Digital Counties 2020: Winners Were Ready Ahead of Pandemic

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.

by , / September 1, 2020
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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 Mono County, Calif. 

Mono County, home to about 14,000 people, took first place in its population category by emphasizing resident engagement, transparency and collaboration, along with a focus on traditional IT values like strong cybersecurity and resilience. Mono’s IT director and GIS manager architect the citizen experience with input from the chief administrative officer, department heads and key staff across the organization. In responding to the pandemic, county IT worked with other officials to stand up a public-facing COVID-19 website almost immediately; establish a virtual Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for COVID-19 response; and build a shared app to track patients while respecting their privacy. The county also created 211 service — which hadn’t previously existed — to reach those not online and a weekly virtual community meeting on Zoom that has attracted more than 1,000 attendees.

Mono County routinely partners with neighbors: it has a joint IT department with the town of Mono, which enables the sharing of infrastructure; it’s joined by Mammoth Lakes in a joint EOC, securitized in part by shared next-gen firewalls; and it is in unified command with Mammoth Hospital. Cybersecurity is a strategic priority and a part of county culture. Mono has joined the National Cyber Security Review for the past three years, yielding a 4.95 average score, while monthly phishing tests and end-user training have yielded phish-resistant scores around 98 percent. In IT, officials modernized all job descriptions and aligned salaries to similar agencies; in IT procurement, officials standardized contract language to improve the negotiation process and reach more favorable terms. In a multi-agency initiative, Mono County, its sheriff, Mammoth Lakes and its police department consolidated data centers, enabling them to share the cost of infrastructure and reach off-site redundancy while realizing a 25 percent cost reduction. 

2nd Albemarle County, Va.

Albemarle County, Va., jumped up to second place in its population category this year, and the main theme was broadband. In the summer of 2019, the Albemarle County Broadband Authority partnered with a local electric co-op in order to extend broadband service into rural areas. After a year of work, they had brought new fiber-optic infrastructure to the premises of 341 rural homes and businesses that previously only had satellite Internet. Of those locations, 211 have registered for the service so far.  

Additionally, Albemarle County implemented a broadband speed test that was followed by an optional bilingual survey. This allowed officials to collect data on the speed and availability of broadband throughout the county. This data was then compiled in Esri GIS StoryMap and used to pinpoint proposed broadband project areas, which were included in a broadband expansion RFP released in May. The county was also thinking about broadband during its response to COVID-19 and worked with a local Internet service provider in March to quickly boost its Internet speeds to 1 Gbps, one of the fastest speeds possible, to support remote work.  

With a significant election looming in November, Albemarle County has been working with the Virginia board of elections to improve election security, particularly at polling places. Part of this process has involved writing improved policies, and the county has already discovered and fixed a number of vulnerabilities. The county also made improvements to its data transparency in the last year, responding to citizen complaints and building an automated system for displaying open burn permit data online. Citizens can now view a map of the county that displays active burn permits and states when they will expire, and the number of complaints about burns has dropped. 

3rd Nevada County, Calif. 

Comprising a largely mountainous area in Northern California near Lake Tahoe, Nevada County has in recent years faced two intertwined threats: wildfires and intentional power shutoffs to prevent them. The county’s IT department has taken on several initiatives to address those issues. It has mapped fire risks and evacuation routes, as well as developed a mobile app to help locate and assess dead and dying trees. It has hardened telecommunications infrastructure and disaster backup sites to make sure it can keep systems running in case of an emergency, and has created email, text and Internet programs for delivering accurate information quickly when the utility needs to shut off the electricity.

But those are just the extraordinary tasks the county has been saddled with. The IT shop has taken some admirable steps in its day-to-day operations, especially when it comes to cybersecurity. The department has recently implemented multi-factor authentication for all access from outside the internal network, adopted MS-ISAC’s ALBERT network monitoring program, completed an incident response plan and deployed vulnerability scanning and microsegmentation, with more solid ideas for the future in the works. 

Nevada County IT is also undergoing some ambitious data projects. It’s helping inventory all data for several health and human services agencies and then stamping data sets and users with permissions to control who can see what, creating a system where different offices can work better together without creating more exposure than is necessary. Meanwhile, it has set up dashboards for performance management and budgeting that it hopes to soon take public. 

4th Montgomery County, Va. 

Coming in fourth place in its population category, Montgomery County, Va., has made IT a clear priority in the service of internal and external customers. Montgomery County relies on a hybrid private cloud environment for service migration and greater flexibility. Firewall and network security upgrades have also added a layer of security to the county’s on-premise and cloud-based applications. The county has also worked diligently to comply with Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) standards around election security, though a few items are still outstanding. CISA was also contracted to perform a cyber-resilience assessment late last year. 

Open data efforts have taken the shape of streamlining access to frequently requested data. For example, FOIA requests around building permit data could have taken more than 40 hours on the old system, but now a link to open data quickly fills the requests. 

In a citizen-centric push, the county has initiated a broadband infrastructure assessment with the city of Radford and incorporated the towns of Blacksburg and Christiansburg to address future broadband needs in underserved areas. The report issued to the board of supervisors in May found that 7.6 percent of residents were unserved and that 30 percent were underserved with regards to high-speed Internet access. Work is being done with regional groups to close that gap.    

When it comes to emerging technologies in the law enforcement arena, county IT works closely with the Sheriff’s Office. Staff are assigned to work with deputies on implementations and an informal working group helps generate new ideas to improve deputy safety and efficacy. One of the innovations is the Automatic Injury Detection system, which sends an alert when a deputy has been shot or injured. A drone has also been added to the policing toolkit. The county also started using the FORCE911 app following a shooting at the Virginia Beach government facility. The app not only helps notify users of a threat, but it also improves police response times and communication during an incident. 

5th Coconino County, Ariz. 

Coconino County, Ariz., makes its first appearance in the survey this year, but it likely won’t be the last. The fifth-place finisher in the smallest population category is facing challenges common to many IT operations: legacy technology in urgent need of upgrades. But given its also-common budget constraints, leaders are prioritizing investments and policy development based on organizational objectives. One area with notable progress of late is cybersecurity. The county has a new layered model for IT security, ensuring systems are protected, patched and compliant. Multi-factor authentication is now in place, and a continuous diagnostics mitigation project has further helped harden the county’s defenses. Other recent investments include a cloud-based paperless case management system and upgrades to the county network, which greatly reduced reliance on end-of-life infrastructure and had the added benefit of reducing the total amount of network hardware.   

When it comes to decision-making, Coconino County has a strong data foundation. Information technology staff partners with county departments to identify data gaps and ensure reports are built properly in order to effectively inform how decisions are made, especially in the budget area. GIS tools are also put to good use, like to keep track of COVID-19-related assistance calls from the public coming into the emergency operations center, a project that represented collaboration among multiple departments.

6th Dodge County, Wis. 

Resiliency and sustainability are among the top focuses that drove investments over the last year as Dodge County seeks to meet the needs that arise from demographic changes, growth in residents’ tech-related expectations of government and acts of nature that may threaten the community, including the coronavirus pandemic.   

To that end, the county has invested in several initiatives to cut the cost of doing business and equipping the workforce with the tools and services to provide access anytime and anywhere in a secure manner. Those investments include transitioning the county workforce to multi-factor authentication; switching county cellphone users from Verizon to T-Mobile for a yearly savings of $300,000; and migrating public safety first responders to the FirstNet network.   

The county also developed the fifth version of its Digital Services Master Plan — 2020 and Beyond. The plan identifies the investments necessary to operate efficiently and continue to mature the technology infrastructure of the county.

7th York County, Va. 

Election security and cybersecurity have been top priorities for York County as it serves 65,000 residents in the eastern half of the state. The Department of Elections has partnered with Assura to aid compliance with increased election security protocols from the Virginia Department of Elections. Assura also monitors the financial systems for the local school system, and software applications for the police department and regional 911 system. The county’s public safety apparatus has also improved its resiliency thanks to improved broadband communications linking the IT data center to critical servers at the 911 center.  

Other tech upgrades for York County including new video conferencing tools like Zoom and mobile devices have allowed for more remote work in areas like building inspections, saving staff time and travel and undoubtedly coming in handy during the pandemic. York County has launched phase two of a new human resources and payroll system, updating from a more than 30-year-old mainframe to the new Tyler Munis system, which includes tools to help reduce redundancies and save staff time.   

Information Technology has formed a number of partnerships with organizations like the local chamber of commerce and the YMCA to aid in community engagement and communications. The county’s senior center now includes virtual reality technology to allow seniors – who may be limited in their mobility – to experience more than 50 activities like sailing or scuba diving.

8th Carver County, Minn.

With a population that slightly exceeds 100,000, Carver County has made substantial progress protecting its IT resources. In the past, the county only had one individual working on defenses against cyberattacks, so it established a security unit as well as a security workgroup so that strategies can be developed, projects can be prioritized, and staff can be made aware of what they need to do to reduce the likelihood of a breach. Thanks to this greater focus, Carver began implementing a security information and event management (SIEM) solution by the end of 2019 and produced a detailed incident response plan before summer 2020.  

In 2019, Carver completed a continuity of operations plan with a lot of input from county IT; this plan proved invaluable when COVID-19 struck. Recognizing that its project management wasn’t up to snuff, the county also hired a new manager who is currently building IT policies for project processes. On the public safety front, the sheriff’s office installed automatic vehicle location tech in its squad cars, increasing efficiency and officer safety. Last but not least, county IT has gradually strengthened its relationship with the finance department, which has resulted in improved IT funding.    

9th Franklin County, Va.

As with most local governments, Franklin County’s priorities in 2020 changed with the demands of COVID-19, requiring interdepartmental coordination, technological resources for telework, remote team management and conducting business and citizen engagement virtually. But that aside, lowering operational or long-term costs was the next priority. County IT had gotten a head start on this over the past two years by establishing a zero-base budgeting process, meaning all expenses have to be justified and approved for each new period. The county also worked with vendors to find potential savings and identify which capital projects could be postponed; it forged partnerships with several value-added resellers for lower prices in procurement; and it started evaluating more green technologies and finding options to dispose of or reuse various assets. 

The county also made efforts at modernization and security. It’s in the process of a complete redesign of its network architecture, and it redesigned its backup and restoration architecture to consolidate servers and data stores and reduce the risk of data loss. For extra security, the county backs up all data and duplicates it to an offsite facility in a regional partner jurisdiction, and it created an official policy for data archiving in between application upgrades to make sure data isn’t mishandled or unnecessarily duplicated. The county also partnered with the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Center for Internet Security, embedded Albert sensors in the county’s network to monitor traffic, started doing vulnerability scans and penetration tests on a regular basis, deployed multifactor authentication and started security-awareness training for staff. Weekly scans reduced vulnerabilities from more than 500 to three.

10th Vilas County, Wis. 

Home to just 21,500 residents, Vilas County, Wis., is a small jurisdiction often tasked with the proverbial government charge of doing more with less. A prime tourist destination located along the state’s northeast border with Michigan, Vilas cites online digital services for citizens as its No. 1 priority. Given that county government is currently in a hiring freeze, making services available online reduces operating costs, and has the added advantage of making information like records available online to property owners, many of whom are not year-round county residents. Currently, 90 percent of those records are available digitally, and IT is aiming for 100 percent access, as well as an improved search function and a single log-in portal. Vilas County also has data centers on and offsite, as well as in the cloud, providing good redundancy, and with cybersecurity training via vendor KnowBe4, IT has reduced staff clicks on phishing emails from 30 percent to less than 8 percent.

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