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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 Chesterfield County, Va. 

This is the 11th consecutive year Chesterfield County has placed in its population category, and its fourth time topping the list in that period. The county’s priority has been infrastructure maintenance, for which it has developed several policies for modernization and data governance. In 2019, the county created a Project Management Office, with a five-year plan to reach maturity and a program to track technology projects based on performance indicators and staff input, which is available in a dashboard to deputy county administrators. 

A comprehensive review of more than 600 assets motivated the county to create a 10-year Legacy Technology Asset Modernization Plan, adopted in February 2020 and set to be evaluated annually, with guidelines to manage progress and an additional $450,000 a year in funding. The plan classifies technology as an investment with debt that can accumulate, instead of as a simple cost, so administrators have a clear picture if modernization falls behind. The county also worked with a vendor on a Disaster Recovery System Availability Plan, and it’s in the process of creating a data governance policy and an enterprise data catalog. Not forgetting its human resources, the county approved an IT career development program to give employees a chance to boost their training and salaries. 

Chesterfield’s second priority was responding to COVID-19, for which the county used NetMotion to almost double its VPN capacity from 1,400 users to 2,660, allowing all IT staff and most county employees to telework. Other projects included a website to guide employees through the transition to working from home, multifactor authentication, mandatory cybersecurity training, loaner laptops and other infrastructure, as well as a chatbot, public maps of dine-out restaurants and Wi-Fi access points, an online grant program for businesses, and an emergency operations center to harness data for response and keep track of personal protective equipment. 

In the cutting-edge department, the county upgraded its two Internet connections to 1 Gbps apiece, implemented a hybrid cloud infrastructure for disaster recovery, created an offline backup of important configurations, and is using a machine-learning model to help with capital planning, specifically to forecast funding for schools and emergency response. Since 2019, for security the county has been installing a security information and event management (SIEM) system from LogRhythm to produce telematics about the county network, with monitors and warnings. 

2nd Dutchess County, N.Y. 

The Dutchess County, N.Y., Office of Central and Information Services (OCIS) has worked to keep important information transparent and easy to find for its residents. With that in mind, OCIS redesigned the county website in WordPress to simplify updates for county municipalities. The various cities, towns and villages can now more easily add content, including photos and videos. The site has features like the Dutchess Dashboard, which gives residents snapshots of information on economic indicators like home sales and unemployment, and service indicators such as caseloads in the Department of Community and Family Services and a daily average of jail inmates. The county’s new GIS Healthy Communities, Parks and Trails app was the result of several departments — OCIS, Planning, Health and Public Works — working together to create a useful, interactive map of almost 200 parks (with breakdowns of each park’s amenities) and 400 trails (highlighting features such as length and surface materials) for residents.

During the COVID-19 crisis, Dutchess County was able to quickly initiate its emergency operations center. County departments established essential and nonessential workers, set up work-from-home policies, and within a week of lockdown, 80 percent of employees were able to work remotely. 

3rd Durham County, N.C. 

Even by the difficult standards of 2020, this year has been rough for the IT shop in Durham, N.C., which had to respond to a ransomware attack while also enabling staffers to work from home during the COVID-19 crisis. In terms of crisis response, Durham County’s IT shop also worked to bridge the digital divide among citizens, doing so specifically through a program that made more than 70 Wi-Fi hot spots available to the public. And while the other work undertaken by Durham is, perhaps, a bit less flashy than the simultaneous cybersecurity and crisis response, it’s no less important. 

This work includes establishing a leadership framework to align leaders and managers around a set of consistent principles. In addition, the county as a whole has continued to demonstrate a commitment to data-driven governance, which has been driven by work done by tech and innovation staffers. One example of this work is the use of predictive analytics to estimate how many children would be in foster care custody by 2025, enabling that projection to be used for benchmarking and resource allocation.

Finally, another program of note for the county is Innovate Durham, which is a collaboration between the county, the city, and local innovators. Spanning 12 weeks, the program pairs the public sector with startups to test solutions to community challenges, a proven strategy being deployed in several communities around the country. 

4th County of Placer, Calif.

Placer County has confronted wildfire-related public safety power shutoffs as well as the COVID-19 pandemic this year — enhancing its sustainability and resiliency by virtualizing servers and shifting apps to software as a service. The agency, serving roughly 400,000 residents, has had a cloud-first strategy since adopting its three-year IT Strategic Plan in late 2017; moving to the cloud meant when COVID-19 hit, some 70 percent of the workforce was able to telework almost immediately. IT also deployed a secure remote desktop gateway for remote connections and upgraded desktop anti-virus and Web proxy tools. As part of its COVID-19 response, Placer stood up a call center to filter pandemic-related inquiries later held up by the state of California, suggesting other counties emulate it. County GIS used Esri’s ArcGIS tools to create internal and external dashboards offering pandemic information. Among its connection points to residents, the county engages using tools like FlashVote and Survey Gizmo. The county board of supervisors established a formal security program based on National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) principles, with countywide information security policies. Placer’s IT department also stood up an Information Security Working Committee to drive compliance. Based on its recommendations, the county moved to an enterprise license with Okta to enable single sign-on and multifactor authentication for cloud applications and moved to Zscaler to better safeguard equipment connected to remote networks. In January, the county launched a combined registration and permitting system, targeting short-term rentals with streamlined workflows for landlords and property managers. Implementation of a cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) system for financials, procurement, employee expenses, payroll and time replaced two obsolete systems — and has yielded savings in data center and technical support costs and gains in business process efficiency.

5th Leon County, Fla

Two things stand out when Leon County IT talks about its work: Its commitment to transparency and its emphasis on the human aspects of technology. The county maintains or has recently launched several websites to disseminate information to the public, including tourism-focused Trailahassee.com, a permitting portal that includes information from both the county and the city of Tallahassee and LeonCountyWater.org. The latter is a huge project involving collaborations with many partners to give timely water quality data and other information about local waterways to the public. When the pandemic hit, the county set up a form for the public to submit comments to local board meetings they could no longer attend in person, which also compiles those comments by agenda item for officials and residents to peruse. They also added closed captioning to meeting videos to improve accessibility. 

The beginning of the pandemic saw IT working to quickly set up remote work capabilities for employees, which included fast-tracking an order for 85 laptops that was meant for libraries but were redirected for people who didn’t have the right computers to work outside the office, as well as new virtual desktop clients, software licenses and more. But the department also saw the importance of preparing people, not just computers, for a new reality. That meant setting up a website to help people connect and coming up with guidelines for meetings — for example, having fewer meetings and practicing with the technology beforehand to prevent disruption. Another unique project in the county to engage with people is its “bold goal” to implement 500 ideas from citizens, which is halfway complete. 

Cybersecurity deserves a mention too, as the county has recently put in place new data loss prevention and endpoint monitoring tools, keeps a security services firm on retainer and holds a cyberinsurance policy. 

6th Sarasota County, Fla. 

Sarasota County, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, takes sixth place in its population category this year for its strong IT alignment with county goals, robust data strategy and solid disaster planning. Effective data use has been a main priority in the last year, and to that end the Enterprise Information Technology Department (EIT) created a data scientist position and provided the formal training for an existing employee to take on the role. To fuel data-driven decision-making, EIT worked to understand each agency’s data needs, and to support data literacy for all county staff and enable “self-service” data work. This means that agencies consistently report data to county leadership, who can then use dashboards and metrics, enabled by recently acquired Microsoft Power BI software, to make informed choices. 

EIT’s disaster recovery plan is well-aligned with emergency management, and Sarasota conducted a tabletop exercise that showed agencies countywide what it would look like if IT systems went down in a disaster, including what data might be permanently lost and how long systems could take to recover. This led not only to the creation of additional backups but also created reasonable expectations for what EIT could do in an emergency. They also have a data center rated for Category 5 hurricanes, and redundancy through a fiber connection with the data center in neighboring Manatee County. 

In forward-looking work, Sarasota County has been using machine learning to analyze constituent feedback via social media channels across 20 information categories, including public safety and health, which helps leadership understand opinions from those who might not attend public meetings. That said, COVID-19 drove many of those meetings into virtual settings, which EIT reports have been largely successful. 

7th Douglas County, Colo.

Seventh-place Douglas County, Colo., has made some recent adjustments that demonstrate a growing emphasis on relationship management and culture when it comes to IT. New programs focus on managing organizational change as well as relationships with the departments they serve and the vendors they work with. These shifts are aimed at getting as much value as possible from technology investments. On the procurement side, IT has partnered with the county attorney to develop a standard Master Services Agreement to use with major IT contractors. Five years in duration, the new agreements streamline the previous process that was negotiated separately with each vendor, as well as make it simpler to add time to an existing agreement.  

A new open data hub now hosts all the county’s open data resources, which were previously spread among a number of platforms. This money-saving move has also increased usage of the data by county staff, external partners and the public, the county reports. Some of the same geospatial tools are also being used for the county’s COVID-19 Operational Hub, which is complemented by a public-facing Response Hub. Both portals map things like cases, community spread, hospital capacity and other resources. Also under the heading of modernization, staff can now better manage work orders and assets like traffic signs and signals with a recently updated system that makes it easier to prioritize maintenance and track future needs.

8th Loudoun County, Va. 

A consistent contender since the Digital Counties survey began, Loudon County places yet again in the top 10 for its population category. In the last year, the county has established a new data center and developed a multiyear data governance program, with the ultimate goal of instituting a data warehouse for advanced predictive analytics. Loudon County has also recently made strides in cybersecurity, implementing an email policy that has decreased the number of incoming threats and rolling out a questionnaire that allows a team to assess, early on, the security of every new system and application in the county.    

Loudon County is making sure every IT dollar counts with a new project portfolio management initiative that determines whether money goes toward tech resources that clearly support county business needs. The county has also adopted more agile development methods that have led to the efficient development of niche applications. Toward the end of 2019, Loudon signed a contract with a local Internet service provider to replace old fiber for more than 100 county facilities and to start the process of connecting underserved communities. 

9th Hamilton County, Ind. 

Hamilton County, the fourth-largest county in Indiana, put a lot of effort into shoring up its cybersecurity this year. The county contracted with Palo Alto Networks to modernize is firewall hardware, application monitoring, and intrusion detection and prevention. Through this system, the county has access to security information and event management (SIEM) tools, which compile security data from all devices, servers, firewalls and switches into one location and alert the county if anything seems amiss.   

The county also signed up for a FireEye monitoring service in December 2019 after the state of Indiana offered a subscription to all counties in anticipation of heightened cyberattacks surrounding the 2020 presidential election. Additionally, the county implemented a CloudFlare security program recommended by the National Association of Counties that regulates public website traffic to protect a jurisdiction’s online domain. Also in the interest of security, Hamilton County adopted Microsoft’s Azure Active Directory to manage login permissions for county files and folders — this included single sign-on for many common county applications. 

One of Hamilton County’s top priorities in 2019 was to improve citizen and business engagement with government, which led to a redesign of the public-facing website. Beginning in mid-2019, the county hired a Web consultant to evaluate the existing site and make recommendations. The county then conducted thorough data analyses of traffic statistics in order to gain a better understanding of where visitors were going on the site. They also incorporated the end users, the public, into the process, hosting a survey as well as volunteer forums to garner feedback as they worked on the redesign. The result is a website designed to reflect citizen priorities that makes it easy for residents to find the information that is most important to them. 

10th Berks County, Pa. 

Berks County, Pa., places 10th this year, exhibiting an impressive focus on data governance and transparency, cybersecurity, and some forward-thinking IT solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. In data governance, Berks County invested in a new e-filing and management solution for its civil court system, allowing for more accurate, expedient information sharing between attorneys, county offices and civil court judges. This investment also paid off in reduced labor costs, leading in some cases to overall staff reductions for filing roles. At the same time, the county also improved its financial system's data transparency by adopting third-party data management and reporting platform SplashBI.

County leaders also rolled out new email security protocols this year (including DMARC, SPIF and DKIM), rightly recognizing that email represents one of the biggest major attack vectors for governments. The county also participates in a statewide cybersecurity partnership, PA Cybersafe, which improves its information sharing capabilities and lowers its overall expenses for cybersecurity consulting services through program discounts.

At the same time, the county adapted quickly to the conditions of COVID-19, deploying a website as an informational resource for both individuals and business owners, while also quickly moving county staff to remote work. Concerned about the potential for an outbreak, county leaders also managed to reduce the jail population by some 40 percent through mobile phone video conferencing and hearings.       

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