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Digital Counties 2021: 1 Million or More Population Category

In the 19th annual Digital Counties Survey, leading jurisdictions have moved on from immediate emergency response and are now looking at lessons learned, as well as at what work should turn permanent.

1st King County, Wash.

A perennial Digital Counties contender and a first-place winner in 2017, King County, Wash., achieved numerous milestones during the height of the pandemic, including, during March 2020, the establishment of a remote and flexible work plan that can be applied during unforeseen disasters and events. As part of this commitment to the future of work, the county began utilizing a slew of HR tools so that workers can access anything they need for their well-being and professional development. The county also started collecting data on organizational culture and whole person care to ensure a bright future in the new era of government workplaces.

Early in 2020, county IT rolled out a software-defined network for the Child and Family Justice Center, a solution that has led to improved business practices across multiple agencies. In another big step last year, the county’s Metro Transit Department started benefitting from a cloud-hosted data warehouse, which has enabled dashboards with timely data on vehicle maintenance, ridership and more. In the fall, King County also kicked off the replacement of its analog public safety emergency radio network, a massive regional project that will positively impact the communications of dozens of agencies.

Tech-related advancements didn’t end there. Since last year, county IT has been leading the adoption of enterprise data governance, which will bring about better data quality and enhanced data sharing for broad multidepartment goals. 2020 also saw the launch of an e-procurement platform that streamlines a multitude of processes and the implementation of a data tool that will allow county agencies to have a full picture of the relative success of different IT solutions.

2nd Los Angeles County, Calif.

The most populous county in the U.S. was among the most ambitious in its organizational changes and modernization efforts over the past year, with a major focus on cybersecurity. Central IT leadership reorganized 1,100 employees and formed a new branch focused on security operations for all the county’s departments, implementing identity protection and endpoint security tools for users across the network. County CISO Ralph Johnson also assembled a team to update security policies, awareness training and language for third-party contracts going forward. As the IT department partnered with vendors to rent out laptops for employees working remotely — the number of which jumped from 10,000 to 40,000 — it used Zscaler software to establish secure cloud and application access for them, including an identity and access management (IAM) solution to manage and secure employee accounts. The county also partnered with Microsoft to roll out Teams, which is now used by 60 percent of employees.

Modernization projects were both internal and citizen-facing, as the board of supervisors passed motions to reach underserved populations with broadband or public Wi-Fi hot spots, get devices to students and streamline the permitting process for such projects. IT leadership is in the process of creating a regional broadband utility, along with a digital divide strategic plan involving data visualizations to track specific goals and progress. The board also ordered a comprehensive inventory of the county’s legacy systems, then a cost estimate and plans to gradually replace them. In the interest of data transparency, the county collected input from private, public and nonprofit stakeholders for a new data strategic plan, with a focus on making sure data is open, accessible and understandable to the public.

Several other internal maintenance projects had citizen-facing components: In switching from an on-premises platform for electronic forms to the cloud-based Nintex, the department will improve a process for citizens while saving time and money; the department implemented robotic process automation (RPA) software to input data from thousands of COVID-related health interviews; the county clerk set up dashboards to publicize wait times for voters on Election Day; the county created mobile services and a geomapping system to help address homelessness; it set up a registration and solicitation portal for vendors that expedited the procurement of emergency supplies; and in the interest of equity and improving its massive staff, the county set up programs to lead more women into local tech careers.

3rd Hennepin County, Minn.

Taking a third-place spot in its category of 1 million residents or more in this year’s survey, Hennepin County, Minn., has been a consistently solid performer. This year, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic – both internally and externally – was a key focus for IT staff as they rushed to navigate the unprecedented crisis and move most county staff online. Many new services were taken online as a result of the changes to daily life and government operations. This move to become more digital is perhaps most evident in its efforts to go paperless by implementing new policies around electronic signatures and new notary public capabilities. The shift in policy saw an explosion of use, jumping from around 7,500 e-signatures in 2019 to more than 19,000 in 2020.

But the shift online has not come without its own challenges; cybersecurity has required special attention – especially at the leadership level. In addition to becoming a regular action item during leadership meetings, IT staff have streamlined their response capabilities with new tools like a spam box management tool, simulated phishing campaigns and email spoofing protections. Extra attention was also paid to cybersecurity during the 2020 election, where IT partnered with the election team to safeguard the election process. The result of all of these efforts was no significant cybersecurity incidents in 2020.

Keeping an eye on the horizon is also a key strategy for county IT staff and decision-makers. In addition to creating new, on-the-job learning pathways to higher-skill jobs for entry-level employees, the Enterprise Architecture team watches trend waves to identify “emerging, bleeding edge, up and coming, and here and now” technologies to prepare future-proofing road maps. This year, their focus is on automation and IT modernization.

In 2020, the county started a disparity reduction business line, which was tasked with identifying and closing gaps in education, employment, income, housing, transportation, justice and health. IT has been working to help in the education domain by providing 2,700 Chromebooks for youth distance learning and more than 5,850 laptops for adult job seekers.

4th Orange County, Fla.

In Orange County, Fla., the Information Systems and Services Division (ISS) takes a methodical approach to managing the government’s day-to-day operations, as well as driving a culture of innovation to continue growing. ISS was integral to the county’s response to COVID-19, standing up a coronavirus information web page that included information on late utility payments, mortgage and rent suspensions and meals for children out of school. The department also created a COVID-19 testing appointment system based on a system already in use at their Animal Services facility, and worked closely with Health and Social Services throughout the pandemic in efforts such as tracking residents through the vaccination process and tracking progress over time. ISS notably set up a rental assistance application queue to help streamline the process for county agencies dealing with rental assistance. The system took in 34,000 requests in just seven days. Plus, in 2020 ISS spent almost $8 million to push the county government to a remote, flexible workforce, including replacing desktop computers with laptops and investing in licenses for software like Adobe Acrobat Pro so staff and customers could continue to do business not only remotely, but also more efficiently.

IT planning is strongly linked with greater county strategy, and development of the department’s strategic plan is done in parallel with Orange County’s annual budget process. ISS is divided into teams to directly support various county agencies, and an ISS team leader stays in close communication with their agency counterpart to ensure technology needs are being met. Messaging and design are consistent across county websites and other communication channels, in keeping with a policy of “say it the same way everywhere,” which ISS finds helps build trust with the community.

5th Fairfax County, Va.

Fairfax County, Va.’s IT roadmap lays out the department’s intention to be more proactive, effective, innovative and strategic, and its consistent inclusion among the nation’s highest ranked digital counties in the large population category suggests that it’s making great strides. Published in June 2020, the plan articulates four priorities: digital transformation, data, security and cloud technologies, which factor into much of the department’s work over the past year.

As it pivoted its considerable workforce to remote work in 2020, IT also completed a countywide deployment of Microsoft Teams to maximize employee productivity. The migration also required comprehensive policies and procedures to govern the use of the collaboration platform to ensure compliance with the public records management framework set by the commonwealth of Virginia. Several projects speak to the county’s cloud commitment, like a custom vaccine registration system, developed when the county’s population proved too large to take advantage of a statewide tool. Fairfax County officials report that county development teams worked with various cloud platforms to get the solution up and running in just 48 hours. Taking advantage of cloud technologies also enabled the county to reduce its data center footprint to 10 percent of its original size.

Progress on the data front can be found in the work of a couple of multi-stakeholder groups — the Data Analytics Governance Council and the Data Analytics Advisory Group — charged with setting up guidelines that encourage the effective use of data in strategic planning and decision making. One practical example of this work is a map that plots nearby food pantries, utilizing GIS data to connect COVID-19-impacted families to nearby resources.

6th Montgomery County, Md.

Maryland’s most populous county has made big strides on its core infrastructure and architecture in the past year. Upgrades to the fiber network — including pulling off a 90-day project to connect the public school system in 11 days, as well as a planned expansion to Ashburn, Va. — have paired with a new standardized licensing model and increased investment in cloud to allow for a more agile organization where software as a service comes first. The upgrades have also allowed for a host of smaller improvements, including enterprisewide multifactor authentication for certain systems, better endpoint visibility and automated incident detection and response.

Aside from the public schools’ fiber hookup, county IT turned around a number of urgent projects quickly during the pandemic, such as a cloud-based, end-to-end solution for COVID-19 testing, two high-volume chatbots, housing and rental assistance, donations and food security. The county also moved from annual employee security training to monthly and is in the process of developing training on how employees should handle private data, which it expects to roll out in 2021.

7th Oakland County, Mich.

The Oakland County, Mich., IT department transitioned some 1,300 workers to a remote work setting in the last year, largely thanks to cloud-enabled technology. Investments made in cloud computing, cybersecurity, software as a service (SaaS) and overall network infrastructure allowed for the rapid and secure deployment of remote work to support the county and its residents.

Chatbots were introduced on websites to help reduce call volume. However, to handle increased call volumes to the Oakland County Vaccine Hub, the county launched an Amazon Web Services call center. Other forms of community engagement included Telephone Town Halls, a Community Needs Survey, social media and crowdsourcing. Oakland County also created a special COVID-19 website with a dashboard showing infection rates and other data. And to ensure more transparency among public safety agencies, the county has launched the Transparency Dashboard to provide timely and relevant law enforcement data.

Cybersecurity has been upgraded through the use of Okta to manage identities across the county. The transformation required the county to sync its Identity Access Management Program and its Workday HR Implementation. Some 5,000 active employees and contractors, along with more than 8,000 retirees, use the new identity system.

8th Alameda County, Calif.

The Bay Area county and tech stalwart ranked eighth in this year’s survey through strong planning, matching investments and goals, and driving digital transformation through a challenging year. Alameda County’s Information Technology Department 2021 Strategic Plan is built on Vision 2026, the county’s strategic plan completed in 2018. The latter’s guidance on remote work and virtual service delivery enabled Alameda’s pivot to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alameda aligns IT investments to its strategic goals; its IT Department (ITD) budgeting is guided by multiyear road maps developed by IT leaders and department officials with ITD projects incorporated into the internal service fund budget.

ITD’s use of a hardened data center, remote access via Microsoft Always On VPN and a disaster recovery plan that includes a remote backup data center helps Alameda be resilient to the pandemic, wildfires and other events. Ongoing employee and contractor training facilitated development of the county’s COVID-19 dashboard, as well as the management of 1.2 terabytes of health-care data via Microsoft Azure. County Human Resource Services and ITD ran fully virtual exams last year via Microsoft Teams and Zoom, which let Alameda fill vacant IT roles during the pandemic. Alameda reached a wider population with these tools, and updating its exam process provided better candidate interaction using fewer resources.

In November, supervisors approved a countywide cybersecurity policy, delivering enterprise-level guidance. In support, ITD’s security team developed a county cybersecurity road map based on risks identified by stakeholders. The county improved its security posture with hard drive encryption and endpoint detection, as well as boosting incident response and end-user training. Alameda’s AlcoTech forum convenes tech leaders from all county departments and agencies on cybersecurity. Its Cyber-Smart program recognizes employees who identify potential security threats.

9th Cook County, Ill.

Cook County has been leading an effort to expand high-speed Internet service into its southern suburbs, which have been described as a “fiber desert.” The county received a $1.8 million grant from the state as part of the Connect Illinois expansion initiative, which complements the Housing Authority of Cook County’s work to provide free broadband access to homes with school-age children. Also, Cook County launched a program to provide refurbished computers, digital literacy programing and workforce development to low-income households.

As part of Cook County’s plan for government to be more open and transparent, performance dashboards are available for each department, tracking three to five key indicators. The dashboards are updated quarterly. In another transparency improvement, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests can now be submitted via an online portal. The system allows submitters to track their request online. The new system centralizes the process and reduces the amount of time employees spend conducting records searches. The COVID-19 vaccine data repository gave officials key data sets to understand the distribution of vaccines, including information about vulnerable communities, in order to strategize vaccine distribution. And in 2020, Cook County launched an online census dashboard to create an easy-to-understand view of how the county spent funds related to census gathering.

The Cook County Information Security Working Group helped shore up the county’s cybersecurity posture over the past year, creating policies in nine areas, such as multifactor authentication, which has allowed thousands of employees to safely work from home during the pandemic.

9th Miami-Dade County, Fla.

Miami-Dade County places ninth in this year’s survey for its ongoing commitment to improving cybersecurity and communication with its citizens. Despite the challenges that the pandemic brought over the past year, Miami-Dade equipped its team with the necessary tools to enable a seamless transition to remote work. To improve communication with its citizens, the county also added chatbot capabilities to allow 311 to address the uptick of COVID-19 testing inquiries, vaccination appointment requests and other questions at a faster pace. As the pandemic continued, the county utilized GIS data to identify COVID-19 hot spots and distribute personal protective equipment to neighborhoods accordingly.

Miami-Dade has also done their fair share of work to fortify system security. In many ways the county has been ahead of the curve, including the area of election security, as seen in the last year. Additionally, Miami-Dade’s recent decision to tap IT veteran Margaret Brisbane as the county’s permanent CIO, after serving as the interim director, signals a future-forward stance on IT infrastructure and modernization.

10th San Bernardino County, Calif.

San Bernardino drew attention in last year’s Digital Counties Survey for its focus on cybersecurity, and the county now touts its continued threat intelligence efforts. Investment in a joint terrorism task force during 2019 paid off recently, with this collaboration enabling federal partners on the East Coast to warn county officials about a threat to the health-care industry in time to prepare.

The county has also worked to improve data center resilience and upgraded the facility so it can switch to internal power more rapidly and rely on backup power for longer periods of time. This is intended to allow for critical systems to quickly come back online should a severe event take down the usual system.

San Bernardino also sought to improve how it ensures departments are keeping up with data protection obligations. Twelve of the county’s agencies are subject to HIPAA requirements and each had been securing its own auditor to conduct compliance checks. San Bernardino recently abandoned this fragmented approach for a unified countywide one in which it contracted a single vendor to handle HIPAA security assessments and risk analysis for all departments. This should ensure all departments are evaluated againsst the same HIPAA rules and make it easier to compare agency performance across the enterprise.

The county has also for the first time prepared the volunteers who conduct its Point-in-Time Count survey with homeless residents to do so using mobile devices rather than paper surveys. The digital medium allowed dispatchers to see respondents’ locations and answers in real time, allowing them to better coordinate specialists to arrive and offer relevant services.

Click here to see the full list of this year's Digital Counties winners.