Digital Counties 2019: Winners Push Shared, Citizen Services

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.

by , / July 11, 2019
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Up to 150,000 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 Nevada County, Calif.

Nevada County, Calif., once again finished first for the up to 150,000 population category, doing so for the third time in the past four years. In the past, Nevada County — which is home to roughly 98,000 and located north of both Lake Tahoe and Sacramento — has been lauded for doing tech work that would be right at home in a larger jurisdiction. This year is no different.

Indeed, Nevada County continues to build on its forward-facing tech work, including its Participate Nevada County crowdsourcing website, which it uses to spur constituent feedback and comments on government business. This established culture of using online platforms to better serve residents has helped the county respond to ongoing public concerns, namely wildfires that have in recent years afflicted the region. The IT team in Nevada County this year developed a new website specifically for fire preparedness and related emergency information. Part of what made this natural work for the team there is that the CIO also serves as the county’s emergency services officer. The preparedness site is part of a more comprehensive digital effort to keep residents safe from wildfires, one that includes online surveys, dead tree assessment tools for mobile devices and GIS maps of things like green waste drop zones, all of which were developed for public use. This is just one example of the type of responsive, agile and impressive work being done in Nevada County, and many larger jurisdictions would surely love to be on this level.

2nd Montgomery County, Va.

Montgomery County, Va., IT has been shining bright in several areas, but perhaps none of them more so than cybersecurity. In 2017’s Digital Counties Survey, we noted the completion of two security assessments and the creation of a three-phase plan to turn it into action. The county has been making good on that plan, completing the first phase and well on its way to wrapping up the second. Among the upgrades in place are a new firewall, vulnerability scanning and patch management software, intrusion detection and prevention systems, an email filter, and the formation of a cybersecurity discussion group with other regional governments. The county is using Splunk to monitor systems and create situational awareness, while planning to use the tool to create alerts for other systems like power use and HVAC. County IT has also racked up some impressive cost-cutting measures, saving about $66,000 per year with a new VoIP phone system rollout and an anticipated $11,500 per year by moving the website from public cloud to on-premise private hybrid cloud.

Public safety has been a big focus, with IT assisting in setting up systems to upload body, dash and interview camera footage for law enforcement, as well as helping hook up a new consolidated dispatch center, emergency communications center and sheriff’s building. Montgomery County is testing out an “Automatic Injury Detection” system in bulletproof vests that will notify dispatchers and law enforcement when a sheriff’s deputy has been shot or injured and send along their information — including name, location and any medical allergies.

Finally, the county has been improving citizen experience, embracing e-signatures and setting up a digital appeals process for last year’s real-estate reassessment. That project has allowed Montgomery to handle more appeals in less time and store related documents online.

3rd Allegan County, Mich.

The Information Services department in Allegan County, Mich., leads the county’s “project management” operations, overseeing service agreements and capital project planning. This has led to a centralized IT approach, eliminating the sort of institutional silos that can stifle innovation and run up costs. In public safety, a $10 million emergency communications radio system that supports 1,000 users across multiple agencies was deployed in 2017, and the rollout of NextGen 911 will be completed in 2019.

In an effort to better engage with residents, the county included a “share this” feature on its website, which allows users to quickly and easily post the content to their social media sites. Meanwhile, during the last year, online PDFs have been made mobile-friendly. And during election seasons, voters can take advantage of a new interactive map to display results. The county’s website has also been redesigned to feature services around courts, the sheriff’s office, and health and human services more prominently. Internally, Allegan has begun the process of deploying the Microsoft Office 365 cloud-based platform enterprisewide, and within the next two years, all of the county’s Web presence is expected to transition to the cloud.

Last year, Allegan improved the digital signage in its court facilities to display docket information through the integration of the court management system. The county also worked with the state of Michigan to update video conferencing in the courtrooms.

3rd County of York, Va.

York County, Va., jumped from sixth place to third this year in its population category due to its increased focus on security education, cost savings and increased interagency collaboration. Like many counties, York is putting a lot of focus on cybersecurity, and its Personal Cybersecurity Program — which instructs the county’s internal staff, as well as local business leaders and the public, on safe and secure practices — is a great example of what’s distinctive about this county. The program, which began in 2018, is growing in size and attendance, with numerous targeted presentations at multiple community locations, some seeing standing-room-only attendance. Since the program’s inception, there has also been a drastic uptick in awareness on the part of internal staff, with a 500 percent increase in reported malicious emails to the IT Department, according to officials.

In more innovative work, the county recently replaced its phone system with Avaya IP Office, the all-in-one unified communications software. This has led to big savings in maintenance costs. The maintenance for the old system was $57,000, while the new system costs only $28,000 to keep up, giving the county a net profit of $29,000 for its general fund. York also recently invested in updating its financial accounting system, getting rid of its legacy system and replacing it with a modernized software solution that can be used as a shared service and is currently being utilized by the county, public schools and a critical local mental health agency. The system offers built-in workflows and integrations, allowing for interagency collaboration and more efficient, shared decision-making. The county’s Department of Information Technology, in addition to taking charge of a lot of these new, innovative initiatives, has also seen important expansions and integrations recently, including the integration of the county’s video services technology section.

4th Albemarle County, Va.

Albemarle County, Va., had a transformative year, from IT reorganization to new programs to shoring up the county’s data and infrastructure. County leadership conducted a use-of-technology assessment that led to several changes. One was the creation of a Project Management Office, an Information Technology Consulting Services group, an Enterprise Architecture Council and a set of procedures for technology projects. The assessment also led to a basic restructuring of the IT department into three divisions: Enterprise Resource Planning group, Knowledge Management and Communications, and Data Architecture and Data Governance.

The county tackled two major cybersecurity initiatives last year: multi-agency staff training on cybersecurity through KnowBe4, and creating a Cyber Incident Response Plan (CIRP). The county also worked with a Microsoft SQL partner to review the security and performance of 10 major ERP systems, yielding recommendations for 2019, and IT staff made a list of major systems and pursued new service-level agreements with key business owners for each one. Albemarle’s many internal IT projects include the purchase of Power BI for data management and building reports from multiple sources; and the creation of a virtual private network into the Microsoft Azure Gov cloud, archiving video and saving 60 cents a gigabyte on storage.

Externally, the county took over networking for the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitor's Bureau (CACVB), and full management, including IT, of the rural Yancey School; finished connecting Greenwood, Va., to Comcast; and launched a tax incentive program with the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative to bring fiber to 3,400 co-op members.

5th James City County, Va.

James City County, Va.’s IT priorities are closely aligned with leadership goals, and in the last year the county has seen overhauls in technology infrastructure that have bolstered efforts enterprise-wide. IT wanted to upgrade their online services for residents, so they turned to analytics to see what their approximately 73,000 citizens wanted. Staff noticed about 50 percent of users were visiting the county website on a mobile device, but the portal wasn’t completely mobile-friendly. Building content that would be responsive on any device while implementing measures to increase the longevity of the program became a top priority.

Analytics helped guide staff to move to a more service-driven structure, which made the website more user-friendly. In the past year, the county has been working to eliminate PDFs from the website because resident feedback showed people didn’t want to download them to access what they were searching for. James City County IT also recognized PDFs are not designed for smaller screens and took longer to load than an interactive online form. The James City County website averages about 172,000 users per month and offers more than 150 resident services.

Each county department is encouraged to manage and update its content with trained coordinators who interact directly with website staff to ensure website continuity. Within the next year, James City County IT plans to fully implement an API-based Headless Content Management System from CivicPlus, which is built from the ground up and features just the content portion of a website instead of the layers, templates, site structure or design components. 

6th Gloucester County, Va.

Gloucester, Va., jumped from 10th place to sixth this year due to its relatively small IT staff’s bold commitment to expanding broadband access throughout its many communities, as well as their efforts to invest in migrating services and systems to the cloud. 

To expand broadband capabilities, the county has focused on establishing public-private partnerships and securing grants, while also pushing forward with its own resources. In particular, with the help of a VATI — a Virginia state grant geared towards telecommunications infrastructure development — Gloucester was able to partner with Cox Cable to bring an expansion of broadband access to 96 residential and 20 commercial properties along the Gloucester/Middlesex county line. Looking to the future, county officials say they are currently trying to identify the few remaining unserved and underserved citizens — some 2,000 households — and ultimately bring support and service to those homes or families as well. 

While focused on bolstering connectivity in its communities, Gloucester has also managed to migrate 21 to 30 percent of its services and systems to the cloud; the county projects a goal of some 50 percent of those services to be eventually headed there.

7th Skagit County, Wash.

Skagit County, Wash., leveraged technology this year to improve its cybersecurity and public safety efforts. The county began discussing creating a regional cybersecurity consortium with neighboring jurisdictions, driven by inadequate funding for cybersecurity initiatives. The counties hope that if they can work together and share costs and services, they will be able to take a much more robust cybersecurity stance than they could individually. Skagit County hopes to base the structure of this consortium off its current shared public safety system, which allows multiple agencies in the area to share their public safety services with one another.

Also in public safety, Skagit County is working on establishing a Tableau software platform for first responders to monitor incident response times. The system will be updated daily, if not more often, from the county’s public safety system with call arrival times and other information. This information will be presented in a mapping dashboard and will be statistically analyzed for response times that fall short of established goals. Currently in the contractual phase, the tool will be available to local cities, fire districts and the county.

Skagit County has also doubled down on its efforts to combat the opioid crisis with an ordinance requiring first responders to report opioid incidents. The county partnered with the Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area to submit incident information to its nationwide ODMAP application application beginning in April 2019. Skagit County is building its own opioid incident tracking system that will interface with ODMAP and automatically update the system with new information.

8th Rowan County, N.C.

Rowan County, once a rural region in central North Carolina, has seen significant population growth since the 1980s and is now considered part of the Charlotte metro area. Yet one of its signature policy directives is to promote broadband, particularly in the county’s remaining rural areas where Internet access is a problem. At the same time, the county has set policies that are linked to data-driven results, and to meet those objectives, the county’s IT department has put resources into establishing business intelligence tools and geospatial systems — core technologies for any robust county.

Rowan relies heavily on its webpages to support overall transparency and economic development. It has also established a mobile-first strategy to strengthen its citizen-centric services, and it has been an aggressive user of social media to leverage information for a wide range of county operations, resulting in improved collaboration and better governance overall. To expand efficiency, Rowan’s IT department has begun to rid itself of legacy IT systems, such as its AS/400, and has been using CentralSquare’s software suite to integrate public safety throughout the county, including EMS, fire, sheriff’s operations and local police departments.

9th Dodge County, Wis.

Wisconsin’s Dodge County, just northwest of Milwaukee, is making strides in a lot of fundamental areas of government IT. The county cites as its No. 1 priority a new enterprise resource planning project that was anticipated to go live at the beginning of July 2019. It includes migration to a new countywide financial system, and the Information Technology Department expected that the new system will improve not only alignment of county resources and policies, but also data governance by automating internal workflows. Another high-priority area is the Dodge County High Availability and Disaster Recovery project, which comprises two data centers in the county seat of Juneau, as well as a remote site 16 miles away. A distributed virtualization layer allows all data centers to have real-time redundancy in case of an emergency or breach.

Also in security, the county has upgraded its firewalls and email security, including an artificial intelligence solution to prevent malicious files from getting into the network, which has reduced reports of ransomware and malware attacks since its installation. Other recent advances include upgrading the technology in county courts, which will help serve an increasingly aging population, improvements to the electronic voting system to improve security and a concerted effort to make citizens aware of how many services are available on the county website

10th Franklin County, Va.

In Franklin County, Va., information technology permeates government and offers a way to better serve the public, and officials have their eyes fixed on the future. The county has an ongoing goal of implementing a more reliable public safety radio system. This effort prompted a partnership with Motorola and local providers to push out more access to microwave radio services. Efforts are also underway to expand access to high-speed Internet. The IT department is working with the local planning office and public safety as part of the Franklin County Broadband Authority and has pushed out an RFP for services in the county. Various grants are being utilized to support this effort, and significant headway has been made toward developing a prioritized approach to multi-provider solutions.

A partnership with the state has helped the county standardize its cybersecurity approach to monitoring and response. The county has also teamed up with a neighboring jurisdiction to back up its data in the event of a natural disaster or cyberattack. Previously, this data was backed up with a private company, which added unnecessary cost. The new arrangement is not only significantly cheaper, but there is a better connection as well.

To better serve residents, the county is working to consolidate its online presence into one easy-to-navigate website. The services available through the new portal will include customer relationship management, an alert center, a form center and citizen notification services. The project is expected to be completed this year. 

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