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Digital Counties 2021: Up to 150,000 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 Albemarle County, Va.

Coming in first place in its population category, Albemarle County, Va., has moved up one spot since last year’s survey after increasing its cybersecurity efforts and rolling out more fiber broadband to create free Wi-Fi locations throughout the county. In March 2021, the county received a $2.2 million grant to advance broadband, as well as additional CARES Act funding to complete three major broadband projects last fall. One of these projects included partnering with three fiber ISPs and one wireless ISP to enable broadband access to over 1,200 locations throughout the county. Some of these locations include local schools, libraries, and a rural community and fitness center. Following broadband, the county’s second priority was increasing cybersecurity. To do this, the county implemented a patch management system, vulnerability management system, email protection systems and internal monitoring systems as part of its Cyber Incident Response Plan. Other recent additions by the county include encryption management policies, risk management practices, access controls and election security management policies.

2nd Mono County, Calif.

Mono County, a consistent top winner in its population category, has delivered another strong performance in this year’s survey. The local government, which serves about 14,000 residents, quickly transitioned nearly 90 percent of its workforce to remote work during the pandemic, connecting with residents via a decade’s worth of investment in gigabit-speed broadband and via cloud-based apps around COVID-19 response, vaccine distribution and communication. Data collected helped shape pandemic response and enabled provision of public-facing dashboards. County IT worked with and inside COVID-19 first responder departments to help create a dedicated app in a low-code platform to manage the overall pandemic response, and also created a custom vaccine registration app and several simple apps for related pop-up services.

Officials built on more than five years’ expertise to stand up a new HR management system in Quickbase, centralizing employee and position lists — Mono’s work management system for IT also runs on Quickbase. Implementation of Palo Alto GlobalProtect firewalls in late 2020 enabled the county to secure and control traffic even when staff were in the cloud and not in-network, boosting the overall security posture. During the past year, county IT deployed two sets of portable infrastructure to support remote Emergency Operations Centers in disaster or incident locations. Mono County is also updating its current IT Strategic Plan, a process that should be complete by year’s end.

County IT is managing the transition to a new $20.5 million civic center and will also replace its 30-year-old public safety radio system in 2021-2022. Mono County has redundant backup data centers but storing backup snapshots in the Microsoft Azure cloud has enabled restorations in the cloud with scant data loss and further empowered a three- to five-hour restore time should disaster strike or a data center fail.

3rd Roanoke County, Va. 

Like other Virginia governments navigating a plethora of logistical IT challenges during COVID-19, Roanoke County leaders grappled with an urgent need to connect residents to public services during the crisis. Noting that more than 20 percent of its residents remained without reliable Internet before the start of the pandemic, the county set out to expand broadband availability through its Connect Roanoke County to the World initiative, which recently allocated more than $4 million in total funds to narrow the county’s digital divide. The county is also planning to renew its detailed Technology Strategic Plan for fiscal year 2022, which leaders say will further prioritize IT governance, the hiring of IT personnel, cloud computing, cybersecurity, disaster recovery, continuity of operations, data governance, interdepartmental collaboration and broadband connectivity, among other key IT goals.

The county reports having made significant progress in meeting community and employee needs for flexibility via web, social media and video conferencing as the jurisdiction works to expand Internet access. The municipality now reports “high telework productivity,” allowing local government departments to maintain and expand services during the crisis, despite limited funding being among the county’s top IT obstacles.

4th Montgomery County, Va. 

Maintaining its fourth-place showing from last year’s survey, Montgomery County, Va., continues to make strides toward its stated goal of becoming the nation’s most digital county. In an effort to be more citizen-centric, Montgomery has prioritized a mobile-first and responsive website, designed to be personalized according to what each visitor needs. An expanded GIS program in partnership with Esri includes a citizen-facing portal launched in summer 2020, and is helping the county better manage and map data for agencies like the sheriff’s department, who can display traffic incidents and reported crimes. Enterprise GIS is also being used to display real estate assessment and property data, and county IT is working to integrate a cloud-based land development management system with the platform. The department is also currently in the process of uploading data into the Splunk management system so they can expand the platform’s use for the Internet of Things, as well as create additional transparency into government processes.

Montgomery County leadership cites cybersecurity as a top priority, and the IT cybersecurity plan is regularly updated to reflect changing threats and needs; the county is now in the second of a three-phase security road map. The county upgraded its firewalls in February 2021 to provide better threat protection and to further secure its hybrid cloud environment, allowing flexibility for future web development. In terms of emerging tech, the county focuses its efforts largely on the sheriff’s department, such as implementing automatic injury detection to identify officers harmed in the line of duty and upgrading cloud-based recordings from body-worn cameras. In addition to using drones for law enforcement, the IT Department works with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to test drones for traffic control and smart city transit.

5th Nevada County, Calif. 

When Nevada County, Calif., needed to start teleworking, the IT department stepped up. Aside from the fundamentals — enhanced VPN and remote support capabilities, as well as provisioning of laptops — the agency got busy moving applications to the cloud as well. That included SharePoint, email, various cybersecurity systems, a replacement for a 20-year-old phone system, an e-recording module for the clerk-recorder, case management for the district attorney and board meeting support functions. And they aren’t done: Next comes the financial system.

The county also shows a dedication to collaboration and customer support. With telework no longer a temporary solution, an employee has been put on the task of gathering data and feedback to support a telework policy and gauge work satisfaction. The IT department has convened the webmasters from across the enterprise to share best practices and make the county’s presence across the Internet more consistent, and it also ran a business process workshop to help other departments reimagine how they do things.

Cybersecurity will be a focus moving forward, with the board of supervisors approving a security plan and funding to conduct infrastructure upgrades. The county plans to put together a ransomware response plan as well as inventory sensitive data across agencies.

6th Dodge County, Wis.

Taking sixth place for the second year in a row, Dodge County saw an increased focus on public-facing tech in the last year. In December 2020, the county completed a six-month redesign of its website, making it mobile-responsive and more citizen-focused. Website traffic analytics were used to develop a new top navigation menu, which is now worded using citizen-centric terminology. Also in 2020, the county IT department partnered with the public health department to launch the online Dodge County COVID-19 Daily Snapshot in response to the pandemic. Here, residents can keep track of local data on the pandemic, such as virus case and death counts, and find more information. A mobile app was also launched for the county Sheriff’s Office in March 2021, available for both iOS and Android. The app allows users to submit tips, file complaints and find information on active warrants, jail visitation and more.

Internet connectivity was also a focus for Dodge County in the last year. When the county received its share of CARES Act funds in 2020, it chose to utilize portions of that money on broadband projects that had not been able to get funding. The county was able to move forward on 12 new projects that will impact 7,624 residents over 900 square miles. Dodge County also looked to improve existing Internet connectivity within its facilities, upgrading the connection at its off-site disaster recovery location to support the increase in remote access due to the pandemic. And last but certainly not least, in 2020 the county finished a major multiyear strategic ERP upgrade. The new system, which uses Tyler Technologies’ Munis platform, processes both live and historical data and was used in the 2021 budgeting process.

7th York County, Va. 

Holding steady in seventh position since last year’s survey, York County, Va., prioritized effectively investing CARES Act money that came in from the federal government in light of COVID-19. For example, funding for a redundant Internet connection and server backups was elusive prior to the CARES Act, but the county has now made those purchases, vastly enhancing its resilience capabilities with those funds.

Among pandemic-related communications efforts is a web portal devoted to publishing relevant information for citizens, which is still in use today. In partnership with its 911 center, the website was complemented by a dedicated phone line established to help citizens get signed up for vaccine appointments. York County’s efforts to improve its cybersecurity posture continued this year, with the county reporting that it now meets 99 percent of established minimum security standards, up from 70 percent, surpassing its expected implementation timeline by two years. The county’s work in sifting through and adapting established guidelines for smaller jurisdictions positioned it to share best practices with neighboring governments of a similar size.

And when it comes to emerging technologies, York County demonstrates that its size isn’t a barrier to innovation. The York County Sheriff’s Office deployed the first mobile fingerprint reader in the state, enabling real-time identification of suspects reluctant to reveal their identities, providing critical data to fuel situational awareness in the field. Drones are also adding to the capabilities of first responders in multiple ways, including providing enhanced imagery of crime scenes and natural disasters. In addition, a drone that can operate underwater now helps with search and rescue operations in the York River.

8th Coconino County, Ariz.

Coconino County, Ariz., took an eighth-place spot in this year’s survey. In addition to confronting the general challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic head-on, IT staff worked diligently to maintain the security and level of service residents expected. This included efforts to consolidate working space from four locations to one and reimagining staffing protocols. As it stands, IT staff work 75 percent from home and 25 percent from the office.

The county is also prioritizing rural broadband infrastructure, doing so with the help of an Arizona Commerce Authority Rural Economic Development Grant, which was awarded in September 2019. This undertaking will ultimately help expand Internet capabilities from Flagstaff to the border of Utah and from Tuba City to the Four Corners region in phase two of the project. The initiative will help expand access to a range of services around education, health care, transportation and others.

Where cybersecurity is concerned, regular risk assessments are routine for the IT team and patches are completed within 30 days of a vulnerability being discovered. Additionally, the county partners with external groups to share threat intelligence.

9th Bedford County, Va.

Bedford County, Va., can point to online permitting as a bright spot of its ongoing push to improve its technology. Part of a project started in 2019 to move from paper to digital services, the new system proved its worth during COVID-19. Instead of an expected pandemic-related decrease in permits, plans and inspections — understandable concerns as the virus shut down much economic activity — the county recorded a 9 percent increase in permit submissions in June 2020 compared to the same month in the previous year. In turn, that increase resulted in more fee collections for the government as officials around the country worried about diminishing revenue streams.

Bedford County also used tech to help ease the strains of the pandemic for residents. Officials worked with state and local peers to inform residents of COVID-19 vaccine clinics via email, text and phone, leveraging assistance from the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Office of the Secretary of Administration. The push, which also included vaccine registration check-ins, involved three clinics and some 2,000 county residents.

During the crisis, Bedford technology officials put onto YouTube addresses from the county administrator to help citizens better navigate the hassles of the pandemic. Bedford County also is putting more focus on security efforts as the government continues to tackle the challenge of broadband accessibility.

10th Franklin County, Va.

Improving and maintaining the sustainability of Franklin County, Va.’s IT operations is at the top of the county’s to-do list this year, according to its latest IT strategic plan. To achieve this, the county has focused its efforts on redefining how support partners gain access to its internal systems and expanding broadband to residents so they can access county services. Previously, vendors and support partners would remote into the county's internal systems using remote access protocols they preferred. Now, all vendors must connect through a recently implemented Cisco AnyConnect VPN portal with Duo multifactor authentication. When logging on to the system, those accessing the portal must use a unique logon, and their access is limited to predefined endpoints on the network. The reason for this new system is to restrict and control the remote access of the county’s systems to prohibit any fraudulent activity. As for increasing broadband, the county has leveraged broadband partnerships to create equitable Internet access for all citizens, especially regarding work, school, entertainment and government. In other areas, Franklin County has also upgraded its online service platforms, such as EnerGov, and is now streaming the board of supervisors meetings for the first time ever to help achieve the county’s goal of adapting and sustaining IT citizen and customer engagement.

Click here to see all Digital Counties 2021 categories.