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Digital Counties 2021: 250,000 to 499,999 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 Marin County, Calif.

First-place Marin County, Calif., boasts an impressive list of IT accomplishments, with an Information Services and Technology (IST) agency underpinned by sound policies and governance. As the pandemic struck, technical staff pitched in to help wherever it was needed across the enterprise, connecting them to the broader mission of the organization. This sense of connection, boosted by many creative efforts at virtual team building, surely contributes to enviable engagement numbers on the part of IST employees: The county reports that 90 percent of employees feel either engaged or very engaged.

IT has made significant progress in re-engineering how IT investments are made in the county, including establishing a new governance team, a project management office and a new program for IT architecture. All technology needs go through the governance team, responsible for ranking requests based on county priorities and providing comprehensive cost estimates. Needs are further vetted by an investment board, finally landing at the County Administrator’s Office for approval.

Marin County took the lead in setting up the Marin Information Security Collaboration (MISC). An outgrowth of a report from the Marin County Grand Jury on cybersecurity, MISC is composed of all cities and towns in the county, and meets regularly to share and advance best practices relative to their collective security. The county also demonstrates maturity as it relates to data practices. The multi-agency MCData group aims to advance the county’s culture of data-driven government. All county departments have established measurable goals and objectives, and an ever-growing number are demonstrating their progress via the county’s Open Performance Portal.

2nd Chesterfield County, Va.

A consistently high performer in the Digital Counties Survey, Chesterfield County, Va., once again ranks near the top of its population category. A strong and swift pandemic response in 2020 meant that IT was not only able to support employees’ move to remote work, but also maintain momentum with county projects already underway. One of Chesterfield’s top priorities is to ensure that county government is easy to access so citizens can get what they need. In the past year that has meant the rollout of a popular electronic permit and plan submission process; modernization of an outdated appraisal system; kiosks for tax payment and other financial collections; and a new, custom-built Vaccine Administration and Reporting System allowing residents to register online for their COVID-19 vaccine, submit consent forms and schedule appointments.

In response to a 33 percent uptick in traffic to county webpages (up from just 3 percent in previous years), the county developed a chatbot to help improve navigation and ease access to government sites, plus to help control rapidly changing info about COVID-19. Called ChesterBot, the tool was initially created for COVID-19, but IT quickly realized its potential to include other topics. ChesterBot is optimized for accessibility and often used to relay information about services like marriage licenses, parks hours and public safety.

Other strong areas this year include establishing the first formal CISO post and a cybersecurity office separate from IT. A new CAD 911 system was anticipated to go live this spring, with full redundancy for all components of the county’s disaster recovery site. Chesterfield County has also developed a strong program for attracting and retaining IT talent that focuses on establishing career paths. An Enterprise IT Career Development Program launched in May 2020 redefined pay grades with new roles to match, creating room for movement within the department and clearly defined metrics for advancement. More than 90 percent of the IT team was fully remote during the pandemic, and they are looking toward a hybrid model next, allowing staff to choose what works best for them.

3rd Prince William County, Va.

Prince William County, Va., solidified its third-place spot in this year’s survey through several initiatives aimed at making county IT more resilient and future-ready. The existing strategic plan and ongoing modernization work helped to guide the regional government through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, while a more proactive approach to IT enabled operations rather than just playing a supporting role. This was perhaps most evident in efforts to help the county school system transition to distance learning by deploying more than 4,000 Wi-Fi hot spots to families with school-aged children.

Recently, the county embarked on a massive $24.9 million IT modernization effort to expand its capabilities, service delivery and overall performance. The initiative included addressing legacy technology pain points and the transition to more functional systems. This effort also included a look at the IT workforce. With key IT personnel retiring and another 30 percent of staff eligible for retirement, the team developed a comprehensive succession plan as well as training existing staff across gap areas. Modernization efforts go beyond replacing legacy systems, and Prince William County puts an emphasis on tracking and developing emerging technologies through the PWC Lab, which looks at connected infrastructure and other new tech.

Where cybersecurity is concerned, the IT team has taken the wheel to implement two key security platforms — Varonis and Cisco's Secure Network Analytics — to expand monitoring and response capabilities. A cybersecurity focus is “built in” to every county IT project. Additionally, the county has been an active participant in multi-jurisdictional efforts to maintain interoperable emergency communications infrastructure, share threat information, leverage resources and expertise, and pursue grants for the region.

4th Placer County, Calif. 

Placer County, Calif., accomplished much in the way of consolidation and efficiency in the last year, making the best of the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to reimagine IT. It consolidated three data centers into one while establishing a hybrid backup structure that uses high-performing on-premise servers for active backup and cheaper cloud storage for archival, moving off tape backups in the process. It centralized the computer refresh budget — which used to be managed by each department individually — leading to more consistent hardware replacement and $50,000 in savings a year. Enterprise licenses allowed departments to quickly move forms and services online as well as use GIS for immediate needs, such as setting up a public health dashboard to monitor the virus. In three weeks, IT set up an automated process where restaurants could apply for relief and permit fee reimbursement, which has disbursed more than $650,000 to about 600 restaurants.

One advantage the county has in its work to consolidate is its collaborative approach. It has a dedicated Business Relationship Management Office tasked with keeping in close touch with other departments, helping to truly align IT with the needs of the agencies it serves. It has set up an interdepartmental website group to standardize design, as well as a security working committee that has given IT better insight into the cyber posture of the various nooks and crannies of the county government. The group is inventorying internal and external threats and has helped align Placer County’s password policy with the NIST standard. Looking forward, the county is working on an enterprisewide program to establish a data warehouse, which will be used to do modeling work.

5th Cumberland County, N.C.

Cumberland County, N.C., ranked fifth this year due to its emphasis on improving government communications, both internally and externally. One major step in this area was the February 2021 launch of Cumberland County North Carolina TV. The 24-hour channel focuses on county government, featuring public meetings and other updates. The county also uses social media platforms for information sharing with constituents. The platforms and a website form have helped the county receive public comments and questions. The IT Geospatial Services division created the Coronavirus Response Hub in 2020 for distributing information to the public related to COVID-19, including the locations of testing sites and medical facilities and charts with case counts. IT will work with the Public Information Office in fiscal year 2022 to continue developing communication plans.

The county has also made strides to advance cybersecurity. In January 2021, the county created a chief information security officer position to focus on a strategic security plan. Additionally, the county started using a disaster-recovery-as-a-service solution, in which servers are replicated to a cloud solution, intended to protect data from cyber attacks as well as natural disasters. The county also replaced its data center infrastructure with a stretched clustered system in 2020 to ensure data is secure in the case of power outages and other major events.

Cumberland will continue use of its mature data governance strategy, using a business intelligence (BI) tool to serve as a data warehouse that can identify issues; the county has used it for at least three years. The county has requested an innovation coordinator position in its fiscal year 2022 budget to advance BI initiatives and technology research.

6th Dutchess County, N.Y. 

Shared services took center stage in Dutchess County’s technology efforts in the last year. The New York county’s Office of Central and Information Services (OCIS) partnered with two municipalities to rebuild their websites in a shared services model. The new sites, for the county Board of Elections and the village of Wappingers Falls, were designed by OCIS developers and are hosted by OCIS on the Bluehost cloud-based platform. Both have seen increased engagement since launch. Dutchess County also looked to shared services in an effort to improve public safety, entering into an agreement with the town of Hyde Park to host its police department on the county’s public safety platform. Built with Tyler Technologies’ New World Public Safety solution, the platform allows the Hyde Park police to operate with faster response times and improved, real-time data sharing among agencies.

Cybersecurity also saw a number of improvements in Dutchess County in the last year. In the first quarter of 2020, the county hosted the first cybersecurity summit for the Hudson Valley region. Sponsored by Marist College, the summit was attended by almost 300 people from 18 counties across New York and New Jersey. The county also underwent an external cybersecurity risk assessment by the Cyber Support Element of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. The resulting report provided the county with an outline of its overall cybersecurity strengths and weaknesses.

To prepare itself for the November 2020 presidential election, Dutchess County decided to participate in the New York State Board of Election Cybersecurity Tabletop Exercise. As a result, the county election security team was trained to reduce risk, automatically detect and respond to threats, and provide proof of regulatory compliance.

7th Leon County, Fla. 

Leon County, Fla., maintained its seventh place showing in this year’s survey after officials there built upon efforts to use technology for citizen engagement amid an absence of in-person public meetings. To keep citizens involved in local policy discussions, county leaders took to Twitter to stay in touch with community members and broadcasted commission meetings on cable television, Facebook, YouTube and live on its website. The county’s IT team also established an online form to submit comments for commissioners, as well as a system allowing citizens to speak directly to county leaders during virtual meetings. The county says the system has worked well thus far, and it’s likely to become a permanent offering in the years to come.

Officials also made use of tech to address public health inequities after municipal leaders noticed Black residents were receiving vaccines at a much lower rate per capita compared to other groups in Leon County. Leon's IT team brought community faith leaders and others together for a virtual town hall meeting to educate congregations about COVID-19 vaccines as part of an ongoing effort to level immunization rates and tackle vaccine disparities.

In the realm of cybersecurity, Leon County officials increased funding for IT security, including a “multilayered” security strategy to protect vital infrastructure against an increase in cyber attacks directed against the public sector during COVID-19. The county also plans to appoint a new CISO to help improve IT security protocol moving forward.

8th Durham County, N.C. 

Durham County, N.C., experienced a setback right when the pandemic hit in March 2020. A malware attack affected business across the entire county and exposed a number of limitations: The county lacked multifactor authentication and many departments had never tested their business continuity plans. Not only were these weaknesses corrected last year, but the county stood up a security operation center for daily investigations of unusual activities. Moreover, county IT was able to gain two new full-time employees for cybersecurity after convincing other departments to close vacant positions that were not going to be filled anytime soon. Durham County seemed to take to heart the principle of using a disaster as an opportunity to evolve.

The county didn’t forget citizens either while dealing with the effects of COVID-19 and the cyber attack. Phone lines for citizen questions were down, so county IT deployed two communications solutions at once: a system based on Cisco Jabber that would allow staff to answer calls on their computers and a live chat feature on the county website. The latter has been especially popular, leading to a 99 percent customer satisfaction rating. Further, the county has implemented a governance program that identifies where IT solutions are needed in each department and ensures that every county project has a direct positive impact on citizens.

9th Ottawa County, Mich. 

For Ottawa County, Mich., addressing customer service was a big initiative already in the works before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which made the effort all the more important. The IT department stood up IT self-service capabilities to give customers options for submitting incidents and requests for IT service. This became especially valuable as employees transitioned to working from home, as users can submit queries of issues to the IT service desk and see the status of any tickets submitted. The county also created the My Assigned IT Devices list, which shows assets that have been assigned to workers and information on each asset. Another self-service capability was a password solution implemented during the pandemic to assist workers with the ability to reset a password or unlock their own accounts at any time of the day from any device.

During the pandemic, Ottawa County measured its customer service with feedback from citizens via a multitude of methods, including software from Zencity that collects resident-generated data points from external and internal sources like social media and local news. The county has also added a virtual chief security officer to assist its existing CSO in shoring up county cybersecurity.

10th Berks County, Pa. 

Rounding out the top 10 in its category for the second year in a row, Berks County, Pa., executed parts of its continuity of operations plan to conduct business remotely in the wake of COVID-19, and many innovations stemming from that will outlast the pandemic. As county officials hosted public meetings and press conferences to share health, business and citizen information, the IT department created a Do Your Part website with information about what local businesses, institutions and residents could do to help fight COVID-19, as well as resources for grant and loan opportunities, regular newsletters, and, eventually, vaccine and testing information. The county also started broadcasting public meetings online, which allowed them to increase and track viewership and participation; published an online dashboard detailing what the county is doing with CARES Act funding; and started to accommodate permanent telework for an employee, opening the door to recruiting or keeping other employees who live outside the county.

Many of the county’s recent IT projects have been investments in internal operations meant to improve services on the back end as well as for citizens. The county is working on a major website overhaul this year with consistent branding and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, as well as an open data portal that uses Esri technology to share data related to land records, taxes, GIS data sets, planning and emergency services. The county also implemented a new cloud-based HR system from Oracle that has metrics to track employee performance, and IT implemented next-generation anti-virus software across all workstations and servers. In addition to the software, county officials collaborated with the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania on a cooperative agreement for cybersecurity services, affording a higher level of service than Berks County could have had on its own. The county has also begun implementing a cloud strategy that will gradually reduce the work and expense of maintaining physical data centers.

Click here to see all Digital Counties 2021 categories.