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 Montgomery County, Md.

Montgomery County, Md., is no stranger to taking high honors in the Digital Counties Survey, and it’s not hard to see why. The county has a strong structure in place to encourage the effective use of technology, including a standing obligation for the central IT department as well as the Office of Management and Budget to vet all IT investments and make sure they align with larger goals. What this leads to, time and again, is technology systems that serve many purposes and help many people.

For example, Montgomery County publishes roughly 50 data sets a year to its open data portal, and on top of providing transparency to citizens and information to third-party apps, these also serve government purposes. The county is piloting programs to create Amazon Alexa skills that let users figure out when their leaf collection service is scheduled, and there will soon be new ones available in the areas of procurement, public works and environmental protection — all by tapping into open data.

Five years ago, the county retired its mainframe and began virtualizing its servers, saving tens of millions in taxpayer dollars. It has set up a modern, highly used 311 center, put in place new enterprise resource planning with business intelligence capabilities, and marked the various ways that departments are using it to work more efficiently and effectively. Performance measurement tools mean the county has ways of quantifying these efforts: New endpoint management and other cybersecurity measures reduced enterprise vulnerabilities by 75 percent. Enhancements to the Office of Consumer Protection’s case management system cut down the time to investigate and close cases of less than $100 in value by 28 percent. Improved liquor inventory control and tracking cut inventory costs as a percentage of revenue by 8 percent.

Going forward, the county is toying around more and more with pilot runs of pragmatic implementations of AI for use cases such as triaging easy-to-answer 311 calls and advanced cybersecurity threat protection.

2nd Los Angeles County, Calif.

The nation’s most populous county, Los Angeles improved its ranking from fourth to second place this year through key practices and implementations that emphasize leading-edge technologies and initiatives designed to make life easier for more than 110,000 employees — and more than 10 million residents.

The IT agency has streamlined data access through implementation of a Countywide Master Data Management platform, aimed at better informing departments about their client needs. Similarly, a County Healthcare Integration Priority brings together all agency health services to provide an enhanced user experience; and Whole Person Care Los Angeles works to ensure that at-risk Medi-Cal recipients get the resources they need. Its homeless initiative, created by the Board of Supervisors, has convened public, private and academic partners. Their collaboration has yielded an RFI and an innovation forum, and now work on an RFP.

A cognitive chatbot implementation by the Registrar Recorder/County Clerk sends text messages to answer FAQs and enables 24/7 automation of online services while cutting operational costs. The District Attorney’s office has begun using robotic process automation to process Notices of Intent to Destroy Exhibits from the court, resulting in a 25 percent time savings and a more than 35 percent increase in the availability of staff to do higher-value work.

The county has also taken significant steps to enhance cybersecurity, including updating enterprise information security policies; decommissioning more than 100 systems with legacy operating systems; deploying a new Information Event Monitoring solution; redesigning the Office of the CIO’s cybersecurity incident response plan; and, in the Assessor’s office, standing up a system to identify and address cryptomining incidents. Officials are also onboarding additional agencies into the county’s enterprise security operations center.

3rd Hennepin County, Minn.

Hennepin County, Minn., home to Minneapolis, ranked eighth for jurisdictions with 500,000 residents or more in 2016. This year, it is back and in a higher position, landing at third for the 100,000 residents or more category. How did the county make such gains? A few things stand out this year in Hennepin, namely the creation of a chief data officer position with an accompanying data analytics team — evidence of its increased commitment to data-driven decision-making. The team works to develop countywide data strategies, and facilitate data sharing, as well as streamline how the county collects and stores data, clearing the way for decision-makers to put information to use. Moving forward, the data team is working to create a countywide policy for sharing data and improve how it handles and shares confidential data, an increasingly vital part of this work. 

Human-centered design also surfaces as a priority for Hennepin County. Human-centered design — or the concept of digitizing services in a way that simplifies governmental interactions for residents — has swept through the government technology sector in recent years, and Hennepin’s grasp on it is a significant contributing factor to its success this year. There are many examples, but one that stands out is the creation of Hennepin Waypoint, which is an easy-to-use online application designed to help residents experiencing homelessness. Waypoint helps service providers direct those they serve to shelters, food resources, public restrooms, legal services, mental health resources, and a number of other assets. 

3rd King County, Wash.

King County, Wash., home to Seattle, has experienced significant population and job growth, prompting upgrades in areas like mass transit, the county’s tax system and animal control. A new Tax Transparency program allows residents to learn how much a particular parcel might be affected by fluctuations in property tax rates. A new website for Regional Animal Services of King County has brought increased engagement from the community, leading to a 20 percent increase in adoptions from last year, as well as increased pet licensing. 

Data governance, cybersecurity and citizen experience rank as the top three technologies and initiatives to be focused on in the future in King County, though there is plentiful evidence that progress is already underway. An integrated data system to track homelessness has led to a better understanding of who is homeless, why they are unhoused and how to engage with those populations. Internally, the county instituted an Automatic Vehicle Locator program to aid managing the fleet. The program led to 10 percent savings in vehicle operations in 2018.

When it comes to citizen engagement, an integrated multimedia approach helps the county reach its nearly 2.2 million residents. Information is offered in multiple languages, taking into account cultural differences on things like digital literacy. And as far as its IT infrastructure, the county has migrated to cloud-based services where possible, also partnering with departments like Health and Human Services, Transit, Adult and Juvenile Detention and others to modernize their operations as well.

4th County of Alameda, Calif.

The East Bay’s largest county, with a population of 1.7 million and encompassing Oakland and Berkeley, is in the third year of a 10-year strategic plan that not only tries to anticipate the county’s future needs but also stay abreast of dramatic technological change. To that end, the county’s 200+ IT workers and their leaders are focusing on building a safe and secure digital infrastructure and are undertaking numerous projects to meet that goal. At the same time, IT has become involved in one of the county’s most intractable problems: the lack of affordable housing and ever-growing rates of homelessness. To assist with this major policy issue, IT has helped the county launch a portal that provides information on its housing initiatives and has begun development of an app that the homeless can use to find immediate shelter.

The app is indicative of the county’s efforts to make itself more citizen-centric, and is doing this through a variety of efforts that range from a new elections website, social media, hackathons to develop APIs that run off the county’s open data and AC Care Connect, a multi-purpose project enabled by technology to bring together health care, mental health services, housing and other services to support the growing homeless population.

Alameda County is also focused on the nuts and bolts of having a modern IT environment. It has rolled out several enterprise applications, added analytical tools to help officials sift through information more quickly, resulting in better efficiencies and lower costs; it has launched a results-based accountability tool and tapped into cloud computing for new services. Finally, the county has added e-signatures to its operations, resulting in an 80 percent reduction in the time needed to process documents; and, it is researching how blockchain can be used to administer land and property records.

5th Wake County, N.C.

Evidence of a data-driven operation is abundant in the activities of fifth-place Wake County, N.C., a frequent high achiever in the Digital Counties Survey. Last October it launched a transparency portal, which features a performance dashboard, detailed financial data, performance measures, a link to the open data portal and a direct path for residents to make public records requests. Key performance indicators were developed using Power BI from Microsoft, and Wake County reports that about 90 employees from across the organization have completed a related data literacy course. In addition, 2,500 staff people in the past six months have been trained in records management, a practice that is now required of all the county’s new hires. To further support data and performance efforts like this, Wake County now has a strategic performance director and is currently recruiting for a chief data officer. 

Also in the realm of enhanced training, Wake County staff now mandates that all employees take quarterly cybersecurity training, which as of 2019 includes a tool to simulate phishing attacks. Stricter enforcement of this training requirement has pushed compliance to 97 percent.

As far as service improvements, on the heels of a redesign of the employee-facing Web portal, officials are in the midst of an overhaul to their citizen-facing website. In light of lessons learned from last year’s Hurricane Michael, the upgrade will include the ability to add a “storm mode,” in which timely resources for citizens during an emergency are prominently featured.

6th County of Sacramento, Calif.

Home to California’s capital, Sacramento County moved up one place in the largest population category in the Digital Counties Survey as it continues to make strong strides in both IT basics as well as innovative solutions to enhance the citizen experience. In April 2019, the county Board of Supervisors approved a technology improvement plan for 2019-2020 that includes $11 million for updating the ERP systems, the Criminal Justice Jail System, the County Clerk Recording System and more.

In the last year, the Department of Technology (DTech) has implemented new 311 tech and an accompanying mobile app, which helps collect data that allows the Board of Supervisors and executives to make data-driven decisions about funding for initiatives, including the cleanup of illegal campsites. The new system also lets residents monitor the progress of their requests and allows county departments to communicate on those requests as needed. An online portal provides the public with 24/7 online access to more than 50 government services and saw more than 550,000 unique page views in the first quarter of 2019. New Service Center Dashboards completed in March 2019 use business intelligence and analytics to help county staff better access public assistance programs, and they can see all of a customer’s interactions with those services to avoid duplication while helping citizens get what they need more quickly.

Sacramento County cites cybersecurity as its No. 1 focus area for improvement and is formalizing a Strategic Cybersecurity Plan for next year that includes staff training, added a security operations center in late 2018, and is continuing to build out an Information Security Office. The county is putting in place new policies for incident response and more, and ongoing cyber-initiatives are planned through 2022.

7th Oakland County, Mich.

Oakland, Michigan’s second most populous county, has leveraged innovative IT to create compatible solutions in the fields of public health and economic welfare. Oakland County officials have sought to mitigate the effects of the local opioid crisis by leveraging GIS to distribute important public health information to county residents. A recent partnership between the Oakland County Information Technology Department and the state’s health division, for example, has created a public website that uses GIS maps to show where opioid treatment facilities and other resources are located. The website also gives residents catalogued information on everything from opioid prescriptions to statistics on opioid-related deaths, as well as the location of drug disposal sites. 

At the same time, the county has deployed mapping systems in aid of other public health and safety areas. A recently launched GIS platform allows health-care workers to share information about the prevalence of lead exposure risks geographically, while another county partnership with a local fire department maps information and infrastructure critical to that community’s emergency response.

Additionally, Oakland County has also utilized IT services to help county residents transition from a more traditional, manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge-based one. Home to large car manufacturers like Fiat Chrysler, Meritor and Valeo, Oakland County is an economic hub of the state, and county officials have sought to keep it that way. Focusing in on job creation through its Emerging Sectors initiative, the county has generated $4.6 billion in private investment and has also created or retained over 81,000 jobs.

7th Palm Beach County, Fla.

Palm Beach County, Fla., rose in the ranks from 10th place in 2018 to seventh place this year. The county owns the largest fiber-optic network in the state and serves as the primary cloud services provider to more than 40 public agencies, including schools, cities and nonprofit organizations. The Information Systems Services (ISS) Department added to its ever-expanding network within the past year, installing 445 strand miles of fiber-optic network cable and adding several municipalities, including Belle Glade, Fla.

The extension to Belle Glade is a part of the Digital Inclusion Program sponsored by the Board of County Commissioners and the School Board of Palm Beach County. The goal is to provide public Wi-Fi zones surrounding a neighborhood school where people can have access to free Internet and qualified families with school-age children receive refurbished desktop computers, training and Internet access. And in addition to providing Internet access to more of the county’s approximately 1.5 million residents, the build-out helps achieve more resilient and scalable infrastructure in the hurricane-prone region of southern Florida. 

Besides delivering data, ISS also oversees video and voice services on the network, which totals up to 1,000 concurrent video streams from sources like surveillance systems, traffic control cameras, video conferencing and more. A $10 million Unified Communications Project was completed within the past year. The project, which uses VoIP, allowed the county to phase out leased voice and data circuits to reduce costs by more than $360,000 annually. ISS is now capable of adding phone lines rapidly and creating conference calls throughout the network to help in day-to-day business as well as disaster recovery.

8th Tarrant County, Texas

With over 200 IT staff serving the third largest county in Texas, Tarrant County has been juggling the need to streamline and modernize at the same time. The county completed over 100 IT projects in 2018, many related to cost-cutting and process efficiencies involving data, record-keeping, communication and transparency. As part of an infrastructure upgrade that saved over $690,000, Tarrant County IT created a data network that combined on-premise storage with cloud-based cold storage incorporating OnBase, an enterprise content management system by which the county makes sure data is properly indexed, searchable and, optionally, set to expire. The county used OnBase to digitize 326 boxes of paper records, making them more accessible while eliminating more than $23,000 in storage costs.

To reduce labor and simplify other processes, the county also implemented DocuSign with electronic signatures to reduce paperwork; started using new data-replication technology that has led to faster storage and less need for oversight; installed video teleconferencing in court; upgraded election systems to accommodate a growing population and changing demographics, including the ability to add languages and sample ballot files; created “The Loop” as a landing page for county employee communications, and InTouch as the IT department’s internal communications channel; and implemented Project Online, which allows all departments to see information and status of IT projects, resulting in fewer questions and meetings about them.

Tarrant County has also relied on collaboration for efficiency. It worked with the Tarrant Appraisal District and Tarrant 911 to save over $50,000 a year in aerial photography and mapping, has been working with other counties to develop shareable software, and continues to work with Johns Hopkins University on hospital data sharing and with WAZE on an application to automate repair orders for potholes, dead animals and other road issues.

Going forward, the county plans to replace its telephony infrastructure with a new communications platform, expand use of artificial intelligence in monitoring data storage, transition emergency resources to the FirstNet (First Responder Network Authority) network, and install a chatbot for the county clerk’s office.

9th Maricopa County, Ariz.

Maricopa County is in the Digital County Survey's top 10 this year with its focus on tech tools for government functions — as mentioned in the county strategic plan — such as its geography-based Assessor system, new Treasury accounting and tax systems, case management for Superior Courts and a new jail management system for the Sheriff’s Office. Open data tools let users search data sets like finance, public safety, transportation and maps. The county also formed an Innovation Studio, which helps agencies map and improve their processes. Last year, the studio team realized $1.5 million in projected savings, according to the chairman of the county board of supervisors. Also last year, the county named a business innovation leader in the Office of Enterprise Technology who will help departments improve their processes and provide IT solutions when appropriate. Maricopa’s goals include improved online and mobile services, such as kiosks to let residents remotely submit official documents. By the end of fiscal year 2022, the Office of Enterprise Technology aims to “work toward becoming an all-digital County by delivering online and mobile public access to County services, converting internal work processes to digital workflows and enabling a mobile workforce.”

9th Riverside County, Calif.

Riverside County identified three top priorities for 2019 that it’s IT department is helping to achieve: public safety, fiscal strength and healthy communities. In the realm of public safety, the county is in the process of acquiring a new Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The new EOC will be in its own designated space — unlike the current setup in the basement of another office building — located only a few blocks away from the primary 911 dispatch center. In the interest of healthy communities, Riverside is gathering requirements for a new homeless management system, which it expects to procure in the next 12-18 months.

Riverside County recently implemented not one but two major fiscal management systems. In October 2018, the county went live with a replacement of its <property tax system from 1972. This 10+ year effort, known as the County of Riverside Enterprise Solutions for Property Taxation (CREST) project, required collaboration between the offices of the county Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder, Treasurer-Tax Collector and the Auditor Controller. Also new to Riverside County is RivcoPRO, a modernized procurement system currently in use by half of all county departments. The IT and Purchasing departments plan to roll the system out to the remaining county offices by the end of this year.

2020 marks the first digital census, and the nation’s 10th largest county intends to be ready for it. Riverside County has partnered with neighboring San Bernardino County and the University of California, Riverside in an effort to reach residents and encourage them to participate next year. Additionally, Riverside County GIS is building a Community Asset Mapping and Survey tool, which will give the county a single location where it can look up public gathering places of traditionally hard-to-count community groups as well as ways to reach out to them.

10th Orange County, Fla.

Jerry Demings was sworn in as mayor in December 2018 and began his term with a 37-member transition team that focused its initial efforts on developing Orange County as a global destination, diversifying its economy and improving infrastructure. The team created four task forces, including an Innovation and Technology task force, which seeks to create a culture of innovation by encouraging staff at all levels to think outside the box to enable business areas to pilot new programs, technologies and processes and develop strategies on where to invest in technology to improve the customer experience.

One key in the “Building a Community That Works for Everyone” task force is to pilot a telehealth program to explore the potential of digital health care. Other priorities for the task force are researching tech upgrades for the Department of Corrections; developing an electronic toolkit with social components to address pedestrian and bike safety; and developing a workgroup focused on mapping applications.

The county has made great strides in the last year in data governance, credited to the groundwork that’s been laid in ensuring the availability of consistently accurate data. As far as specific projects, the county points to several, including a new, coordinated mental health case management system; a new patient care and billing system in the fire department; a new false alarm billing system for the Fire Marshal; and a new dashboard system for corrections that helps staff manage inmates.

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