is a big piece of the effort. Charles County has been working with cable TV franchises as well as private Internet service providers (ISPs) to help extend connectivity to rural areas.

Expansive online initiatives also help get citizens involved. The county website provides easily navigable resources, including a transparency page to view county budget information, audit reports, and salary data at any time and an interactive checkbook. The GetConnected program also became a mobile-friendly tool that helps connect residents and most of the county’s social media links, all on one page. Internally, the county’s Institutional Network (INet) connects over 120 anchor sites and city departments.

Strengthening cybersecurity efforts continues to be an area of focus for Charles County IT. The Cybersecurity Awareness Training program provides a curriculum for and assessment of full-time and part-time employees in best cybersecurity practices. As mentioned last year, the county chose to retain its cybersecurity insurance to guard against breaches. Taking it one step further, the county will test its own network by undergoing a Comprehensive Risk Assessment.

3rd Cabarrus County, N.C.

Though investing heavily in education and school construction, Cabarrus County, N.C., has continued to support and fund technology initiatives to automate and consolidate services, create shared services, and increase collaboration between departments and jurisdictions. The county partnered with SeamlessGov to transform the way citizens interact with the government and complete a mobile-friendly website redesign with user-optimized content. The new site offers an intuitive and consistent user experience that modernizes citizen/staff interactions. The site provides an integrated live chat feature with a chatbot that offers articles from a new help portal. And if the article doesn’t meet the citizen’s needs, they are connected to an integrated help desk contact form.

The county’s Open Data platform, using Esri ArcGIS online subscriptions, was redesigned for mobile access to provide county data; support local, regional and national collaboration; and provide self-service access to residents, businesses, municipalities, researchers and economic developers. The county also boasts new informational video vignettes to engage and inform citizens about government activities, services and events.

4th Boone County, Mo.

Boone County, Mo., home of the University of Missouri, rose from 10th place in its category in 2017 to fourth place in this year’s survey. Located in the literal heart of the state about midway between Kansas City, Mo., and St. Louis, Mo., Boone County is just a short drive north of the state’s capital. The jurisdiction’s most significant accomplishment in the past 12 months was perhaps the ongoing redesign of its website, more than half of which is now live and available to the public. Like many jurisdictions, Boone is using this redesign to make its overall Web presence more user-friendly, complete with enhanced access to services and data. To that end, the redesign is being guided by citizen-centric research, which has already led to new features such as embedded social media feeds, mobile-friendly functionality, and consolidated menus. Work on the website will continue moving forward in phases.

In terms of internal improvements, much has been done for emergency responsiveness. Last year, the city and county 911 services were consolidated, and they have now moved into a new centralized crisis management hub. Responders and adjacent personnel have also transitioned to new software and a new database that make it easier to share information and do things in the field such as record road closures with a mobile device for subsequent upload to public-facing platforms. Hiring processes have also become more efficient throughout the county, with many moving from paperwork to a digital portal. Although much of the work in Boone is practical, there is innovation underway as well. One such project includes a collaborative effort between Boone County IT, the University of Chicago and the Corporation for Supportive Housing to develop a data aggregation tool to identify citizens in need of homelessness assistance or other services.

5th Davidson County, N.C.

Davidson County, located adjacent to Winston-Salem, N.C., has been a leader in performance-based budgeting for more than 15 years. By focusing on outcomes and evaluating programs by measuring the relationship between resources and results, the county has saved over $29 million during that time period. A key driver in performance budgeting has been technology. For example, Davidson has invested in document management software for its human resources department that has eliminated inefficient paper management while freeing up valuable space once occupied by filing cabinets.

The county also attributes its open, transparent government policies and practices to the success of performance-based budgeting. Examples include live streaming of all commissioner board meetings and a public-facing budget and financial dashboard that shows citizens how and where county funds are being used. To bolster its IT security needs, the county has been carrying cyberinsurance for the past six years. This is in addition to several comprehensive cybersecurity measures taken by the county to protect its information assets.

5th Pitt County

When it comes to providing improved health care for citizens, Pitt County, N.C., which serves 175,842 residents and ranked fifth in the 150,000-249,000 population category, took on two health-care-related initiatives.

In a public-private partnership, Pitt County teamed up with Vidant Health to leverage the company’s investment in electronic health records. In 2017, the county finalized an agreement with Vidant to service resident needs by using the company's hosted electronic health record system. The county found it provided a better health outcome for residents while keeping a lid on costs. PulsePoint, which launched earlier this year, is a public-facing mobile app that lets CPR-trained residents volunteer as first responders in emergencies by connecting to Pitt County’s 911 data system. This app, along with the Vidant partnership, aids the county in its three-year Technology Strategic Plan, which aligns technology initiatives with the county’s mission and goals.

Other initiatives from Pitt County include the addition of a location-based open data platform from Esri, which features frequently-requested information in user-friendly formats. Self-service tools allow citizens to filter, sort and export many types of data, including planning and permitting, land records, education and parks and recreation. The tool is a vastly improved resource compared to the previous county data portal. In addition, a new complaint tracking tool for environmental health allows staff to better monitor conditions and predict future outbreaks.

6th Delaware County, Ohio

Delaware County has taken a number of steps to better communicate and engage with constituents. A farming community north of Columbus, Delaware County is also the fastest-growing county in the state, making improved opportunities to connect with residents all the more essential. Some of these improvements include rebranded visuals such as the county website, which was relaunched in April 2018 after a seven-month overhaul. Public meetings are live-streamed via YouTube, which allows for viewing on mobile devices. The county has also turned to Survey Monkey as well as social media platforms for feedback from residents related to county infrastructure needs.

In June 2018, the county plans to have launched its Text 911 service, which allows the public to send text messages to the Emergency Communications Dispatch Center. And in the Clerk of Court office, court documents can now be e-filed, and search capabilities are now available for attorneys and the public.

Meanwhile, the Delaware County Auditor is now using remotely sensed infrared imagery technology to detect crop types, total acreage and other information. The county is also putting drone technology to work, using UAV imaging tools to inform status updates for the public on various county projects. Other notable efforts include tangible steps toward reducing paper use, and tablet computers issued to county assessors to encourage increased productivity in the field.

7th Union County, N.C.

In Union County, N.C., technology is not about the shiniest new tools or throwing money at problems — it’s about meeting the needs of the more than 222,740 residents and county staff. With a dedicated IT team of just 14, the county has been able to meet the demands of a rapidly changing environment while investing in areas that will serve as the foundation for future innovations. One such example is efforts to implement data standards to ensure that digital records are not only secure, but accessible for future users. In a similar vein, IT staff are evaluating outdated legacy systems for retirement and pushing to digitize physical documents. County staff are also working to create an interdepartmental form and file structure for the planning, inspection, tax and registrar departments. This will improve efficiencies and simplify home purchase paperwork across the four departments.

When it comes to cybersecurity and resilience, Union County makes a valiant effort to defend its IT infrastructure — even in the face of harsh and sometimes dangerous weather. In addition to having a full-time cybersecurity professional dedicated to securing tech assets, an off-site location protects county data from the likes of hurricanes, tornadoes, severe winter weather and even earthquakes. Data is backed up nightly and checked to ensure it is intact and uncorrupted. Plans are in the works to relocate the backup center.

8th Onslow County, N.C.

Onslow County has appeared on lists of the places in the U.S. where opioid abuse is at its worst, and in response its leaders directed IT to help set up a detox center in cooperation with a group of public and private organizations. The department has helped establish the necessary IT infrastructure to run the center when it opens later this year.

The county has committed to opening its GIS data and has published some very utilitarian data sets online, such as permits, health inspections, flood ratings and video of county commission meetings. It’s on its way to a more general approach to open data beyond the geospatial offerings.

In an effort to drive innovation, the county has set up an idea incubator meant to act like an internal startup where employees can put forward creative suggestions. That atmosphere of support for thoughtfulness extends to IT’s methods for staff retention and growth; it prides itself on listening to employees’ ideas and treating mistakes as “paths to growth.” It is also working on setting up an academy where employees can hone leadership and management skills.

Going forward, performance measurement and management will be a big area of emphasis for Onslow County. It is planning to convene a committee that will work on aligning performance metrics with goals. The IT staff will support that effort by using cloud-based business intelligence software and setting up internal and external performance dashboards.

9th Paulding County, Ga.

Paulding County, Ga., which has nearly doubled in population since 2000, earned ninth place in its size category for an emphasis on connecting more than 152,000 residents to services around the clock, expanding its level of cybersecurity training to staff, and updating its existing Internet presence. Officials in the suburban county outside Atlanta already reach citizens via virtual town halls, live-streaming board meetings, and on social media, including via their Facebook site and YouTube channel. Residents can make service requests, register for programs, pay fees, and research voting, land and parcel data via the county website.

But officials are enhancing the city website to aggregate social media connections and include a blog from the chairman. The new site is expected to go live later this year. During the next 12 to 18 months, officials will also improve their expense transparency with the deployment of an Open Checkbook application; and make additional use of voice messaging apps. Also on the way in the next two years are self-service kiosks for citizens and expanded use of digital signage.

The county maintains 12 miles of fiber-optic cable underground and its fiber plant connects to a Tier 1 provider, but future plans are to use special tax monies to connect the plant to a second Tier 1 provider for redundancy. The agency backs up its data nightly, and maintains disaster recovery and continuity plans, but has hired an outside cybersecurity firm to assess staff — and has noticed improvement as a result. Additionally officials have secured their firewalls, and have conducted annual penetration testing.

10th Jackson County, Mich.

A shift in IT leadership this spring means Jackson County, Mich., is in a bit of transitional period, but it has big plans for using technology to help move the county forward. IT’s goals are aligned well with the county’s strategic plan, with particular emphasis on economic development, safe and healthy communities, and government efficiency. The agency is focused on making as many citizen services available online as possible to avoid any unnecessary trips to county offices. Going forward, plans include continuing to update online offerings, developing their GIS division, and implementing mobile apps and Google Home capabilities.

Strengthening the county’s cybersecurity posture tops the IT department’s list of priorities, and staff members are looking into cyberinsurance, as well as ransomware prevention tools, security-as-a-service and data encryption enforcement. Jackson County is also working on its disaster recovery plan, identifying what operations would be mission-critical in the event of a major outage and actively using GIS to determine points of need in its infrastructure and network. On the public safety front, the county has plans to implement next-gen 911 and video surveillance in the near future, along with some use of drones.

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