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Digital Counties 2023: 1 Million or More Population Category

The leading jurisdictions in this year's Digital Counties Survey are redefining the boundaries of tech advancements with their agile adoption of new tools, commitment to digital equity and digitization of critical processes.

Click here to see our full coverage of the 2023 Digital Counties Survey.

1st Fairfax County, Va.

Fairfax County continues rising through the ranks, and over the past three years shot up from fifth to second to finally first place. The county continues to emphasize data management, supported by both a Data Governance Council and Data Analytics Advisory Group, and it looks to data metrics to clearly assess its progress toward fulfilling a countywide strategic plan. Fairfax provided staff with training and policies about proper data collection and use, and conducted a data asset inventorying project so employees could more easily locate answers to internal questions. Use of end-to-end encryption also preserves data privacy.

Another initiative assists the Community Services Board, which had lacked a centralized data source or modern data infrastructure to support its work helping people with mental illness, substance abuse disorders or developmental disabilities. Now, a new data lake helps the board keep data private and secure while analyzing it for insights to guide program adjustments.

Fairfax stood out last year for its robust cybersecurity efforts and continues to make this a top priority. It adopted services for continual attack surface testing — to identify weaknesses before hackers find and exploit them — and has begun implementing a managed detection and response service for 24/7 threat monitoring. Fairfax continues progressing toward a zero-trust security approach, an effort it began in 2018. That includes adopting solutions to authenticate remote users and provide secure, least-privilege access to applications.

To streamline resident experiences, the county adopted a one-stop, central platform where constituents can conduct land use related transactions with several agencies. The new Planning and Land Use System allowed the county to discontinue eight separate, aging systems. The platform gives constituents a single spot for handling activities like submitting and tracking applications related to zoning, building, permitting and other land development areas, as well as paying fees or submitting complaints.

Another effort with cross-agency benefits is Fairfax’s ongoing multiyear effort to modernize its enterprise GIS infrastructure. Keeping that information complete and updated is essential if it is to support accurate decision-making, and the project aims to improve data analytics, see foundational GIS data assets frequently refreshed and more.

2nd King County, Wash.

King County, Wash. — home to Seattle and several big names in the tech industry — has set a laser focus on deploying the latest solutions while also protecting constituents’ privacy. The regional government also has committed to doing its part to further online equity and access. The county hired a privacy program manager, and privacy risk assessments are conducted for all new technology projects. This helps to safeguard resident data privacy from inadvertent exposure or compromise without sacrificing customer experience.

When it comes to cybersecurity, the county is taking an aggressive approach to identify and close potential gaps. Since 2018, the county reworked cyber policies, aligned to the NIST cybersecurity framework, and invested more than $10 million in security platforms and tools. Multifactor authentication is in place across all enterprise applications. Current efforts are focused on identifying gaps in the incident response plan with the help of a vendor partner. In the same vein, the county has partnered with the Urban Area Security Initiative, aimed at cybersecurity issues with a nexus to terrorism. Tabletop exercises are held with the Office of Risk Management and Office of Emergency Management to continue to hone roles, communication and response plans.

The county IT team is also embracing emerging tech to streamline and automate cumbersome processes. Artificial intelligence is being used to automate the redaction of personal data within the County Assessor’s office, a process that typically took a staffer around 30 minutes to do. This process is now completed in about 5 seconds and has saved roughly 4,000 staff hours a year. Another use of the emerging technology centers on multilingual chatbots, which can communicate with citizens in several of the region’s commonly spoken languages. This improvement has resulted in a 65 percent decline in calls to county offices, as residents are able to quickly and easily have their questions answered.

Connecting residents to the Internet has also been a significant undertaking for the county’s IT team. Through federal ARPA funding, the county was able to lay fiber-optic cable in low-income areas and underserved former logging towns. County agency partners, meanwhile, use their facilities to expand access to secure free public Wi-Fi at most trailheads, parks and buildings.

3rd Orange County, Fla.

Despite facing two major storms last year, Orange County, Fla., has doubled down on implementing different types of technology, earning it third place within its population category. A prime example of this was when county departments worked together to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, which brought in 12 to 18 inches of rain and widespread flooding. The county’s Information Systems and Services Division (ISS) managed 311 and focused on providing technical support to all departments to help them provide critical services. Meanwhile, Public Works leveraged GIS to collect data on storm-impacted neighborhoods and pinpoint these areas on maps to enable recovery and maintenance.

Aside from storm response, the county also focused on implementing several security measures such as zero-trust policies, multifactor authentication and a clientless VPN. Regarding zero trust, the Orange County Enterprise Security Unit (ISS-ESU) focused on increasing capabilities to identify users and devices on networks, granting least privileged access, which includes giving users only as much access as they need and segregating network access. Other security efforts included auditing devices in real time across the enterprise, ensuring they align with IT and security standards, and taking automated actions against vulnerabilities to increase security and efficiency.

The county is also incorporating AI in several areas. ISS-ESU worked with Orange County Utilities to set up a new AI-powered framework to secure supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) resources while providing access to real-time data for metrics and alerts. ISS-ESU also designed a network AI observation model powered by machine learning to provide additional visibility into the county’s network and connected elected official partner networks. Doing so increased ISS-ESU’s ability to assess threat activity proactively and enhance its overall response efforts.

4th Alameda County, Calif.

The East San Francisco Bay Area county of Alameda ascended another spot in the Digital Counties Survey this year after strides in addressing staffing issues and migrating enterprise systems to the cloud. The county IT department updated its Centralized Technology Policy, leading the assessor’s office, the general services agency and the health services agency to transition their in-house IT staff and technology services to the IT department, allowing the same amount of tech support with half as many people. County IT also worked with human resources to draft a new process for filling critical technology roles and created an automated Technology Acquisition Review program to save staff hours and streamline the technology procurement process.

Proceeding with a “cloud first” approach, Alameda transferred enterprise infrastructure to VMware’s virtualization platform and integrated it with Azure VMware Services (AVS). The move is still in progress, but as of June, the county had migrated over 150 virtualized servers to AVS and more than 100 terabytes of county data to the Nasuni Cloud NAS. The IT department also implemented a cloud-based phone system, a browser-based property tax system and a mobile app for residents to submit documents or request replacement benefit cards.

Not losing focus on cybersecurity in 2022, the county launched a Regional Center for Cybersecurity Excellence project to foster intergovernmental collaboration within the region, identifying training and other initiatives that would qualify for federal funding. Internally, the county started incorporating the human resources, procurement, risk management, legal and technology departments in cybersecurity incident response tabletop exercises. IT also developed a new step-by-step data governance strategy, from initial analysis to long-term data management, that outlines the who, what, when, where and how of data being collected, used and shared.

Interdepartmental collaboration was a theme in the county’s citizen-facing projects as well. In May 2022, IT worked with the registrar’s office to implement a ballot-curing system that automatically detects discrepancies and generates a letter or email to send to the affected voter. Working with county health care, the IT department helped set up the Social Health Information Exchange, an application that connects a patient’s records of physical and mental health, social services, substance abuse treatment and Medi-Cal beneficiaries. To support the county’s efforts to address homelessness, IT used Salesforce tools to match housing units with those in need and set up a database in Microsoft Azure for case workers. For public works, they installed kiosks to handle building permit requests. And during the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic, IT created, including mental health resources, coping strategies and vaccine information, and used GIS to deliver stimulus grants for the East Bay Economic Development Alliance to small businesses.

5th Hennepin County, Minn.

Becoming a “data-informed organization” is central to Hennepin County, Minn.’s work across the board, including the creation of a new Integrated Data and Analytics Department. IT Enterprise Development built a new application in 2022 that allows businesses contracting with the county to file data related to their workforce composition, allowing Hennepin to easily identify women-owned and racially diverse businesses in the vendor selection process. Other IT tools aimed at addressing equity include the county’s Racial Equity Impact Tool to help in the creation of policies and programs viewed through a “disparity reduction lens.”

IT is also playing a role in Hennepin County’s mission to reduce greenhouse gases and be net zero by 2050. The department is now prioritizing energy-efficient equipment in the county’s procurement process, as well as making operational and long-term strategic changes to the county’s data center. Other changes are more indirect, but nonetheless impactful, such as upgrades to the Advanced Transportation Management System, which will ultimately allow officials to manage traffic more effectively, leading to reduced travel time and idling.

Hennepin County had no “significant security incidents” in 2022, due in part to a comprehensive cybersecurity safety strategy that includes technology solutions like LockPath and SailPoint Identity/Now, as well as improved cybersecurity training among staff, which includes two data security training sessions, up from one. In the last year, the IT operations team has also been working on network security projects to lay the foundation for zero-trust networking, improving access management, business agility and automation of repeatable daily tasks.

In citizen services, a new chatbot developed by IT Enterprise Development, Resident and Real Estate Services, and the Office of Digital Experience has improved resident interactions, helping to address 90 percent of resident questions and concerns. Internal business practices have been aided by the adoption of the Microsoft Power Platform, which has helped to reduce time spent on day-to-day tasks.

6th San Diego County, Calif.

For the second consecutive year, California’s second-largest county by population finished sixth in its category. Last year, the survey lauded San Diego for its citizen-centric approach to service, as well as for the commitment it displayed to planning for the future. This year, San Diego has taken its work in both areas even further. What stands out the most, perhaps, is the county establishing a new digital experience team with its office of technology. This team is focused on bringing a user-centered approach to the county’s digital operations, and it’s already making a difference. The team has helped create new standards around readability, usability and search functionalities, and they are now training other staff to meet these standards. The team also has an equity and accessibility focus that is laudable. This is just part of the deepening commitment to user centricity that continues to form IT work in San Diego. Another effort is a new engagement hub aimed at bolstering citizen engagement.

This commitment extends to other county departments too, both in terms of internal and public-facing operations. One example of the latter is how child protective services started using two-way text messaging to engage with those it serves. Meanwhile, San Diego also automated its distribution of child welfare reports and orders to private systems, which eliminates the need to print more than 50,000 total reports. This move — which also reduces labor expenditures — saves the county an estimated $75,000 a year. These are just some examples of the work being done in San Diego. The list goes on, but throughout, the county showed a deep commitment to both user-centric practices and planning for its future.

7th San Bernardino County, Calif.

The nation’s largest county by land area, measuring more than 20,000 square miles, San Bernardino County in Southern California snagged seventh place in the largest population category this year. While a new IT strategic plan is in progress, the county is working toward enterprise software solutions complemented by a mature IT governance model. An ambitious partnership with human resources to update job classifications is bearing fruit for IT, which has made dozens of hires this year — both employees and contractors. In addition, 60 internal staff members got promoted into new roles, boosted by a robust training program.

Recent accomplishments in the constituent communication realm include a new website, reflecting a consistent look and feel across the county’s more than 40 departments. The site features a new universal events calendar, as well as access to a monthly video roundup of county news called News Now. The county is committed to fostering a data-driven organization, with a recent project offering proof: Using ArcGIS tools in partnership with the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Innovation Hub, the Department of Public Works experimented with real-time GPS data from snowplows to better manage operations during snowstorms. In other vehicular innovations necessitated by the county’s vast geography, officials have a customized Field Service Vehicle that comfortably serves staff needs while enabling more efficient field work on first responder radios, and the Assessor-Recorder Clerk has a tech-equipped RV that extends services like vital records and marriage licenses into communities.

7th Westchester County, N.Y.

Improving IT governance has been a major undertaking over the past 12 months in Westchester County, N.Y., which moves up one place in this year’s Digital Counties Survey. Those efforts have included working with county leadership to reorganize the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), including working with Human Resources to refine and align agency priorities. This has meant reclassifying or creating new roles, like cybersecurity analyst, in areas that have become more important in recent years. DoIT also identified common needs among agencies and increased standardization countywide, like enterprise solutions for asset management and secure file sharing, which has led to both cost savings and efficiencies.

To support the county’s health and safety priority, particularly reduction of discrimination and hate crimes, DoIT worked with other local and regional agencies to develop a portal for the reporting of hate crimes and bias incidents in the area. The department’s GIS team has worked on initiatives like the development of an online Westchester County broadband map for residents and businesses, who can, if needed, submit an availability challenge to the Federal Communications Commission’s map and improve access for the greater community. In cybersecurity, DoIT instituted a new policy to conduct regular tabletop security training exercises and, as part of a shared services program, offers cities in the region free use of cybersecurity software like endpoint protection. More than two dozen jurisdictions participate.

8th Hillsborough County, Fla.

On the Gulf Coast of Florida, Hillsborough County puts a priority on transportation — for both vehicles and pedestrians — and that’s a huge job for the government’s IT professionals. They have recently improved the county’s traffic management technology, making traffic flows more efficient and reducing emergency response times, and upgrading the enterprise asset management system for public works and other departments involved in transit infrastructure. That work happened as the county set up its Next-Generation 911 program and replaced a legacy station alert network for fire rescue. Increased station bandwidth at 46 sites has improved data delivery, while a new remote disaster recovery site for county IT promises to help Hillsborough better withstand and recover from hurricanes and other dangers.

The county isn’t ignoring relatively mundane day-to-day tech needs, either. Hillsborough this year deployed what officials called an enterprise-wide commerce payment system and wants to implement mobile payments as well.

9th Wake County, N.C.

Wake County, N.C., is improving digital government by prioritizing making processes more efficient and sustainable, with Jonathan Feldman leading the charge as county CIO. One major component of this work is the county’s 2022 implementation of a single software platform for emergency medical services, streamlining 12 request processes for constituents. Another example is the 2022 procurement of a data governance solution for improved data sources and management for the county, which will be implemented in 2023. The county has also formed a Data Governance Working Group and launched a data training program to help county staff make data-informed decisions.

Making processes more seamless is a guiding principle for Wake County in how it uses technology and maximizes funding. The county has worked to consolidate platforms with new Microsoft tools, a project that was completed in summer 2022. This helped the county save money — approximately $1 million in licensing fees — while simplifying processes for staff and allowing for improved mobile capabilities for staff operations.

10th Cook County, Ill.

Cook County boasts that it lies within the heart of the nation’s third-largest metropolitan area and is home to more than half of the population and economic activity in the region. The Cook County government plays a major role in the growth and well-being of those 5.2 million residents. Under the leadership of the president of the board of commissioners, the Bureau of Technology (BOT) is tasked in three primary areas, including application modernization, infrastructure modernization and resident engagement, all with a focus on leveraging commercial off-the-shelf technologies.

BOT is moving the county toward reconciliation with the first area by migrating legacy applications to new platforms while merging redundant applications. In modernizing its infrastructure, BOT seeks a mix of on- and off-premises infrastructure, following a hybrid cloud model. BOT maintains disaster recovery for all critical applications and data for continuity of operations. BOT also maintains the county’s main open data portal on the Socrata platform and the Esri main GIS portal, providing residents with transparency and accountability. These portals include interactive budget pages, the medical examiner’s dashboards and the social vulnerability index.

10th Miami-Dade County, Fla.

Customer service stands as a vital mission for county IT departments, and Miami-Dade provides a strong and ongoing example of that. For instance, the county revised the back end of its website so that it meets the most prominent accessibility standards. That has widened the site’s audience and made it easier for people with disabilities to access information, thanks to screen reader and content management tools, among other features.

Miami-Dade’s Open Data Hub also offers access to hundreds of apps, data sets, maps and other sources of information in various formats, with average daily views exceeding 180,000. Frequent users include local businesses, notably title companies and real estate agents. The hub was created in-house to save on contractor fees, and now relieves county staff of the burden and time of addressing many public records requests. The county also has expanded self-service options. Users can find county information and do county business via mobile, web, phone, social and SMS channels, saving constituents from having to deal with a live agent or visiting a government office.

Click here to see our full coverage of the 2023 Digital Counties Survey.