In the 18th annual Digital Counties Survey, leading jurisdictions had made investments in broadband, remote collaboration and digital citizen engagement long before COVID-19 tested whether they were up to the challenge.
A common theme rises to the fore among the winners in the 18th Annual Digital Counties Survey, conducted by the Center for Digital Government:* The clear lesson this year is that planning pays off, and often in unexpected ways.
Prior to COVID-19, this year’s winners all had projects in play that turned out to be game-changers when the pandemic struck. Some were aggressively developing their workforce-mobility capabilities. Others had invested heavily in broadband accessibility. Investments in remote-collaboration tools, digital signatures and application development processes — all these efforts came to bear in supporting forward-looking counties as they rose to meet the challenges of the crisis.
Here’s a look at how this year’s winning counties leveraged their technology investments to support both county employees and citizen service during these extraordinary times.
Pre-pandemic, Mono County, Calif., had been putting a heavy emphasis on user input and support — a focus that enabled the IT shop to deliver on the complex needs that pivoting amid COVID-19 called for.
“We really have been focusing a lot on customer service and customer success,” said IT Director Nate Greenberg. Among other things, this led the department to implement a management system — custom-built in-house — to support more timely trouble-ticket response. “It helps us to be both reactive to customer needs, as well as proactive in terms of our overall work plan.”
That customer-centric focus drives a monthly lunch-and-learn in support of an ongoing Office 365 rollout, now roughly 90 percent complete. Those training sessions have proven key to making the most of Office 365 in the COVID-19 environment.
“We have leveraged the Office 365 app proxy solution, which allows us to take on-prem apps and publish them through the Office 365 framework, wrap it with multi-factor authentication, and provide these traditional on-prem apps for people working at home,” Greenberg said.
The successful rollout of Office 365 didn’t happen in a vacuum — it came as the result of a decade-long effort to put in place robust broadband connectivity throughout the region. “Over 90 percent of households have access to gigabit Internet, and if it wasn’t for that core piece of infrastructure, none of the rest of this would have been possible,” Greenberg said.
Long-running investments in GIS systems also helped. A highly adept GIS development team played a key role in enabling the county’s pandemic response.
“The team that is responsible for GIS is very familiar with the ways in which to implement applications very quickly, in a way that is thoughtful and customer facing,” Greenberg said. “They stood up our COVID response portal, built on Esri technology, and they built a dedicated application to handle the internal response effort for COVID — the epidemiology and contact tracing, the nurses’ line, our economic recovery efforts.”
Taken together, these early and ongoing investments in talent and technology proved invaluable in helping Mono County to rise to the challenge of the pandemic.
Last year Arlington County, Va., released its Digital Services Master Plan – 2020 and Beyond. While it wasn’t crafted with COVID-19 in mind, the plan in many ways anticipated the needs of the pandemic era.
This year’s inaugural Future Ready Award is presented to a jurisdiction that is laying the foundation for the disruptive and converging forces that are shaping an uncertain future.
The Los Angeles County IT department has taken a range of steps to position itself for whatever may be coming next. It begins with the effort to redefine the role of IT in the eyes of stakeholders. “We are trying to bridge the gap between the old perception of IT as a back-office function, and the vision of IT as a strategic partner at the enterprise level and the department level,” said CIO Bill Kehoe. “As departments transform their services, IT needs to be at the table, because technology is an enabler for transformation.”
A technology management council brings together IT leaders from across 37 departments, helping to ensure broad-based consensus around forward-looking efforts. An Analytics Center of Excellence, established in 2018, further helps to future-proof the county by ensuring that data is openly sharable and readily usable.
Funding is key to being future ready, and L.A. has made that commitment, with a $10 million information technology fund to support cross-departmental initiatives, and a $20 million legacy modernization fund to keep departments current in their IT infrastructure. “The county’s commitment to fund those two on a yearly basis provides us the budgetary foundation we need to consistently modernize and innovate,” Kehoe said.
While that funding likely will decline in the coming year as tax revenues decrease, Kehoe said the forward-looking agenda will continue.
“We are not a county that just looks to keep the trains running,” he said. “We are always looking ahead and developing strategy to infuse new technologies into the services that we provide.”
“Even before COVID-19, we were creating a workforce that was more mobile, thinking out of the box about what the new workforce would look like,” said CIO Jack Belcher. The master plan addresses the rise of the Internet of Things and AI, “along with the fact that telework and mobility are increasingly important."
The emphasis on mobility has enabled the county to rise to the occasion with virtual court rooms, virtual board meetings and robust IT support for public-health contact tracing efforts.
The county also has a longstanding commitment to digital equity, and its investments in that arena have likewise paid dividends during the pandemic.
“Through an agreement with Comcast, we are making sure every child on the free or reduced-price lunch program has access to broadband,” Belcher said. There’s also a fiber-optic network in place connecting a county hospital to the county’s free medical clinic. “They are doing more telehealth visits than they ever have. In the free clinic the medial professionals can track your medical record history and see what you have been treated for in the past. It’s a secure and private connection, with the bandwidth to support medical-imagery data.”
Widespread deployment of laptops across the county workforce, along with a Microsoft Teams deployment, put the county in a strong position to support the rapid shift to a remote environment.
“We made the jump to Teams for security reasons, but it has helped with functionality in ways we hadn’t expected,” Belcher said. “We no longer have tax collectors on premise, we no longer have assessors on premise — all that is being done online. We can do permits and inspections, all without having to send an inspector out into the field.”
Going forward, Belcher said he is continuing to try to stay ahead of the curve. He knows, for instance, that falling tax revenues will likely mean new budget constraints, and he’s planning for that eventuality. “We need to be intentional in the use of our staff. We have to assess what they are doing and move what we can to the cloud,” he said. “And we have to prioritize. I’m not saying storm water is less important than broadband, but we have to have a discussion about how we can use technology most effectively as a force multiplier.”
With an eye toward controlling technical debt, Chesterfield County, Va., CIO Barry Condrey last year led a deep dive into hardware and software resources countywide. The result, an asset modernization plan, drew $450,000 in county support and helped put IT in a leading position when the pandemic struck.
“All the work we were doing before COVID hit helped to prepare us for the digital transformation that COVID thrust us into,” he said.
The analysis highlighted the need for digital signatures as an area ripe for technological transformation. “We quickly did a vendor evaluation and brought in DocuSign to do digital signatures,” Condrey said. That proved invaluable when social distancing made conventional signature systems ineffective.
The team also modernized its formerly manual processes around public-meeting agendas. “We put in place CivicClerk to handle those items. It allows you to go digital with the agenda items, the presentations, everything that goes into running public meetings,” he said.
That turned out to be a massive win when COVID-19 restrictions put a temporary end to public meetings in the in-person format. “It’s 100 percent digital for us now. We don’t have to sit in a room and pass around pieces of paper,” Condrey said. “That was something we had undertaken as part of the modernization plan, and it came in very handy during COVID.”
In addition, six months before the pandemic, the IT team had implemented Microsoft Teams across all county departments, installing the application in the auto-start on every county computer. “We were standing up half a dozen Teams a day at the start of COVID. It has been a game changer for our organization, with people meeting and collaborating virtually,” he said.
Fortuitously, the department had already put in place a transition plan to move county government from PCs to laptops, and the IT shop had 450 laptops in stock and ready to deploy at the start of the pandemic.
Key to making all these modernization efforts a reality has been Condrey’s close collaboration with county budget officials. “We had been working with the budget department for years to bring this to fruition,” he said. “We meet with them frequently and talk about the things that we need, long before we ask for the money. People don’t use the word ‘relationship’ in terms of the budget process, but that’s really what it is about.”
Ventura County, Calif., officials had already initiated efforts to make telemedicine more accessible. Then telemedicine became a necessity.
“We have a county hospital and we had been dabbling in telemedicine previously as part of an initiative around health-care access,” said Interim CIO Terry Theobald.
“When COVID hit, it became clear that patients coming into the clinic would not be a great thing. So we took our fledgling telemedicine program and looked for partners that had the capacity to handle hundreds of doctors doing telemedicine,” he continued.
Most patients were rapidly transitioned to remote medical visits, with Doxy.me and Microsoft Teams supporting those encounters. The tools helped keep people home, and also helped to alleviate crowding in the hospitals. “We were able to use it to do remote testing and triaging in our own parking lot,” Theobald said. “We could hand the patient a device and the doctor could talk to them right there, without their having to come into the ER.”
Technology within the hospital also helped support the emerging need. The county had already begun deploying iPads to patients in support of onsite patient engagement, “and when COVID hit, we saw we could potentially use those devices to improve the patient experience while patients were in the hospitals, where telephones don’t always work well and where Wi-Fi is in high demand for medical care,” Theobald explained.
With iPads available to support outside interactions, “it provided patients in isolation with some great social access, some access to family and friends,” he said.
Pre-pandemic, the county had already worked to put in place a consolidated approach to IT security, with the CIO, CISO and information security manager all working in close coordination with a countywide task force. This high-level approach to security helped the IT team meet the new work-from-home challenge: They’ve been blocking over 6 million suspect emails a month since the coronavirus outbreak began.
“As we transitioned thousands of employees to working from home, virtually overnight, we had to really improve our VPN connections and our firewalls, and we reviewed our virus protection and our malware,” Theobald said. A consolidated approach to security helped make that possible.
Going forward, Theobald said a countywide effort to expand broadband access — initiated before the pandemic — will help deal with long-term ramifications including continued work-from-home as well as virtual education.
“We were already in the process of talking to telecom companies, talking to public works entities within the county that have capital improvement projects underway, as well as to city managers — anyone who owns something that would allow us to connect up existing fiber networks,” he said. “We want to provide leadership around this and provide less expensive broadband wherever possible.”
Before the pandemic, Los Angeles County had already identified mobility as a top-priority item in its IT enterprise strategic plan. When the need arose to support remote work for some 30,000 employees, those early investments paid off.
“Mobility includes increased use of the public cloud, increased use of mobile devices — laptops, tablets, mobile phones — and increased use of unified communication,” said CIO Bill Kehoe.
In terms of devices, the county was already in the midst of purchasing and deploying some $6.5 million worth of laptops and tablet devices at the start of the year. In support of unified communications, the IT department had already leveraged a number of tools including Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams and WebEx. “All of that really enhanced our ability to communicate effectively,” Kehoe said.
Before COVID-19 hit, the county also was engaged in a major effort to digitize outmoded paper processes. That effort dovetailed nicely with the new work-from-home need. “People working remotely didn’t have access to those paper files, and so we are moving to a more paperless environment,” he said. “That was started pre-COVID as one of our strategic goals, but it has really taken off, including e-forms and e-signatures. COVID has exponentially accelerated all of those mobility goals.”
A new identity and access management platform, implemented in 2019, turned out to be key to supporting the pandemic response. “We had just gotten it up and running about the time that COVID hit,” Kehoe said. “It has additional security controls like multifactor authentication, it provides for single sign-on and it also links together our Microsoft Office 365 tenants so that if I want to access a SharePoint site or a Teams site in one of our other tenants, I can do that. They are all connected, and the identity platform is key to making that work well.”
The county has used Office 365 since 2015, and in 2018 it consolidated multiple departmental licenses into a single five-year enterprise agreement with Microsoft. “That put us on a solid foundation, providing all employees with the tools they needed. It gave us something to build on that in turn could truly facilitate a remote workforce,” he said.
Key to all these efforts is a strong IT governance process that draws input from a Business Management Council and a Technology Management Council, among other entities. “The governance piece of it is huge. Having the backing of those key governance bodies is critical to having all the departments on board,” Kehoe said.
*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.