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Digital Counties 2021: 500,000 to 999,999 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 Prince George's County, Md. 

Taking first place in its population category this year, Prince George’s County continues to excel at improving the business of government with the help of technology. The county turned to tech to respond to COVID-19 in the last year, forming the Prince George’s Forward Task Force to focus on pandemic recovery with recommendations based on data and innovation. The task force puts out regular reports, all of which are publicly available on its website. Prince George’s County also launched an online portal for citizens to obtain county-level COVID-19 information such as closures and reopenings, vaccination data, FAQs and more. And the county’s GIS and interactive maps were expanded to include COVID-related data.

Prince George’s County also called on tech to help it navigate the 2020 presidential elections, which saw record voter turnout. The county Office of Information Technology (OIT) provided additional tech and support, including establishing elections management apps and providing laptops and virtual monitoring. OIT also supported streaming for a number of virtual election-related events.

Cybersecurity was also top of mind for Prince George’s County in the last year, with county government establishing a new executive-level chief security officer position and a new senior cybersecurity analyst position. The county also implemented a virtual IT security operations center (SOC) that provides 24/7 support of all government IT functions. The virtual SOC monitors the county IT environment for threats, analyzing what it finds and pushing security updates. It was a cost-effective alternative to hiring five IT security analysts. The county also increased its cyber insurance from $2 million to $20 million. And it implemented a new enterprise cyber risk management tool, used by 27 municipalities within its borders to help mitigate their cybersecurity risks.

2nd DeKalb County, Ga.

Ranking second in its population category, DeKalb County, Ga., moved up two spots since last year’s survey after implementing a cloud-first strategy to enable remote work and the virtualization of government services during COVID-19. Currently, the county has over 6,000 employees and a budget of $1.3 billion spread across several general, enterprise and specially obligated funds. However, challenges related to funding, staff retirements and hiring new technically skilled employees at government wages pushed the county’s IT department to create a new strategic plan to address these issues.

During this process, the county’s Department of Innovation and Technology identified 10 IT priorities to work on in the next 12 to 18 months: cloud computing, cybersecurity, citizen engagement, networks, disaster recovery of operations, data governance, infrastructure modernization, introducing emerging technologies, business process automation and mobile applications and mobile device management.

In terms of cybersecurity, the county has implemented a cloud-based VPN solution, GlobalProtect by Palo Alto Networks, on all employee devices that connect to the county's domain. Through this software, all unauthorized access attempts will be reported to the county’s security team. Mobile device and IoT device security also remain at the top of the county's list, along with implementing new analytics techniques, AI-based cybersecurity tools and advanced threat detection systems.
Other efforts made by the county include creating SaaS cybersecurity guidelines to assist with procurement and creating an enterprise workforce tool set to promote collaboration and communication between county departments and agencies.

3rd Snohomish County, Wash.

For the second year in a row, Snohomish County, Wash., was ranked third in its population category. The county’s strategic IT plan aims to move it forward in the areas of cybersecurity, customer service and modernization. The updated three-year strategic plan, published in February 2021, was developed in alignment with the county’s continuous improvement program, commonly referred to as STEP (Service, Technology, Excellence Program), first developed by the county’s Executive Office in 2016.

The county is addressing cybersecurity, a core priority in the plan, in several ways. In 2020, the county purchased Microsoft’s Identity and Threat Protection bundle. The county IT and Elections departments partnered with state and federal agencies to ensure security of election infrastructure prior to the November 2020 elections. The county IT department has taken a leadership role in security education and training — resulting in a 92 percent decline in clicks on phishing email tests over a three-year span — and cybersecurity education will remain a priority.

IT leadership will continue to focus on data governance in 2021 with efforts such as investing in the partnership between the county and the city of Everett to improve service delivery and open data efforts.

Regional partnerships are a major component of county technical workforce development. For example, the IT department’s collaboration with local universities — initiated in 2019 but delayed in 2020 due to COVID-19 — will resume to connect students in technical fields with public-sector job opportunities.

4th San Joaquin County, Calif.

San Joaquin County climbed the ranks this year by building upon a county IT plan focusing on citizen engagement, improvements in inter-departmental collaboration, cybersecurity and the use of emerging technologies, among other priorities. The county’s Digital Service and Innovation Strategy team has additionally called for a new County IT Governance Committee to bring together all local department leaders to discuss priorities for improvements, which will allow IT staff to guide data-driven policy decisions moving forward.

One of the county’s main internal challenges at the beginning of the crisis was providing tech support and tools for the county’s teleworkers, which moved IT staff to re-engineer its network for a “seamless” work-from-home transition. San Joaquin officials said the county’s IT team enabled its departments to resume day-to-day operations and provide services with minimal interruptions during the pandemic.

County tech officials and staff played an integral role in coronavirus response efforts by disseminating COVID-19 informational resources to all county residents and government workers. As part of those response efforts, the team deployed a Vaccine Interest Portal for county residents to sign up for vaccinations.

In terms of data-driven governance, county leaders made the most out of data to help monitor COVID-19 trends, allowing officials to provide targeted public health services to combat the spread of the virus. Additionally, the county implemented a backup solution to stave off ransomware using Azure Cloud. As part of this system, officials say, IT staff can now conduct routine checks on backups to ensure files are clear of malicious malware and ransomware.

5th San Mateo County, Calif.

San Mateo County’s Information Services Department (ISD) led the Digital Equity Portal project, which uses Census and GIS mapping data to bring free broadband Internet service to needy communities. It’s estimated that some 26,300 households in San Mateo County lack access to a reliable Internet connection. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the county to expand public Wi-Fi access with more than 230 public access points. In a related effort, the county’s GIS team developed a Digital Inclusion Planning tool, which brought together a number of data sets and used advanced analytics to identify areas of concern.

The pandemic also quickly prompted the county to shift to a work-from-anywhere posture. San Mateo County acquired more than 1,200 laptops, 900 mobile phones and 50 tablets. ISD began using Bomgar (now BeyondTrust) to provide better desktop support to staff working remotely.

In July 2020, San Mateo County launched the Recovery Initiative, a plan to prioritize recovery strategies with an implementation plan in nine focus areas. Data dashboards use real-time recovery metrics to track the initiative. And in further evidence of a data-focused operation, the Social Progress Index (SPI) Citizen Connect app, a joint project by ISD and the County Manager’s Office, measures quality of life in each Census tract across 35 indicators. The data serves as a reference as the county moves forward with ensuring resources are being distributed in an equitable fashion.

6th Sonoma County, Calif.

Throughout the last year, Sonoma County found itself having to redirect about 20 percent of its IT staff to emergency response due to the prevalence of wildfires and other emergencies, requiring some reshuffling on the IT side to ensure critical needs were met and focus areas were well defined. For the Information Systems Department, keeping pace with rapidly changing emergency response and workplace needs during wildfires, power disruptions and the pandemic has been and will remain the biggest challenge during the next 12 to 18 months.

As a result, a key priority is to develop infrastructure that enhances community resilience by investing in roads, buildings and property, as well as communications, technology and flood protection. On the emerging tech front, Sonoma County is leveraging federal grants to augment its early fire detection capabilities using artificial intelligence. By adding cameras to existing towers used for radio communication, responders added surveillance and early alerting capacity that uses optical detection, real-time data streams as well as automated alerts to speed response to critical incidents.

One example of the county’s efforts to better serve vulnerable residents is its ACCESS Sonoma initiative, launched in 2020. The multi-agency effort aims to better connect people to available services, and a key back-end component of the work is clear data governance and data sharing policies between the departments that are involved. This wraparound approach is yielding benefits in connecting those in need with temporary and permanent housing as well as meeting other social needs like ensuring equitable COVID-19 vaccine access.

7th New Castle County, Del.

The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak gave New Castle County, Del., a chance to build a path toward the future. As county employees worked remotely, they relied not only on a cloud-first posture that had already been put in place, but also protection provided by such technology firms as Proofpoint against malware, spear phishing and imposter scams. The county adopted a zero-trust system that will likely help to keep up security after the pandemic. Officials also transitioned to virtual public meetings.

New Castle officials during the midst of the outbreak also deployed the county’s first ERP technology, the Tyler Munis Financial Management System. It replaced a 20-year-old legacy system that was getting expensive to maintain and which was increasingly unreliable. The effort involved 200 workers from 16 departments, as well as a newly hired project manager. The county aims to expand its use of SaaS offerings to further reduce operating costs and to boost efficiencies.

Meanwhile, county law enforcement was introducing virtual reality training to help officials better respond to mental health calls made via 911, an area of acute interest during the pandemic lockdown. The VR headsets offer training scenarios for dealing with people suffering from suicidal thoughts, autism, schizophrenia, hearing impairment, Alzheimer’s and PTSD. New scenarios are offered every month.

8th Gwinnett County, Ga. 

Gwinnett County, Ga., got creative when the pandemic hit, digitizing some tax payment and alcohol licensing processes to reduce the need for staff to go into the office or engage face-to-face with business owners. The county is now planning to build on this effort by automating more paper-based processes and applying artificial intelligence to find efficiencies.

Efforts to send more of its 6,200-strong workforce remote had hit hurdles when surging web traffic threatened to overwhelm county networks and VPN access issues kept some personnel from easily using the enterprise resource planning system. Gwinnett responded by replacing physical network infrastructure to support the high traffic, and it turned to its development team to whip up a secure web portal through which staff working from home could access ERP capabilities. The county also replaced more than 3,000 desktops with laptops, using this as an opportunity to get staff onto modernized software. While necessary to answer the immediate need to maintain operations and keep staff from resorting to personal devices, these moves could set the county on a stronger path going forward.

Not all staff could go remote, however, and the county also created a web-based spatial mapping tool to help managers design staff seating plans and on-site schedule rotations to allow for safe distancing. Should employees nonetheless fall sick, the tool had features to let managers see which other personnel may have been sitting near them previously and thus be at risk, too. Gwinnett is now sharing that mapping tool with other jurisdictions.

9th Polk County, Fla. 

In the past year, Polk County, Fla., faced the challenge of distributing $120 million in CARES Act money to citizens in need. For the online application process, Polk County IT utilized the cloud, which was more than able to absorb the high volume of traffic that followed, and collaborated with multiple community partners to reach residents who lacked technological devices. In another noteworthy move, county leaders reversed their hard stance against using a cloud-based ERP system, a decision that will lead to easier updates, the latest in features and reduced costs. The county also revamped its public records system, establishing a public portal for submissions and payments.

Like other local areas in recent times, Polk County had a cybersecurity wake-up call when a constitutional office within the county fell victim to a debilitating ransomware attack. As a result, a lessons learned document was distributed across the county. The county now has a new password policy and is moving toward comprehensive identity management and two-factor authentication.

10th Cobb County, Ga. 

Cobb County, Ga.’s ongoing cybersecurity improvements and commitment to data transparency with its citizens landed it a tenth-place spot in its population category this year. Cobb County’s multi-layered cybersecurity defense approach shows its determination to fortify its systems against unwanted threats. However, the county was recently put to the test when its information systems were the target of a sophisticated phishing attack in June. While no county data was compromised in the attempt, the episode prompted the county Board of Commissioners to consider creating four new cybersecurity positions.

On the data transparency front, Cobb County has always been willing to share data of value with its citizens. From launching a website that shares commute data with drivers back in 2015 to setting up new ways to deliver relevant COVID-19 information in 2020, the county continues to deliver essential information to the public. When the pandemic hit, the county not only quickly transitioned its employees to a remote working environment, but it also launched a community information hub and interactive map with the latest data related to COVID-19 that is updated on a rolling basis. Furthermore, Cobb County’s one-stop Transparency Center is a user-friendly web page with open access to information for citizen review.

Click here to see all Digital Counties 2021 categories.