In the 17th annual Digital Counties Survey, the top 58 counties nationwide stand out for their commitment to using tech to improve quality of life, shore up cybersecurity, support municipal resources and more.
Click through the rest of our story for detailed write-ups on each winner.
County-level technology leaders get it from all sides. Headlines spur cries for tighter cybersecurity. Lean budgets mean the IT buck has to stretch further. Competing business needs put pressure on the CIO to prioritize effectively.
The winners of the 17th Annual Digital Counties Survey, conducted by the Center for Digital Government,* have successfully navigated these shifting currents. They’ve juggled competing interests, implemented innovative solutions and found creative ways to keep the budget in line.
Here’s how the best and brightest are making IT work at the county level.
Smaller counties can sometimes face bigger IT challenges.
“We are a smaller shop, but we still have to deliver the same breadth of services that a larger organization has to deliver,” said Steve Monaghan, CIO of Nevada County, Calif. (pop. 100,000). “Instead of doing 10,000 permits a year we might only do 2,000 permits, but we still have to support the same permit system.”
Monaghan makes it work by empowering his customers to take ownership of their IT systems. “Instead of IT having to do all the care and feeding, the customer really owns their own business processes. They work directly with their vendors to solve problems and support new functionality,” he said. “We’re there to support them, but we aren’t carrying all the water on that.”
He points for example to the county’s recently expanded human resource system. “They’ve added an onboarding module, and HR did that with the vendor directly. Next up is a performance management module, and HR will do the rollout without any help from information services,” he said.
To make it work, the IT team labors on the back end to guide a thoughtful selection of products and services. “We’re picking platforms where the customer can really be empowered to build them up and roll them out,” he said.
That strategy has paid off as new business needs have emerged. Cannabis legalization, for instance, has created whole new workflows around land use. At the same time, a rising risk of wildfires has likewise brought land management to the fore. The countywide adoption of Accela’s land management software has made it easy for end users to get their needs met without having to overly burden the IT shop. “It’s the letters you send out, the fines and fees,” Monaghan said. “Everyone is able to process all the documentation for all those different inspections and other activities.”
IT also has supported a wide-ranging deployment of GIS, including enhanced functionality to better track the local homeless population. IT effectively leveraged existing data to enable social services to better address the need.
“By mapping the locations from the annual point-in-time count of homelessness, we are able to identify where clusters of people were,” he said. Overlaying transportation routes, health services and other key GIS information enabled the team to identify the optimal location for a new intake center in support of a new low-income housing initiative.
By giving various business lines within the county access to these diverse technologies, Monaghan’s team has been able to extend the impact of its limited resources.
Debbie Brannan is laser-focused on ensuring that Cabarrus County, N.C., gets the most bang for its IT buck. She’s made that her mission as county CIO and recently brought it with her to her new role as manager of innovation in the County Manager’s Office.
“We want to only spend a tax dollar once and use it multiple times,” she said. A few recent examples help to highlight how this can be achieved.
The county has been using Accela’s land management software for a decade. Recently, the county’s largest city, Concord, signed on to use the system, and the next-biggest city is teed up to join as well.
“We had developers who would come to the county and then pop across the street to the city, working with multiple zoning requirements and planning reviews,” Brannan said. “Now we’ve integrated our workflow processes, which speeds the plan review process and improves services to developers.”
Along the same lines, the county has leveraged its existing data centers to support the needs of its two school districts. “If we have excess capacity in our data center, there is no reason to spend tax dollars to build additional data centers,” she said. “We can essentially act as cloud storage for the school systems.”
In much the same way, the county has developed a multi-jurisdictional mass communication solution, migrating county and city systems from scattered Blackboard implementations to an Everbridge deployment. “Now we can have people text a keyword to Everbridge to sign up for emergency notifications in case there is a storm or flooding. We’ve already done a proof of concept with a parade, where people would opt in via text and then we would route them to the emergency portal to sign up for notifications,” Brannan said.
In order to successfully leverage the IT spend across these diverse business functions, Brannan has taken a highly cooperative approach to systems development.
“We do a lot of project meetings,” she said. “For the land management system, we did weekly meetings for two years with the representatives of all the jurisdictions. Getting all those people in the same room to talk about their processes can take some time, but eventually it helps people to realize that they don’t need to do everything themselves. They start to recognize the synergy.”
That high level of engagement ultimately drives a better product. “By meeting frequently, we can be more agile. If something isn’t working, we can always make a change,” she said.
Sometimes headlines help to drive the agenda. With all the news lately about election hacking and other digital vulnerabilities, Glenn Marchi felt compelled to make cybersecurity a top priority in 2019.
“We know that we have a rising risk of security breaches. Everyone is highly concerned; there is a lot of awareness around that challenge,” said Marchi, commissioner of the Dutchess County Office of Central and Information Services (OCIS).
To calm the fears, the IT team implemented a FireEye intrusion detection system, starting with the Board of Elections websites and then expanding out across the entire county network. The new system delivers 24/7 alerts to the county’s cyberteam, generating email and phone notifications any time there is suspicious activity on the network. “We did lots of training with the vendor, DynTek: ‘Here is what the alert is going to look like, here’s what you need to do, here’s how you can try and diagnose a possible breach,’” Marchi said.
Hand in hand with the cyber push came an effort to beef up disaster recovery. Realizing that no protection is foolproof, Marchi wanted to have better tools in place in case of a breach.
“We implemented a hybrid solution including both cloud and on-premise, as a result of which our resiliency is dramatically improved,” he said. “We had been using a legacy approach where you go offsite, you carry your tapes with you and build the network from scratch. It was a very tedious approach and it wasn’t responsive at all to our current environment. Now we can recover in hours versus days.”
The hybrid solution gives the IT team a higher level of control: In addition to backing up in the cloud, the new solution runs redundant iterations at the county’s law enforcement center and at the 911 call center — a “triple redundancy” approach that ensures rapid recovery.
On the front end, the team also redesigned all the county websites in order to enhance citizen access. “The key was using plain-language guidelines, showing each department exactly what language they could use on a government website to support the end user who is looking for that data,” Marchi said. The net result was a 51 percent increase in visitors and a 206 percent increase in page views.
Viggo Forde made the leap in early 2019. After 30 years in the private sector, including two decades with Microsoft, he entered government service as CIO and director of IT for fast-growing Snohomish County, Wash.
Before tackling the county’s varied IT challenges, he set out to change the culture of government technology.
“In government, IT can sometimes be a hammer that gets used to drive a set of solutions based on one person’s wishes,” he said. In business, on the other hand, “you think about problem-solving and you think about why you are doing what you are doing, with a view toward the customer. So in my first few months my work was about defining the culture and setting expectations.”
A collaborative approach has helped him to make some headway. “We’ve worked with the business lines to better understand: ‘What are you working on? What are your problems? How can IT help with that?’ It leads to a different set of conversations and ultimately a different set of solutions,” he said.
That approach helped to escalate a number of “burning platform needs,” starting with a new applicant tracking system for the Sheriff’s Office, which was struggling under the burden of recruiting. “We put a tiger team on it and set up some solutions using dynamic CRM to give them more transparency and better ability to manage that situation,” he said.
Forde also took a deep dive into the county’s current digital holdings. He discovered a wealth of data that he felt the IT team could leverage to deliver a higher level of citizen service. The planning department has been a big beneficiary of that push. When the metrics disclosed high public interest in that department’s Web offerings, IT moved to make those products more accessible. “Once we understood that this was a high-traffic area, we could tailor that experience in order to expose that information to the user more effectively,” Forde said.
Meanwhile, Forde has learned to find a silver lining in the fact that public-sector IT happens at an inherently slower pace. “It isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “We have to be thoughtful as stewards of taxpayer money, and this allows us to take the time to do it well.”
Over the past year, Montgomery County, Md., CIO Sonny Segal has focused his attention on metrics. The better he is able to measure, he said, the better he can deliver meaningful IT outcomes. He’s especially interested in the numbers that describe the impact of technology on both citizens and internal teams.
“We are taking a more measurable approach to outcomes at the population level, rather than at the system level or the enterprise level,” he said.
In support of easing the morning commute, Segal led the implementation of a transportation-on-demand system where citizens use a mobile app to request a ride from the county. That effort grew out of a detailed examination of transportation data, and fresh metrics from user surveys help the IT team to refine it further. “The idea is ultimately to impact economic development. It gets people to work and it allows employers to occupy vacant space and be confident that they will have access to workers,” Segal said.
The IT team likewise dug deep into metrics surrounding the recruiting process, in an effort to speed the hiring pipeline. That data led to the creation of an online candidate assessment tool. “This is the kind of technology that online recruiting firms use to stir up interest in job openings and to prequalify people online before getting them in front of recruiters,” he said. “When we analyzed the latency in our previous recruitment process, we realized this was the step that was needed to help connect the candidate with the county.”
In much the same way, Segal led an effort to analyze procurement times for items ranging in cost from $50,000 to $5 million. Countywide, such buys were taking anywhere from 60 to 120 days. Based on the data, the county put a new system in place: For procurements up to $500,000 departments can now buy direct from a list of competing, prequalified vendors. The system has already facilitated more than $24 million in purchases.
In support of all these metrics-based IT initiatives, Segal has worked closely with the county’s Office of Performance and Innovation, which specializes in crunching data. “For the technology department, there are so many curves to turn,” he said. “Having an office that understands metrics and measurements, that knows how to facilitate performance in that way — that is key to determining where investment needs to be made.”
*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.