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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 Ventura County, Calif. 

Disaster response and recovery has become something of a permanent fixture for Ventura County, Calif.’s government. Since 2017, it has gone through several wildfires, some of which have ranked among the most destructive in California’s history, a mass shooting, and now COVID-19. The IT department has responded each time. A new strategy has meant a single website, VCEmergency.com, for helping residents get the most up-to-date and accurate information about incidents, and all communications channels link back to it. A new policy, put in place toward the end of 2019, has mandated that all county departments back up to a central system that stores data in three different places: an on-premise site, an off-premise site and cloud storage. During the current pandemic, the county has helped set up connectivity and hardware for homeless shelters and makeshift testing sites, as well as video arraignment for courts and telework for government employees. 

Ventura County did all this while continuing to manage, and even excel at, the core work of government IT. It’s expanding and adding redundancy for I-Net, a fiber ring for governments in the county. It rolled out a new solution, LinkedIn Learning, countywide to cut down on travel time and hours spent on in-person training. And it created a new deputy CIO position responsible for studying emerging technology and standardizing its use — which has already led to wins in the form of better password policies as well as helpful standards for video meetings and digital signatures. The latter two moves have been important during COVID-19. 

The county has also shown leadership with the helming of a 13-county consortium that has created a way to migrate to a new statewide welfare management system that every county in the state will have to start using by 2023. 

2nd Prince George's County, Md. 

To support county public safety priorities, Prince George’s County has deployed Next-Gen 911 technology, allowing them to better engage with residents using phone calls, texts and improved location accuracy. The county has also expanded its use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement and video surveillance in the county jail and initiated a new effort to create a single integrated case management system for all courts in the state court system.   

Cybersecurity, one of OIT’s top priorities, is now aided by the use of CrowdStrike Falcon, a cloud solution that uses AI to detect and analyze cybersecurity threats. And to respond to the new remote work needs of the COVID-19 crisis, Prince George’s County expanded its VPN infrastructure from a system that could support about 700 remote workers to one that can handle 10 times that number. The county also expanded its use of collaboration tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. The county also overhauled its 311 system, enhancing the use of resident-supplied photos and introducing text messaging, artificial intelligence and other advanced features. 

In the area of smart infrastructure, the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation deployed connected vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) applications to support real-time sharing of traffic management data with vehicles capable of receiving the information. The project is expected to contribute to roadway safety and traffic management goals. 

3rd Snohomish County, Wash. 

Snohomish County, Wash., was the site of the first recorded infection of COVID-19 in the U.S., a dubious distinction which meant the county’s IT agency was an early adopter of remote work en masse. Thanks to a remote work policy established in the IT department in 2016 that was extended to encompass more than 3,000 county staff across 27 departments, Snohomish was able to quickly get workers out of offices. Using services from Citrix and Zoom, as well as a pre-existing program to refresh older hardware like laptops, staff were able to continue being productive from home and citizens could still participate in public-facing meetings. The county already had 64 online forms available for citizens to access county services, and after the novel coronavirus began to spread, they stood up a chatbot to help field additional requests. In addition, the county has a top priority to streamline and digitize work across all agencies using Microsoft Office 365 and Power BI. The efforts are largely driven by its Continuous Improvement Program to help maximize efficiencies and that came to the fore in the remote-government environment. 

Other initiatives in the past year also contributed to Snohomish’s third-place showing in this year’s Digital Counties Survey. A review was conducted by the Washington State Auditor’s Office and the state National Guard Cyber Mission Assurance Team to assess the health of county cyberdefenses. One takeaway was a series of recommendations on how IT staff can help support the county emergency management team’s disaster resilience plans, which they plan to do going forward. In January 2020, Snohomish stood up a disaster recovery site in Yakima County to bolster backup resiliency in a different geographic region. To overcome the challenges of data governance in a federated environment, Snohomish is working to standardize data management practices across agencies and foster collaboration among departments on shared data needs. 

3rd Westchester County, N.Y. 

Home to more than 967,500 of New York’s residents, Westchester County placed third in its population category for safeguarding citizen health and safety, prioritizing IT governance and cybersecurity, and aligning all IT values with countywide goals. A notable accomplishment made over the past year is updating the countywide Security and Technology Use Policy as part of a larger Data Loss Prevention initiative. To enhance cybersecurity, the policy update explicitly prohibits the use of unauthorized, third-party file-sharing solutions for the sharing of county data outside of the network. Although this update was already in progress, the move comes at an important time during the COVID-19 pandemic with the surge in telework and the use of personal devices — which creates opportunities for potential misuse of county data. The updated policy provided an educational opportunity to discuss the importance of preventing data loss and has been largely successful in preventing sensitive data from leaving the network. 

Over the past year, the county’s Department of Information Technology has improved its reporting capabilities to more clearly communicate what projects are in progress. To that end, Westchester County also regularly uses the contact form on their website and a variety of social media platforms to collect citizen feedback. All public meetings are streamed online and made available to ensure that all content is accessible. By maintaining accessibility and avenues for citizen feedback, Westchester County prioritizes both resident welfare and their commitment to aligning all IT decisions with broader county goals.         

4th DeKalb County, Ga. 

DeKalb County, Ga., has myriad challenges when it comes to deploying internal and external services as the state’s fourth largest local government, but that hasn’t stopped officials there from meeting those challenges head on. Decreasing tax revenue streams, changing demographics and increased cyberthreats have upped the ante and help shape many of the initiatives currently underway. Perhaps most commendable is the fact that extra attention has been paid to aligning countywide IT objectives and projects through an aggressive and modern strategic plan. That overall plan is further supported by hearty cybersecurity initiatives, which include the use of AI and analytics, as well as heavy coordination between state and local partners. Substantial investment has been made in modern tools and software to help protect data stores from outside threats, and cloud and backup systems are also in place. Where the future is concerned, planning and budgeting are mapped out using a strategy centered on meeting the county’s long-term objectives. This helps to ensure funding and focus for the most pressing IT needs 

5th Gwinnett County, Ga.

Gwinnett County, a fast-growing and quickly diversifying suburban area northeast of Atlanta, has put into place structures that keep its IT department plugged into the needs of the government. Its Digital Strategy Plan, which covers the next two years, engaged every department to find technology that can deliver value. It has led to plans for a 311 mobile app, online polling and social media expansion, among other things. Meanwhile, an existing Business Relationship Consultant program has been working for four years to periodically check in with department leaders on how their technology is working for them, researching new tools and creating road maps to move deliberately toward innovation. 

This is all the backdrop to several notable accomplishments, such as upgraded collaboration tools for a police “war room” that taps into traffic cameras, new digital services for solid waste management as well as the licensing and revenue department, 75 percent server virtualization and a new backup E-911 center. Gwinnett IT was also able to quickly — within hours — move about 70 percent of its workforce to telework in March when COVID-19 hit because of prior investments in mobile workforce. 

There’s much to watch in the county; current projects include a new enterprise performance management system, a massive modernization of police and fire systems and possibly the creation of unique digital IDs for residents and businesses that could streamline access to government services. 

6th Baltimore County, Md. 

Baltimore County finds itself just outside the top half of cities with populations between 500,000 and 999,999 residents. Baltimore County had previously listed automating services as a priority, but COVID-19 supercharged that work, so much so that some existing platforms were repurposed to help address needs that sprung up as a result of the crisis. For example, the Web services team developed the county’s main website into a COVID-19 hub, where citizens could access information and dashboards relevant to crisis needs. And it didn’t stop there. The IT shop in Baltimore County also re-engineered existing online payment tools to include new permits, licenses and plan reviews, all of which helped enable processing when cashier windows had to close. One perhaps unique creation was a county-built app for restaurants and grocery stores to provide info around operating hours and available services, thereby centralizing information citizens were looking for around access to food. 

Other recent tech and innovation accomplishments for Baltimore County include hiring a chief data officer, a new county website being developed with a mobile-first approach, and cybersecurity practices given shape by the experiences of neighboring jurisdictions. This cybersecurity work has been wide-spanning, and it has touched many different areas of the work done by IT. The county has also worked to collaborate with other state agencies such as the Department of Public Safety and Correction Services. While funding will remain a challenge in the wake of COVID-19, this has all positioned the county well for the future. 

7th San Joaquin County, Calif.

San Joaquin County continued its steady climb through the ranks this year, moving up to seventh place. Among other things, the county made improvements to both its cybersecurity and disaster recovery postures. In response to an independent cybersecurity assessment, San Joaquin developed a three-year cybersecurity strategy and implemented enhanced end-user training and endpoint security, 24/7 monitoring and updated policies, among other improvements. On the disaster recovery side of things, San Joaquin County now has a disaster recovery site for data storage. Data from all mission-critical systems is replicated every 10 minutes at the disaster recovery site, which is in a separate location from the data center. In the event that the main data center goes down, the disaster recovery site can be used to restore all mission-critical systems within two hours. 

In September 2019, San Joaquin County began piloting an apprenticeship program within the Information Systems Division (ISD) for county employees. Three candidates are currently enrolled in the program, which sees them attend San Joaquin County Delta College for three years to earn a certificate in IT. After the participants’ first year of school, they will become apprentices in ISD, working part time to apply what they’re learning, and after the second year they can apply to become full-time ISD employees once they receive their certification. 

Like most U.S. jurisdictions, San Joaquin County turned to technology to solve problems earlier this year when the coronavirus pandemic hit. The county found that its call centers were being inundated with citizen questions, so it quickly set up a chatbot on its website to help. AskSJC is available in three languages, and users can search all its possible questions. The bot “learns” from each interaction in order to improve itself, and data shows that usage has been increasing since its launch. 

8th New Castle County, Del. 

A county with more than half of Delaware’s total population, New Castle has come into its own as a tech-driven local area, thanks to a recent restructuring that gave IT a seat at the executive cabinet level and a voice in budgeting decisions. With an eye toward the future, the county has taken multiple steps to protect its tech-related assets, with ongoing cybersecurity hygiene training for all county staff and the rollout of a multilayered, multi-vendor defense system that aligns with best practices.    

New Castle’s public safety standing improved substantially when data was used to enhance 911 response. Today, more than 90 percent of calls are answered in 10 seconds or less — that number once stood at 65 percent. This change occurred when the chief of technology and administrative services was the acting public safety director. In 2019, New Castle IT also helped the county identify several measures, including contract negotiations and an enterprise copier solution, that have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars saved.    

The county is gradually moving toward solutions that provide greater scalability and modern services. New Castle has transferred more than 60 percent of its data to the cloud, which has led to an appreciable reduction of servers and related costs. The county’s Internet infrastructure has also seen significant advancement. In addition to leveraging a contract in order to deliver Internet speeds that are 10 times faster, IT re-engineered the county network so that it can run through the state’s VPN, allowing for greater agility when new needs arise. 

9th San Mateo County, Calif. 

In its fourth consecutive year on this list, the county of San Mateo made a number of operational and infrastructure changes, but some of its biggest were adaptations to COVID-19. California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued stay-at-home orders on March 19, and within 48 hours the county’s Information Services Department (ISD) procured 2,000 additional laptops and other hardware for telework, transitioning in a matter of weeks from a 30 percent remote workforce to 90 percent. ISD used ZScaler and multifactor authentication for Internet security, set up Wi-Fi-to-satellite connectivity at COVID-19 testing stations so personnel could use mobile devices and the cloud, and deployed Avaya one-x Agent to create a remote access system for teleworking employees of the Human Services Agency’s call center, which handles benefits and services. The county also partnered with NURO to send out autonomous vehicles for contactless food deliveries to people under isolation orders. 

Besides COVID-19 response, another priority has been digital inclusion, for which the county is compiling data on the digital divide, establishing a task force with representatives from public and private entities, writing a shared-assets agreement and forming public-private partnerships to cover underserved communities. In November 2019, ISD’s GIS team worked with the county’s Center on Homelessness to modernize the referral workflow for support programs, which had been done via email up to that point. The team developed two mobile-accessible forms by which partner agencies, such as the sheriff’s office or county health, can document non-emergency situations, triage services, collect data and show program managers real-time information on the status of various requests and cases. 

Other modernization and data projects included migrating the county’s data to the Socrata Connected Government Cloud, and a pilot project for more IoT infrastructure, including more air quality sensors and associated apps, dashboards and notification systems. The county also opened a new, durable Regional Operations Center for public safety responders in a crisis, which houses a consolidated data center and replaced approximately 20-year-old console systems with new dispatch consoles.

10th Chester County, Pa.

Chester County, Pa., welcomed new enterprise IT leadership in the last year and staked out a path to enhance communications with county departments and investigate and deploy new technologies and cloud services to meet the county’s growth needs. A top priority within that focus is the elimination of legacy systems and the introduction of more modern systems that will lower costs and facilitate more seamless communication of data. This also includes offering more flexible and affordable storage and server solutions and the promotion of more standardization to develop additional economies of scale and cross-organizational consistency. Chester County has also made timely upgrades to enterprise and functional area software projects and added a definition of how to best organize IT resources, fund IT initiatives and ensure a realization of the maximum value for IT investments.   

Another top priority is to ensure that citizens can access information and request services any time by increasing the number of online services. Chester County is also leveraging social media to improve communication with citizens, such as in late 2019 when the county replaced its old DOS-based election reporting tool with a new cloud-based electronic dashboard. It allows users to search results using an interactive map and get voter turnout information for an entire precinct. For the first time, users can see election results via a mobile device.

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