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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 Los Angeles County, Calif.

Los Angeles County – the most populous county in the country – has been on a steady climb in the Digital Counties survey over the past few years, going from No. 4 to No. 2 and now to No. 1. One of the big reasons for the rise this year was the agency’s approach to cybersecurity, a challenge for every government IT shop in the country. Amid the aftermath of a phishing attack, Los Angeles County moved away from a federated cybersecurity model to a centralized security structure that included agencywide endpoint security upgrades as well as better mobile device management. The latter also helped to inadvertently prepare Los Angeles County for the advent of COVID-19 and a subsequent increase in remote work.

In addition, 2019 saw Los Angeles County establish its first countywide IT strategic plan, which is no small feat for a jurisdiction that includes more cities than any other in the country. Crafting this plan was done with the help of representatives from 200 businesses and 37 of the governments in the county. That inclusion speaks to something else Los Angeles County did well in 2019 – working closely with members of its community, specifically its local business community. IT leadership incorporating engagement from business leaders was a theme throughout 2019 for Los Angeles County. 

Finally, in terms of citizen engagement, Los Angeles County is doing quite a bit in several areas, with the work perhaps being best-encapsulated by the way it manages its popular Trails App, both including a feedback feature within the app and also making improvements based on reviews from platforms such as Google Play and the App Store.

2nd Wake County, N.C.

Consistently a strong contender in the Digital Counties Survey, this year Wake County, N.C., jumped from fifth to second place in its population category. The Information Services (IS) department strives to work in conjunction with the county’s “Great Government” goals, including increasing transparency and boosting data-driven decision-making. In 2019 Wake County hired a chief data officer who is tasked with heading an Enterprise Data Management Program that includes a data governance council comprising members from across county departments to lead creation of a data use and security policy. There is also a new group of data analysts called Analytics at Wake (aWake), which includes a data literacy program for county staff, efforts to upgrade the county’s open data portal, and exploration of new tools like the Internet of Things. 

In a new coordinated security effort, Wake County has established an Incident Risk Management Core Team made up of the chief information security officer, heads of IT, and managers across all county departments who come together to discuss and make decisions around security policy and management. A cybertraining program resulted in a 65 percent improvement in user susceptibility to email phishing between January 2019 and March 2020. 

COVID-19 of course impacted Wake in no small way, with 2,500 employees, or 90 percent of staff, working remotely since mid-March. Fortunately, a number of critical elements to IT service were replaced or upgraded in the last year, like network storage and firewalls, as well as the county’s Internet bandwidth, which became useful when they invested in additional VPN licenses to accommodate all the remote workers. IS has worked closely with emergency services since the Emergency Operations Center was activated in March, which has pulled resources from IT for critical work like standing up a COVID dashboard and contact tracing app. 

3rd Orange County, Fla.

It’s not hard to see why Orange County, Fla., is a top-three finisher in its population category. Among myriad efforts related to efficient and effective public-sector IT, the regional government stands out in its efforts to protect its data and systems through cybersecurity best practices. The establishment of the Regional Security Operations Center marks one impressive accomplishment, while securing transportation infrastructure is a feat rarely contemplated by regional entities.  

Beyond the focus on securing government assets from increasing cyberthreats, IT staff have seen success in areas like logistical and process improvements. Staff worked with the Orange County Head Start program — which serves low-income children through early development, with health care and support for their families — to deploy a new system to improve communications among program staff, teachers and the supply warehouse.   

Where public safety is concerned, Orange County improved the resilience of its emergency communications system by adding disaster recovery and backup infrastructure. The busy system once relied on a single 300-foot tower to handle 145,000 daily radio transmissions, but the addition of Motorola technology to the county courthouse building has added extra security in case of an emergency. The technology also ensures that law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services personnel can access real-time radio calls via their smartphones. Additionally, the addition of the eWarrants application has allowed for efficiencies in law enforcement and the court system. The new app allows for real-time review of warrants and no longer requires officers to hand-deliver them.    

4th Hennepin County, Minn.

Taking fourth place this year in the 1-million-plus population category, Hennepin County, Minn., the largest by population in the state, has some IT practices worth emulating. Both active and passive citizen feedback methods help feed continuous improvement to citizen services across the county. Interviews, surveys and focus groups are some of the tools used to gather active feedback, while staff monitors analytics from social media and the county website to gauge passive feedback. One example of how this focus on citizens manifests is the Healthy Homes Web application, in which staff from different teams came together to merge the application process for home repair and lead abatement grant programs. The extensive process included journey mapping, prototyping and iterative design, and the IT team worked on back-end technical needs to further ensure a seamless process for residents.   

And Hennepin has an interesting approach when it comes to how to effectively use emerging technologies to improve operations — an area where peers often struggle. The IT group evaluates new tech against business needs and industry research, and the enterprise architecture team lends their expertise in developing future-looking road maps that incorporate policy considerations. One place this was put to use was in the deployment of chatbots by human resources. The prep work by technical staff paid off, allowing the county to move forward once a use case came to light. In the transportation area, the county has leveraged multiple funding sources, including the state and federal governments, to build out its Advanced Transportation Management System, in a partnership between IT and public works. Built on fiber optics, the system had 35 smart traffic signals as of the end of 2019, with 85 more planned for 2020, positioning the county to enjoy the benefits of modern, connected transportation infrastructure. 

5th Alameda County, Calif. 

One thing that jumps out about Alameda County, Calif., is the way its technology projects suggest holistic thinking — work that transcends new technology and instead seeks ways to create better processes. A good example is an end-to-end re-engineering of the application process for In-Home Supportive Services. The work involved setting up and connecting several systems to eliminate paper, auto-populate digital forms with state data and speed up the entire process. The county has set up “data marts” to smooth importation of data used by hundreds of employees, but the larger goal is to create a central data hub for the whole county. A pilot earlier this year enabled earlier release of people awaiting trial from jail by getting paperwork in front of judges faster and automating tracking and reporting of inmates, addressing different parts of a system. 

Alameda County has risen to meet many challenges in the past year as well. It was subject to a planned power shut-off to prevent wildfires, which would have shut down a contact center. Within 24 hours of receiving notice, IT set up a temporary contact center outside the shut-off zone. When two cities in the area fell victim to a cyberattack, the county moved swiftly to sever contact with those cities, prevent emails from reaching inboxes and scan for intrusions. Then it worked with the cities to quickly recover and learn more about how it happened. 

As for COVID-19, IT found itself in the fortunate position of having rolled out a new telework policy just before the pandemic hit, so the transition was smooth. It has moved quickly to help set up homeless shelters, deploy a mobile app to help people find those shelters, implement e-signature capabilities, enable video for board meetings and weddings, and deploy a chatbot to handle common public health questions.

6th King County, Wash.

Consistently a Digital Counties winner in its category, Washington’s largest county and the 12th most populous in the U.S. has been focused on citizens through a wide range of modernization, outreach and forward-thinking projects. Its top priority lately has been racial justice as it implemented an Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan, which requires an Equity Impact Review of all technology initiatives and ongoing efforts to generate data on how different communities are being served by the county. To track the accountability of some of its services, the county launched its Client Online Reporting Engine (CORE), purportedly the first system of its kind in the U.S. to automatically collect client-level program performance data from service providers, usually nonprofits. 

Like many counties, King County IT also prioritized pandemic response. It transitioned more than 5,500 employees to telework, outfitted testing sites, started tracking hospital bed availability and set up a supply distribution warehouse. By using chatbots to handle COVID-related inquiries, the county gave nursing staff 35 percent more time to focus on symptomatic patients. The county continues to modernize applications and expand its range of digital services in light of COVID-19. 

Continuing a constant process of modernization, the county updated its jail system with new management software and wireless capabilities, automated the inspection of storm drains using mobile technology and an asset-management data system from Cityworks, built a new property tax system on Microsoft Dynamics365 to handle a flood of new documents from a new state tax policy, and it has been coordinating with the secretary of state on election security and upgrades, including a new voter tabulation system. 

To accommodate the growing data needs of digital evidence in law enforcement, from dash cams to surveillance and cellphones, the county moved that work to the cloud via Evidence.com, where police, prosecution and defense can all access it. The county expects this will reduce costs in storage, transport and staff time.

7th San Diego County, Calif. 

California’s second-largest county by population has outsourced its information and telecommunications services since 1999, currently to DXC. But San Diego County, home to more than 3.3 million residents, tied for seventh place in this year’s survey, buoyed by a strong performance in bread-and-butter IT. In December, officials updated their Cyber Disruption Response Plan for the region, which hadn’t been refreshed since 2015, and in February, the county stood up a solution to offer employees continuous cybersecurity training. In response to COVID-19, staff increased the network's physical Internet capacity tenfold; implemented an Akamai VPN solution that enabled telework for more than 5,000 staff; offered telework connectivity training via live webinars; secured and re-imagined more than 600 laptops; and added AdobeSign for electronic signature. 

In March, over three business weeks — a timeline moved up by roughly a year due to COVID-19 — the county migrated from a two-redundant, load balance, diverse, 1-gigabyte Internet connection to one that’s completely diverse and 10 gigabytes, to support 10,000 newly minted remote employees. The migration enhanced remote computer support and the ability to stream meetings, and improved password lockout problems. The county’s Innovation Management Office added “No Touch” guest check-in at the Emergency Operations Center and other facilities, letting staff log in and out via a touchless QR code. 

And on the public-facing side, the county has migrated several types of construction permits online, including the process to build a home electric vehicle charging station. The agency also maintains an Innovation Portal where employees can educate themselves on county initiatives and submit their own ideas. So far, 10 proofs of concept have been completed and six are ongoing. 

7th Oakland County, Mich.

Oakland County, Mich., took seventh place in its population category for the second year in a row, showing its ability to maintain its status as an innovative jurisdiction. As the second most populous county in the state, Oakland has a lot of data to protect. Thus one of its more impressive feats is its continued prioritization of cybersecurity, shown by its recent investment in a Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) solution last October that promises to give IT staff real-time insights into potential security events, while also reducing internal resource hours typically spent on routine security procedures. Oakland County’s cybercapabilities have also been mature enough to allow it to assist neighboring counties with incident response and restoration of services after significant security incidents. At the same time, its commitment to enterprisewide training and risk awareness — and its plans to imminently deploy more automation and AI cybertools — reinforce the county’s commitment to staying on top of things when it comes to defense.   

Also impressive is the county's dedication to advancing a more data-driven environment by encouraging local municipalities to integrate spatial data into local decision-making processes. The county's geographic information system team offers a "GIS Roadshow,” an educational program that explores the various ways spatial data may assist public agencies. 

8th Miami-Dade County, Fla. 

Miami-Dade County has significantly improved its ability to communicate with and serve residents through its redesigned website. Not only has Miami-Dade gotten rid of more than 1,000 Web pages that displayed either duplicative or out-of-date information, but it has linked its website to its 311 call system, which means that the most requested 311 call topics show up online. The site’s new self-service features have resulted in substantial time and money saved, and customer feedback, as opposed to internal perceptions of customer needs, is now the main driver of Web content.   

The county is increasingly relying on data for decision-making and citizen engagement. An upgraded open data portal, GIS tech and sensor data have been informing solutions to problems, and local hackathons have utilized administrative data sets to create new service applications with feedback mechanisms. Miami-Dade IT has also shored up cybersecurity by implementing multifactor authentication across the county, which helped set the table for secure remote work during COVID-19.

9th Cook County, Ill. 

Cook County, Ill., is uniquely structured in that it is made up of myriad autonomous offices and each pursues its own direction. Each independent office can partner with or learn from other agencies to create the experience its constituents want. But the model comes with IT challenges, such as separate and oftentimes duplicative IT contracts for similar services.  

But much has changed in the last 12 months and the county has reached unprecedented levels of shared services with its shared IT procurement model. For example, the county went live in February of this year with a beginning-to-end digital human resources employee evaluation forms setup. It was deployed much more quickly than through the traditional RFP process by using an existing DocuSign contract within the Cook County Sheriff’s Office that met the needs of Human Resources. What’s more, it can potentially meet the needs of other agencies as well.

The county has more than 20,000 employees, none of whom worked at home prior to the pandemic hitting this past spring. As a result, the county had to fundamentally change the way it worked immediately. That transition was made easier in part because of the work the Bureau of Technology had been doing on work-from-home policies for all agencies. By April, the county had transitioned to an almost entirely work-from-home workforce. 

10th County of San Bernardino, Calif.

In the two years since its last appearance in the Digital Counties Survey, one of the things that San Bernardino County chose to focus on was improving cybersecurity. In 2018, the county hired its first chief information security officer and has spent the last two years reaping the benefits. Under Robert K. Pittman Jr.’s leadership, the county created a Countywide Information Security Program (CISP) that has greatly improved its overall cybersecurity posture. The CISP led to the implementation of countywide information security awareness training and the first internal cybersecurity website for county staff to stay informed on security efforts. A cybersecurity review was also integrated into the county’s RFP and purchasing contract negotiation processes, ensuring that security is baked into all new procurements. 

San Bernardino County is also focusing on improving citizen engagement, recently launching a website standardization initiative to improve customer-facing websites. The county made three strategic new hires for this project, bringing on a user experience designer, a user interface designer and a Web graphics designer. The county has seen an increase in operational efficiencies on the government side of the websites that have undergone standardization, and citizens have found it easier to access information and services. 

Another tech upgrade came in the form of a new mobile-based system for the county’s annual Homeless Point-in-Time Count, allowing more than 700 volunteers to send real-time information from the field. This system also allowed the county to immediately dispatch specialty teams to interact with members of predetermined target groups, such as seniors. This approach enabled the county to house 25 seniors by the end of the day, far surpassing its predetermined goal. 

10th Fairfax County, Va. 

In Fairfax County, Va., the COVID-19 pandemic required innovative ways of tackling both everyday issues and the new issues that arose. The coronavirus presented challenges in the areas of health, human services, communication and technology. By expanding remote access and participation, utilizing virtual meetings, and enhancing and increasing mobility options, the county has continued to meet residents’ needs. The county designed its COVID-19 website to provide clear, consistent information to the public, from health information to rumor control, and information is available in several languages. The county COVID-19 Activity Tracker checks the consumption rate of personal protective equipment (PPE) in real time, and alerts when inventory is low on PPE like respirators, gloves and surgical masks and should be reordered. 

Gregory Scott, who was named director of the Department of Information Technology in September 2019, recently worked with court officials after the pandemic began in order to go beyond the video arraignments already used in the county. The county expanded use of video technology in its court system to allow circuit courts to issue marriage licenses and concealed weapon permits. 

In October last year, Fairfax County launched its virtual assistant chatbot to quickly help residents who visit the website. It uses artificial intelligence to learn content and context from interactions about common questions. The county plans to integrate the chatbot with digital home assistants to provide the public with information and let them complete transactions.

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