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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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 Dutchess County, N.Y.

Dutchess County, N.Y., once again takes the top spot in its population category this year by strongly aligning its priorities with technology to effectively advance county goals. The Office of Central and Information Services (OCIS) launched a new county website that is mobile-ready and also compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, making it accessible for all residents.

The county’s shared IT services have been a success and include a public safety service that is used by the Poughkeepsie Police Department, which saved the city more than $500,000 and has attracted interest from other municipalities. Dutchess County’s GIS shared services has saved $2.2 million annually for cities, such as by assisting the Department of Planning and Development to update its address database ahead of the census next year. OCIS also has a shared services coordinator, and the county offers $1 million in annual grants to incentivize cities to use shared services, including IT options.

To improve cybersecurity, OCIS has recently implemented a data classification system from Varonis that helps identify potential cybersecurity risks across the enterprise, and then works to isolate and eliminate those threats. The county also has cyber-insurance and makes sure that particularly sensitive information is stored on-premise, rather than in the cloud. This year a staff member was appointed the first cybersecurity administrator and is the first person there to hold a specific cyber-degree. Last year, Dutchess County also participated in two statewide tabletop exercises to secure elections systems for upcoming votes.

Other achievements this year include a new enterprise content management system that has improved workflows, and a rollout of Microsoft Office 365 countywide, which further improves cybersecurity.

2nd Chesterfield County, Va.

Virginia’s Chesterfield County is home to more than 344,000 residents and is making efforts regionally to improve daily life through the thoughtful use of technology. The use of data to drive decisions around policing and public health is evident in an ongoing initiative to track and respond to opioid overdoses throughout the county. A Power BI dashboard gives county personnel previously unseen intelligence into the public health crisis. 

Elections have been given a leg up with investment in new voting technology, voter traffic analysis and precinct rebalancing through the use of GIS. In a similar vein, facility management now relies on a cloud-based system that monitors the cost and time of county-owned facilities. Before the system was in use, this reporting process would have taken weeks or months to complete. Moreover, migration to the cloud continues to be a priority for county IT personnel. Roughly 30 to 40 percent of county systems or applications are viable candidates for the cloud, and between 11 and 20 percent have already been migrated. Big investments have been made in not only this push toward the cloud, but also in the area of cybersecurity with tools like threat analytics and ransomware preparedness training.

Efforts to build a more citizen-centric government are best represented in the growing list of online services available through the county’s website. Residents can complete payments and register for services and programs, and plans are in the works to enable digital signatures and form automation features in the near term. The use of emerging tech has come to Chesterfield in the form of drones, which assisted public safety operations following Hurricane Michael in 2018. Since that time, a policy has been implemented and all county and school departments are free to use the technology.

2nd Durham County, N.C.

Durham County, N.C., has steadily risen in the ranks for Digital Counties — from 10th place in 2017, fifth place in 2018 to second this year — by building on new investments, plans and partnerships, and developing many of its latest initiatives around data.

Working with the city of Durham, the county updated its open data portal to a more user-friendly version. In response to feedback from an annual survey, county and city officials are launching a joint task force to measure citizen satisfaction with their respective services. They’re also starting a “data academy” aimed at training city and county employees on data tools and analysis that will have trained 35 people by the end of this year and is expected to train another 80-100 by 2020. Both Durham County and the city have been working with other neighboring governments on a series of open data websites, resulting in fewer data requests from the public and higher Web traffic.

Internally, County IT created a strategic plan last year to keep their annual budget, projects and daily work consistent with and accountable to the county’s; completed several modules in their new SAP enterprise resource planning software related to administration, recruitment, onboarding, offboarding and training; bought and installed Microsoft Office 365; and, conducted a pilot to measure IoT and client traffic at the county’s Health and Human Services building. They also upgraded network technology, which has reduced the time needed for changes in the DNA Center and allowing the network to be managed from a central location.

Last year, the county’s budget office launched a public website to give residents access to three informational dashboards: Budget-in-Brief, Departmental Performance Measures, and Community Indicators from the Strategic Plan. The county’s Department of Social Services also launched a mobile app that lets citizens report information for Medicaid or other support-program benefits without physically going to the building.

3rd Placer County, Calif.

Placer County, Calif., took a citizen-first stance with the 2019 deployment of a new website, using an interface developed by CivicPlus, and featuring a revamped design that provides residents with service-based navigation instead of a department-oriented website. Each department is responsible for managing its content on the website, and the Placer County Information Technology Division will expand the self-service functions throughout 2019. Traffic for the county website is about 152,200 users per month with 150 programs accessible to residents. 

The website launch aligns with the Placer County Board of Supervisors’ strategic goal of “Innovation, Implementation-focused, Integrated County Services,” which aims to improve people’s interactions with the local government. To support its goal of better overall service delivery experience, Placer County made the Information Technology Division its own department and created the role of chief information officer to lead IT provide new countywide technology solutions, and oversee investments and telecommunications. 

Also, Placer County became the first local government in California to deploy an AI chatbot for the Google Cloud Platform and Amazon’s Alexa. The chatbot has been programmed with more than 100 question-and-answer scenarios and is integrated with the county’s GIS, which can provide residents with zone and parcel information. The chatbot is currently limited to Community Development Resource Agency information, but Placer IT is working to expand its knowledge base to other agencies while continuing to integrate county systems.

4th Marin County, Calif.

Marin County placed well in this year’s Digital Counties Survey, propelled by thoughtful IT and strategic planning, community engagement via well-designed tools and apps, and execution of a comprehensive cybersecurity program connected across the enterprise. The agency hired new CIO Liza Massey in 2018 as it focused on deploying COMPASS, a new organizational performance management program, which uses data to drive performance, with the goal of displaying it in dashboards built atop the agency’s existing data tools from Socrata Public and Tableau. This year, departments are honing their mission, strategies, tools and process to engage employees, with the goal of showing data for all strategies via internal- and external-facing dashboards by April 2020.

Five-year county business and Department of Information Services and Technology (IST) <strategic plans will guide Marin through 2020, but tech-forward business processes are also helping connect officials to the residents they serve. The county has worked since 2017 to make engagements mobile, paperless and citizen-centric, deploying court calendar texting alerts and electronic signature for county contracts to support internal digital document workflows. IST will be totally paperless this year for recruitment.

IST’s five-year plan centers on security and the agency — reorganized last year — has tripled its security resources and updated its information security manager position to CISO. With county HR, IST has stood up the KnowBe4 cybersecurity awareness and training platform and made annual information security training mandatory for all employees. Internal monthly mock “phishing” campaigns continue, and staffers can now report suspected phishing via a tool implemented last year. An update to the county’s cybersecurity, incident and ransomware response plans will be complete by the end of 2019.

5th Leon County, Fla.

The Leon County IT department has designed and developed new technology systems to manage the Public Safety Complex, a campus housing the Tallahassee Regional Transportation Management, the Leon County Emergency Operations and other departments. IT also oversees tech support for the county’s six public libraries, public safety facilities, community centers and other areas. In the next 18 months, Leon County’s 911 system will go through significant upgrades with the launch of NextGen-911.

The county government engages with the community through its various social media channels as well as live-streaming events such as board meetings. Also, new digital signage at library branches offer real-time information related to weather, traffic, disaster recovery and more. During disaster events, the county provides up-to-the-minute reports via its mobile app at the Emergency Operations Center.

County IT underwent an enterprise upgrade with Office 365, resulting in some 2,400 users migrating to the system with improved efficiencies and workflow.  Leon County also shares a Permits Portal with the city of Tallahassee, which serves as a “one-stop” location for the community and developers to learn about building projects, submit forms, and other research.

6th Loudoun County, Va.

Loudoun County, Va., is no stranger to placing on the survey. Although it was left off last year, the jurisdiction — which is just outside of Washington, D.C. — ranked seventh in 2017 and fourth in 2016. This year, many of Loudoun’s IT priorities have to do with maximizing cost efficiency, mainly by shifting to new commercial data centers in the county, a move the government estimates has brought with it roughly $13 million in cost avoidance.

Many of Loudoun’s other impressive IT accomplishments in the past year are related to its location. Loudoun has fostered and collaborated on sophisticated IT projects with local, state and federal partners. Meanwhile, Loudoun’s IT specialists have been called upon to help with ongoing transportation work in the area. One example of this is the county’s effort to build parking facilities to support the Washington Area Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s expansion of its subway lines into the area, which required new tech infrastructure to support workers. 

Overall, Loudoun is a county made up of both rural and heavily urban geography, creating interesting service challenges. Loudoun, however, has strategic plans in place to do just that, and if the county continues to execute, it is likely to not only appear on next year’s survey but to do so with a higher ranking.

7th Hamilton County, Ind.

This year, Hamilton County prioritized technology to improve how residents and internal staff use its services by creating two new systems that have reaped numerous operational benefits. First, the county used its current workflow system, POSSE, to build a new grant management system. Hamilton decided to build internally rather than purchase a third-party system because it was less costly and meant the staff didn’t need new training. The new system minimizes costs while providing full life-cycle grant management capabilities for all county agencies. 

The county also built an online version of its application process for Emergency Operations Center volunteers. Previously, individuals had to go to the Emergency Management office in person to fill out five to seven redundant forms. Now they can do it all online. Furthermore, the system automatically re-enters personal information on each form so the applicant doesn’t have to, and it only asks questions that are relevant to the applicant’s interests. This new system also improves operations for county staff because it stores all information in the cloud so they can access it from any location.

Hamilton County wants to improve the work environment for its staff by expanding cloud services and storage. Moving internal assets to the cloud allows for better recovery and security of county systems and facilitates a mobile work environment. Staff will be able to access information and interact with one another from multiple locations. Hamilton is also “using technology to improve [the] environment” by purchasing compressed natural gas vehicles and launching a solar project to reduce costs and inspire others to explore alternative energy sources.

8th Santa Cruz County, Calif.

The county crafted a new mission in 2018 — to create an open and responsive government that delivers quality, data-driven services. To that end, the county adopted a strategic plan that focused on six strategic areas and IT plays a major role in the operational excellence of each: comprehensive health and safety; attainable housing; reliable transportation; dynamic economy; sustainable environment; and county operational excellence.

Four priorities drive the strategic areas: customer experience; county workforce; county infrastructure; and continuous improvement. IT’s role will be online accessibility to county services, paperless processing, open government and business processing. County IT has developed tools and links, including a mobile app for issue reporting and information and a portal for commercial projects and building permits to be submitted.

The IT department is also updating its project management toolkit, which features new innovations and improvements in the documents used for tracking IT projects. Public communication is a key component of the county’s strategies and has increased the use of social media, including more than a dozen Facebook pages, several Twitter accounts and Instagram. For employee recruitment, the county has expanded the use of LinkedIn and Twitter. Santa Cruz continues to use Nextdoor to communicate with residents.

9th Cumberland County, N.C.

As a result of the efficiencies and IT improvements in the past few years, Cumberland County has made IT a major part of its Strategic Plan for fiscal 2018-20. 

One key goal of the plan is to use a capital planning model as a tool to help fund capital and large recurring expenses, like IT. This model was built into the annual budget process, which requires all tech purchases to be reviewed, justified and approved by the director of the Information Services and Technology Department before budget approval. It allows the IT department to assist with a technology road map for each department, as well as plan for upcoming major projects and predict technology needs countywide. The model ensures best use of county IT resources, greatly reduces unplanned events and lessens the impact of emergency situations.

Another goal of Cumberland’s Strategic Plan is to promote economic development. One stated objective is to "Acquire new software solution for central permits, inspections, code enforcement, land use, parcel/address management and environmental health.” The Information Services Department is currently implementing an all-inclusive solution to meet that objective. The department is also implementing a GIS-centric tax system, which will include major improvements to parcel/address management. The tax system will have an interface with the new comprehensive planning software. Both applications will generate major improvements for field operations, allowing IT to respond to customers more quickly, and provide citizen and vendor self-service features.

Cumberland County is considering merging other IT departments with the Information Services and Technology Department; continued technology investment to ensure that the county stays ahead of modern tech requirements and remains an innovative leader in public service; and to reach decisions related to projects that have been under long-term consideration, including the creation of a new 911 center, which the county IT department is currently greatly engaged in.

10th Buncombe County, N.C.

If there’s one word that resonates throughout Buncombe County’s digital survey, it’s “justice.” One of the county’s major policy initiatives has been to make its justice system more efficient, effective and equitable through better coordination of data. Buncombe has replaced its pre-trial system, integrated it with its jail management system and added a risk assessment tool. This has allowed the county to target potential diversion candidates, which has resulted in significant savings in labor costs, not to mention greater efficiencies in the justice system. The payoff has come in the form of a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The county has also emphasized partnerships through its criminal justice system, which touches several key agencies, including the police, courts and the district attorney’s office.

Buncombe has made progress as far as developing citizen-centric services through a series of custom-developed applications, including an app that forecasts wait times at polling stations during elections, the first of its kind in the state. The county has also been busy extending its enterprise applications that are beginning to have far-reaching implications. A new ERP system has provided insights into previously unknown IT spending, resulting in the elimination of unneeded software; it also has led to improved governance around data issues, such as security, quality, usability, accessibility and standards.

10th Ottawa County, Mich.

Ottawa County, Mich., is going all in on modernization. The county, which hugs Lake Michigan to the west of Grand Rapids, is rolling out a new phone system which it will follow with new server infrastructure. That’s coupled with a multiyear push to retire and replace legacy systems and apps, like a new security information and event management system, a new justice system, well and sewage disposal inspection management, supportive housing software and digital HR documentation.

That foundational layer will push the county forward in a number of critical areas as well, improving cybersecurity, interdepartmental work and business continuity and disaster recovery. The county has been steadily improving its security stance, documenting regular improvements in monthly penetration tests as well as quarterly vulnerability scans.

The county is also uniquely collaborative. On top of putting up its hand to help the state pilot-test a new court e-filing system, Ottawa County helped start a fiber management council in 2018 with local governments in the county. It has also signed on to provide IT support for no fewer than eight local governments within its borders, four of which it has onboarded in the past year.

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