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Digital Counties 2022: 1 Million or More Population Category

The 52 top jurisdictions in this year's Digital Counties Survey from the Center for Digital Government are using new strategies for cybersecurity, workforce and digital services to move toward the future.

1st King County, Wash.

King County, Wash., again finishes first within the most populous category, and with good reason. Whereas last year the county stood out as a model of responding to and recovering from the pandemic, much of this year’s work dealt with a fast-rising priority for local government: fostering equity. This, of course, was a challenge, with King County being roughly the same size as the entire state of Rhode Island, with more than double its population.

King County tech officials worked to reimagine the city’s services in equitable ways, doing so with a range of new ideas, from accessible online applications for reduced transit fares — which grew last year by a whopping 2,000 percent among underserved populations — to online databases with digital evidence to help inform justice-related decisions. And none of it came at the cost of vital IT functions. In fact, in 2021, King County completed twice as many development projects than in some prior years, specifically 2018. Much of this work had to do with modernizing processes that had been in-person or paper-based, which simultaneously helped facilitate remote work for employees while also providing residents with critical services.

Speaking of remote work, King County has handled the transition to it better than many government agencies in the country. In 2021, the jurisdiction shuttered several Seattle-area offices as nearly 9,000 employees began to telework permanently. Part of making this happen involved the central IT shop transitioning all employees to Microsoft Teams, opening satellite IT centers in the region and digitizing things like the human resources onboarding processes.

2nd Fairfax County, Va.

Fairfax County leapt from fifth to second place in the large population category this year, with initiatives that emphasize cybersecurity and data use. The county began moving toward a zero-trust security approach in 2018 and doubled down on efforts recently as its workforce went remote. Noting semiconductor shortages, Fairfax accelerated infrastructure defense technology procurements to get equipped before inventory ran out. Using multifactor authentication, micro-segmentation, network access and other related areas has helped reduce incidents. The county also worked to improve resilience, should something still go wrong. That included adopting a ransomware recovery platform enabling immutable, air-gapped backups.

Fairfax is additionally developing policies and tools for making better use of the county’s data and is taking a hard look at overcoming unintentional silos. The county emphasizes applying data analysis to inform decision-making, such as to help identify the residents and businesses most in need of pandemic recovery support and to evaluate progress on enacting the county’s overall strategic plan. A Data Analytics Framework helps guide its data management and governance approach. To respect privacy, the records officer and archivist adopted new policies for handling requests to delete personal data. The county also developed a proof-of-concept data sharing tool designed to only share records across disciplines if consent was given. To further support residents, the IT team is part of a Digital Access and Literacy working group where it has helped envision what digital equity looks like and use tools to identify areas where broadband access is lacking.

Fairfax is also trying new efforts to recruit IT hires and credits social media outreach, remote interviewing and collaborations with veteran transition groups with helping fill 30 positions. Applying robotic process automation to some routine tasks has also freed up staff time, and a college and high school internship program fill some roles for which salary or teleworking constraints have made recruiting difficult.

3rd Orange County, Fla.

Technology is helping to facilitate a variety of programs in Orange County, Fla., ranging from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program to BizLink Orange, an online site for resources to help businesses achieve long-term success. A new innovative website serves as a centralized instructional hub for guidance on recycling. The Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office now uses a Virtual Dissection Table that provides high-tech imaging technology, allowing examiners to analyze tissue without the need of physical dissection. The images can also be saved to a photo archiving system compatible with court proceedings. The county reports the technology is billed as a first in the country.

Cybersecurity is identified as a top technology goal for the county, which has implemented programs around zero trust, supply chain management and cybersecurity training for staff. The Orange County Supervisor of Elections now offers identity-bound biometrics, as well as two-factor authentication. The efforts seem to be working: In 2021, 142 million phishing emails were blocked and more than 119,000 viruses were stopped. Cybersecurity and data privacy protocols have also made their way into public records searches and releases. Artificial intelligence tools are used to detect sensitive information like social security numbers and driver’s license information.

The region has established a “video exchange” allowing video surveillance to be easily shared across multiple agencies from cameras mounted on transportation infrastructure as well as the more than 450 public-sector buildings. The applications for this video exchange by law enforcement have been described as “limitless.”

4th Oakland County, Mich.

Oakland County climbed three spots to take fourth place in this year’s survey thanks to a commitment to reducing technical debt via a cloud-first strategy and streamlining business processes for county agencies. Led by IT Director Mike Timm, one of GovTech’s 2022 Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers, the county has implemented a unified communications project that brought new LAN core, VoIP and Wi-Fi, plus replaced a legacy voicemail system. In November 2021, Oakland County upgraded its outdated document management system with a web-based Laserfiche solution and migrated 20 million documents there, which improved business processes for the county courts system.

The county has done a “fact-based assessment” to identify gaps in cybersecurity, from which IT created a concrete list of steps they can take to improve, a process they plan to repeat annually. To build up the cyber talent pipeline, both the CTO and CISO participate in Oakland Schools Technical Campuses (OSTC) Cyber Education Advisory Board, which helps teachers prepare students for cyber education and to be competitive in the cyber job market. And instead of a traditional disaster recovery exercise that simulates the outage of the whole data center, Oakland County has begun conducting “service-based” scenarios. For example, this year the server admin team simulated recovering from an event in which a county database was crypto-locked.

Oakland County is deeply committed to transparency and has a wide range of public-facing dashboards available. To further those efforts, the county has partnered with Michigan State University students to develop a formal strategy for dashboards going forward. The public safety dashboard in particular was created in collaboration with 40 law enforcement agencies, which the county reports has helped ease tensions between law enforcement and residents.

5th Alameda County, Calif.

Up three places to fifth in this year’s survey, Alameda County has a strong technology foundation which positions it for continuous improvement. The county’s march toward one device for each employee continues as it works to simplify infrastructure, creating a more agile organization. More than half of county staff serving a population of nearly 1.7 million are now equipped with laptops, making them productive from any location and allowing the county to appeal to new recruits by supporting some remote work. New virtual-first and remote-first guidelines were formalized at the end of 2021, providing consistent parameters around these offerings. Also fueling Alameda County IT’s talent pipeline is its successful intern program, now in its eighth year. Supplementing these moves is an agreement that empowers the IT department to find short-term technical help as specific needs arise, a capability nearly a dozen agencies have taken advantage of to date.

Among Alameda County’s other notable tech efforts is the use of low-code solutions to provide critical capabilities more quickly than traditional methods. Using tools from Salesforce and Microsoft Forms, the county quickly stood up dashboards on vital social service programs to help policymakers visualize demographics and trends and guide decision-making. One example of this approach is with the Project Roomkey initiative, which helped provide care for COVID-19 positive or COVID-19 exposed people experiencing homelessness. Low-code applications helped automate the intake and assessment process, leading to further work streamlining the patient matching process. The county’s accessibility work provides a similar example of their customer-focused mentality. In addition to an external monitoring tool, accessibility training is provided to website teams and a user group encourages continuous learning and advances best practices.

6th San Diego County, Calif.

San Diego County, California’s second-largest county by population, takes sixth place in its category this year with a resident-centric focus and a commitment to planning for the future of IT. The county’s Tell Us Now app, released in January, enables swift reporting of community issues like graffiti and potholes. The county’s library system is using American Rescue Plan Act monies to buy laptops and mobile hot spots to support more than 7,400 households with one-year device loans. A new priority in the county’s 2021-2024 Information Technology Strategy, “Speed to Deliver,” aims to improve the speed of IT solution delivery through DevSecOps, design-centered thinking, promoting application development platforms and restarting the county’s innovation program.

The county’s Operational Plan emphasizes equity, outcome-centered programs and services, and goals typically supported by innovative tech. San Diego’s online application portal for the COVID-19 Emergency Rent and Utilities Assistance Program enabled easy access during the height of the pandemic, and a new Digital Services initiative created by the County Technology Office uses traditional and user-centric design practices in the redesign of government service and process. A government identity rebrand and a website redesign are among the deliverables. A monthlong pilot with Peraton in November offered staff an in-person “Tech Bar” to resolve IT needs. The county’s IT outsourcing partner also continues to enable remote work via a VPN that lets staff safely use home computers and has scaled up the service desk call center in response to a more than threefold growth in calls from staff. San Diego’s Security and Risk Management Program guides cybersecurity work, bolstered by a zero-trust security model. Features include multifactor authentication, network access control, secure backups and a revised incident security plan.

7th Wake County, N.C.

Faced with the myriad challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wake County Information Services Department has come out the other side a more focused and intentional IT organization. When COVID-19 first forced work-from-home arrangements, the IT team quickly pivoted to meet the needs of some 2,500 remote employees. What’s more, the IT team put their experience to work creating public health resources, like a COVID-19 dashboard and vaccine scheduling application, to better manage county response. This meant coordinating interruptions to core IT service delivery.

Like all government organizations, cybersecurity continues to be a prime concern for Wake County. To better secure its systems, minimum security standards have been established for vendor partners with access to county data. These include use of a business-class email platform, email encryption and notice within 24 hours if a breach or cyber incident occurs. Partners are also encouraged to maintain cyber liability insurance to cover the work they do for the county. Meanwhile, county applications must undergo peer-reviewed security assessments to ensure security standards are met, and automated tools are being applied to find and stop phishing emails.

Where hiring and retention are concerned, Wake County has had to contend with some of the biggest private-sector names in tech pulling talent away from public service. To even the odds of hiring and keeping skilled personnel, the IT department has implemented a system of cash incentives for hard-to-fill spots.

8th Cook County, Ill.

Cook County, the nation’s second-largest county by population, completed or came close to completing several major projects in the past year, including migrating nearly 13,000 phones to voiceover IP; engineering work for an expansion of the Chicago Southland Fiber Network; a five-year initiative to replace outdated networks with software-defined wide area networks at 150 remote locations; a new procurement system; and a new tax processing solution that will allow thousands of individuals and businesses to file electronically for the first time.

The county demonstrates a collaborative and user-focused approach in much of its work. Regular meetings with information security officials in other jurisdictions have yielded positive results and new initiatives such as an impending identity and access management procurement, and county IT brought in users to test and improve on projects ranging from a new budget website to a COVID-19 vaccination rollout map.

There are many large initiatives underway in Cook County. These include the hiring of 50 new personnel for the Bureau of Technology using American Rescue Plan funds; bringing a chief data privacy officer on board; a disaster recovery and hosting purchase; and an enterprise-wide hardware asset inventorying initiative that will lead to a new model for consolidated hosting and cost savings.

8th Westchester County, N.Y.

Westchester County is back on the list this year with a slew of organizational cybersecurity initiatives, system upgrades and collaborative efforts between departments and with other local governments. A reorganization of the Department of Information Technology created new cybersecurity-focused job titles and a comprehensive list of IT projects to share with administration. An executive order created a Task Force on Cybersecurity, supported by a working group that meets regularly, and the county got heavily involved with the statewide cybersecurity preparedness task force as well. For its own staff, the county implemented browser isolation technology that keeps web browsing activity separate from the rest of the network, enrolled in a 24/7 managed detection and response program and launched new cybersecurity awareness training initiatives, including the implementation of a new web-based training platform and proactive analytical tools to detect suspicious behavior. It also hired additional staff to work with other infrastructure teams in the county and even with other municipalities.

It was also a busy year for modernization and proactive improvements. A new data-loss prevention initiative involved data classification, email monitoring and a review of all data being sent to external recipients; the establishment of a new architecture committee will ensure consistent standards in developing new applications; and redesigned project intake forms now require clear statements of purpose, costs and benefits, so all involved are on the same page. To aid economic development efforts, the county developed several online application forms for businesses and nonprofits to access support programs from the county and partners, and it expanded the offerings in its online portal for procurement and shared services with municipalities, one of two such resources in the state.

9th Hennepin County, Minn.

Taking the ninth-place spot in its category this year, Hennepin County, Minn., has continued to put innovation first with several technology-focused projects. In 2022, the county has focused on making remote work more accessible, addressing disparity reduction and creating a new Digital Experience (DX) division to deliver accessible digital services to residents. So far, DX has created a new countywide digital accessibility policy and established strategic road maps for all partner teams. County officials are evaluating technologies to allow county staff to work remotely, in-person or both as part of its Future Ready Hennepin initiative. All county employees will have a worker profile designating them as remote, in-person or hybrid, and IT will provide technical support for each group. And the official Disparity Reduction: Vision and Priorities report available online offers stories from residents, data and GIS maps. These resources focus on seven areas where disparity seems to be highest: education, employment, income, housing, transportation, justice and health.

10th San Bernardino County, Calif.

Public access, communication and security stood as some of the main areas of focus for San Bernardino County this year as officials dealt with the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and strove to move beyond them. Technology leaders hired the first county CIO as part of an ongoing push to protect systems and data, work that includes semiannual testing of disaster recovery processes and vulnerability management that can help sustain operations during emergency situations. Improved coordination has also resulted in emergency voice and data network connections to help with pandemic response, including COVID-19 test and vaccination sites. The next 12 to 18 months will bring further efforts to boost IT security and collaborative cybersecurity protections among various county departments.

The county’s tech professionals also improved its procurement and workflow via digital signature and other tools, easing the strains of the pandemic and setting a course for the future, which includes a stronger focus on citizen engagement and communication. Every week the county publishes updates in English and Spanish about its activities on a blog, social media and emails that reach more than 240,000 subscribers. The updates started out as a COVID-19 information newsletter but have become a more general source of county news. San Bernardino County also uses the Granicus-provided govDelivery web-based software to further connect with residents via the integrations of online services, digital communication and websites and emails. Officials can build custom email templates, for instance, to better serve subscribers and let them know about services and programs.

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