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 Snohomish County, Wash.

First place Snohomish County, Wash., has prioritized strategic IT planning, with a thoughtful, methodical approach running through all of its efforts. One major component is its Service, Technology, Excellence Program (STEP) Reform initiative. Launched in 2016, the program takes a lean approach to reducing waste and encouraging maximum efficiency. In calendar year 2018, the county reports 4,000 hours of gains in productivity, spread across 12 projects, from STEP. Fifteen key processes were refined, which equals more than $380,000 saved in staff time. Human resources-related tasks like onboarding, offboarding, time reporting and payroll were among those with the greatest gains reported.

Snohomish is diving into data analytics for internal- and external-facing program areas, using Power BI to help bring data to life. One particularly compelling example is its parcel-level information on how county property taxes are distributed to various programs. Visual metrics are also used on the intranet site to bring reports on departmental performance to life and inspire continuous improvement.
Cybersecurity also emerges as a clear priority for the county, which calls its approach “defense-in-depth,” with layers of tools from intrusion detection and access control to user device security. All storage environments, in the cloud and onsite, have passed stringent requirements, and every IT employee holds the Criminal Justice Information Systems (CJIS) certification. IT staff have recently reviewed and reduced the number of computers with full administrative rights across the organization. Tightening up access this way keeps IT staff from having to secure machines that are more vulnerable yet don’t need to be. The department also revised the rates it charges to departments to reflect the fact that PCs with elevated rights are more resource-intensive to secure.

2nd Sonoma County, Calif.

In October 2017, wildfires consumed thousands of acres in Sonoma County, destroying homes and killing dozens of people. In March 2019, the county was hit by devastating floods, resulting in an estimated $155 million in property damage. These two disasters forced county officials to put a priority on recovery and resilience policies that are having a major impact on Sonoma’s technology resources, strategies and overall planning. Hoping to accelerate its priorities, the county has established Local Assistance Centers throughout the jurisdiction to provide residents access to Wi-Fi, computers and printers. The county has also expanded its online resources to include GIS maps and data, expedited online permitting for rebuilding, debris removal, health and safety resources, alerts and warning information, and financial and legal assistance.

Sonoma’s other major policy concern that impacts IT is its homeless problem. Almost 3,000 people are homeless in the county on any given night. After years of decline, the number of homeless grew 6 percent last year, triggered in large part by the thousands of homes wiped out by the wildfires. To mitigate the problem, Sonoma’s IT department is managing a multi-agency data sharing effort to identify target populations at risk and in need of services and to measure metrics to see if the county is having success in helping this demographic. Sonoma is partnering with IBM and state entities to use big data, artificial intelligence and analytics in finding solutions to the county’s homeless problem. Given how much of its population has been impacted by floods and fires, the county’s safety-net services have become crucial and that has made IT’s role more important than ever.

2nd County of Ventura, Calif.

This year Ventura County, Calif., moved up two spots in its population category despite experiencing hardship at the end of 2018, including a mass shooting at a bar in November, followed shortly by the devastating Hill and Woolsey fires. The county Board of Supervisors has made recovery from the incidents, particularly the wildfires, a top priority, and the IT department has been integral both during and after times of emergency. Throughout the fires, the county’s emergency mobile communications trailer allowed staff to quickly distribute support where it was needed; emergency communications saw no outages during that time. IT also launched one-stop websites that assisted recovery for those impacted by the fires, such as with housing, food, financial assistance, health services and more.

Ventura County continues to make strong tech gains on all fronts. This includes its participation in the Broadband Consortium of the Pacific Coast, along with Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, a regional effort to bring broadband to underserved areas. The consortium has also established a playbook of best practices for local government broadband efforts and is now working with housing developments to bring higher speeds to new construction areas. Citizen engagement is also a strong suit for Ventura, and includes a new website featuring Amazon Alexa skills as well as a chatbot, and the ability to use text messaging to register to vote, find a polling place, get election results and more.

To attract a younger and tech-savvy workforce, Ventura County’s IT agency operates out of a modern office, which along with its new website is designed to attract millennials to county work. They also offer LinkedIn Learning opportunities for workers across the county, which they’re using as an incentive to lure and ultimately retain talent.

3rd Gwinnett County, Ga.

Information technology in Gwinnett County, Ga., is a multi-faceted operation with impacts across all government departments. The regional government’s goals of deploying better, faster and more cost-effective services are represented in how its IT division works. The county’s location — just northeast of Atlanta — gave it a front-row seat to that city’s 2018 ransomware attack and highlighted the necessity of a strong cybersecurity program. Monthly phishing simulations — complete with recognizable sources and urgent language — are used to ensure that county staff are on top of the evolving threat, and an expanded mandatory training program is scheduled to begin later this year.

Where resilience is concerned, IT personnel are working to inventory and align mission-critical systems to ensure that all departments are on the same page and prepared to respond to incidents that threaten IT continuity. Innovative and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence have also found a place in Gwinnett County. AI is used to root out fraud, improve cybersecurity, inspect IT infrastructure, and enable speech and language processing.

Beyond the nitty-gritty of keeping the regional government running and protected, providing better services to constituents is a key priority. One example of using technology to complete this goal is video conferencing between judges and jail inmates, which not only cuts down on the costs associated with transportation and logistics, but also improves safety in courthouses. A collaborative effort between IT, elections and communications divisions helped to create a website that allows voters to check wait times at their polling places. Similarly, a new Tax Office offering allows 24/7/365 registrations through six self-serve kiosks, and residents can also submit paperless billing applications, among other services.

4th Prince George's County, Md.

Prince George’s County has been, and will remain, busy with some of the most foundational work local government must do. It is in the midst of a long push to centralize IT work, and toward that goal the IT agency has developed or updated its service-level agreement timeframes for every kind of service request on the books. Pairing that with new SLA dashboards, the agency has increased its on-time percentage for requests. It is also in the midst of phased laptop and infrastructure replacement programs that have retired potentially risky out-of-date technology, and it has been adding much new functionality to its SAP enterprise system, allowing departments to better share information and work together.

One area the county has really blazed a trail in is GIS. Using the latest ArcGIS platform, the county has built out an impressive fleet of inward- and outward-facing maps and tools that touch many areas of government work ranging from emergency response to urban planning. The newest maps in 2019 include tools to compare property data, outline FEMA floodplains, identify hard-to-survey areas for the upcoming census, inventory public lands, and explore information about a proposed new light rail line. Perhaps none of these is higher-profile, however, than the work done in collaboration with the state and neighboring jurisdictions to delineate the emergency response boundary in Maryland’s new Next-Generation 911 project. Future projects include new cloud storage, cybersecurity risk detection, automated payment audits, contract management and other types of software.

5th County of San Mateo, Calif.

San Mateo County, which ranked third by population in its category in 2018, holds strong in fifth place this year. Its Information Services Department (ISD) meets the growing needs of around 7,600 county employees and 884,000 residents by focusing on its mission of enabling connections between residents and government, amid an IT reorganization to improve customer response.

The agency has connected priority, policy and IT initiatives, using technology to meet citizens digitally where they are. A disaster response plan underway will empower the goal of a healthy, safe community; an Internet platform for job searches and services information, and an open data initiative will help support a prosperous community. An open government initiative helps foster collaboration; and online reporting features let residents report streetscape issues like potholes and full storm drains.

Since the debut of innovation center SMC Labs in May 2018, the county has rolled out an air quality monitoring network to document particulate levels following the 2018 Camp Fire; and stood up an Esri GeoEvent Server to provide alerts, analytics, big data storage and business intelligence. A recently redesigned website and Alexa skills help the county reach residents, connecting them to services through initiatives like Get Food San Mateo, a new anonymous screening site for food assistance. The portal also offers regional data on groundwater and GIS, electric vehicle charging, and a community vulnerability index.

Officials are also enhancing cybersecurity, mandating multifactor authentication on county resources, 60-day password resets and department head approval for changes to admin and auditor accounts. Implementation of a secure county texting platform is underway, as are in-depth reviews of networks to spot unauthorized connections, unsecured servers and unprotected PCs.

6th DeKalb County, Ga.

With a population in excess of 750,000, DeKalb County is Georgia’s fourth most populous, with a workforce of about 6,000 and an annual budget of more than $1 billion. As far as IT, the county is moving aggressively to a cloud-first, mobile-first approach for applications and services. This will call for upgrades in equipment like routers, as well network redundancy.

Efforts to use common tools that serve multiple functions are evident throughout DeKalb County.  
The county’s website offers a common payment menu which helps serve resident needs across jurisdictions and departments. And a new internal Jail Information System designed for use by the various county courts — superior, state magistrate, etc. — can be used for everything from case management to tracking prisoners as they move through the system. The JIS provides electronic management of case records and a range of search features, all increasing efficiencies while cutting down on staff resources, paperwork and travel time. The system also sends text messages to defendants about upcoming court dates.

Future projects in DeKalb County include the development of Oracle Hyperion, a financial forecasting and budgeting tool, as well as an e-procurement system to streamline processes for both county officials and the vendor community.

7th Douglas County, Neb.

Nebraska’s most populous county and home to the city of Omaha, Douglas County’s dedication to improving efficiency, investing in innovation and expanding services for its more than half a million residents resulted in its ranking rising this year from eighth to seventh place in its population category.  

One of the most impressive feats by the county's IT staff has been to create a truly citizen-centric approach to service delivery, with an eye toward increasing transparency and access to government data through a diversity of programs and initiatives. These efforts have included the launch of a Google Analytics portal that directs residents to online services for both the county and the city of Omaha, allowing officials to better understand how citizens access and use these services. 

Similarly, the county has launched open data portals to increase transparency, offering citizens a look at everything from publicly available geospatial data sets to county expenses through an online expense dashboard from the County Clerk’s Office.

At the same time, the county has also partnered with state officials to work on modernizing its transportation systems. Together with the Nebraska Department of Roads, the county has embarked on a multi-year project to install smart lighting, sensors and video feeds that will help to streamline both vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

8th San Joaquin County, Calif.

This year, San Joaquin County, Calif., — home to cities like Stockton and Lodi—has moved up to eighth place in its population category, making progress in the past year with a wide range of work, from expanding its open data efforts to digitizing its county budgeting procedures, just in time for the fiscal year 2019-2020 process. Modernizing the budget in this way enabled the county to replace several labor-intensive manual processes. There are the usual cost and efficiency benefits of workflow automation as a result, including a new normal in which the county administrator’s office has more time to perform thorough audits of submitted budgets. 

This sort of project is perhaps an excellent encapsulation of the IT work that took place in San Joaquin this past year: It’s steady and productive, if not as flashy or outward-facing as some of the larger jurisdictions in this year’s survey. There is also much cause to be optimistic about IT work in San Joaquin moving forward. In the spring, the county found a new CIO in veteran California state technologist Chris Cruz. Cruz’s resume includes nearly three decades of experience in government and business IT. Before coming to San Joaquin, his most recent role was deputy CIO for California. Taken altogether, San Joaquin is on an upward trajectory when it comes to its IT posture.

9th County of Chester, Pa.

Chester County, Pa., spent the past year evolving its website to facilitate increased access to services and information. The website is built on a responsive-design content management system, and several forms and applications have been digitized, such as those needed for family court, park events, foster parent reimbursement and more. Earlier this year, e-filing became available on the website with the goal of saving money and benefiting taxpayers, attorneys and government staff. This service takes advantage of the Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System, which saves Chester County from spending more than $100,000 to store court documents in its own cloud.

The website also keeps residents and 16,000 monthly visitors up to date on emergencies by providing real-time GIS mapping. Fire and medical calls and road closures are listed with GPS locations and map views, and first responders can see which fire engines and ambulances are responding to calls. There are 34 searchable core GIS data layers available for users to browse and download.

The county’s communications team worked with a translation organization in 2018 to translate 100 key webpages for Hispanic residents. A menu option was added to the homepage that listed available information in Spanish. The option to use people rather than software for translation was chosen to make the website more accessible to the cultural language of the local community. Funds have been allocated to continue translation efforts. Going forward, the Department of Computing and Information Services is looking to create a chatbot for the website to interact with users within the next two years.

10th Polk County, Fla.

For Polk County, Fla., IT progress in 2018 was about cybersecurity, optimizing the time and knowledge of its staff and making new technology work for the county’s 686,483 citizens. Internally the county has been making steady upgrades, implementing Accela Civic Platform last year to improve service and communication with local stakeholders, speed up the process for citizens to obtain documents such as permits or certificates of occupancy, and also automate zoning requests, code enforcement and plan reviews. County staff also worked with local organizations to identify ways to improve information access for citizens with disabilities.

Investing in operational infrastructure, Polk County has started to implement NextGen LTE for remote connected devices and made a shared fiber connection between the sheriff’s office and waste management division, cutting costs while boosting efficiency and helping both projects get done faster. County IT staff were also active in the Polk County Vision initiative that incorporates smart communities, and they’re working on a cloud strategy to decide priority applications in the event of a disaster.

Much of Polk County’s focus has been on security, establishing an information security program based on the National Institute of Standards and Technology Cybersecurity Framework (NIST-CSF), with programs for security awareness and vulnerability management that have resulted in more staff reporting spam and zero instances of malware outbreak due to poor email practices.

Last year the county hosted a cybersecurity “lunch and learn” with more than 20 employees from various departments, its IT staff from all departments meet every month, and talks are underway for a combined call center with new security technology. The county’s new security administrator has also established more communicative relationships with nearby government departments.

Looking ahead, the county is planning an upgrade in enterprise resource planning (ERP) software and a micro-segmented network environment. Part of the ERP upgrade will involve new infrastructure that will make both ERP and non-ERP environments virtual, redundant and immediately available, reducing risk and recovery time if it goes down.

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