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Digital Counties 2024: Up to 150,000 Population Category

The first-place finishers in this year's Digital Counties Survey from the Center for Digital Government are those that have focused on modernizing major systems while also championing innovation.

Click here to see our full coverage of the 2024 Digital Counties Survey.

1st Calvert County, Md.

There’s no sophomore slump for Calvert County, Md., which this year notches its second consecutive first-place win. The local government of about 95,000 won plaudits in 2023 for assessing security and standing up a variety of cutting-edge tech, including integrating ChatGPT into business processes to significantly speed up task completion.

Since then, officials have created a committee on AI, setting comprehensive guidelines to shape its deployment and ethical use and affirming a commitment to good data governance. The county continues to prioritize security, retaining the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to perform a vulnerability assessment and penetration test of its network infrastructure, then remediating gaps. Leaders also continued a string of strategic implementations, going live with a security information and event management platform to watch for and respond to cyber threats; and launching several chatbots powered by OpenAI, including John the Legal Eagle, Workday Wizard and the Calvert County Retirement Chatbot. These handle everything from contract reviews to enterprise resource planning system questions to policy clarifications, respectively.

Earlier this year, the county wrapped a five-year refresh of its hazard mitigation plan with federal approval. It includes a comprehensive threat and hazard identification and risk assessment. Officials are underway on refining IT project intake and resource distribution to improve IT investment management and create a more efficient project management framework. Looking forward, officials plan to modernize utility billing and generate public-facing analytics by deploying Infor software, to update flood mapping with the digital Forerunner platform, and to expand the available categories of digital processing in their permits portal, Encompass. The county is also in development on deploying the CivicPlus Mobile App as a central access point for vital information and services.

2nd York County, Va.

York County maintained its place among the top finishers in its population category this year with a focus on cybersecurity, citizen engagement and integrating artificial intelligence. In the case of the latter, the county IT department organized a session at its annual conference that focused on training county staff in the use of OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Leadership and key staff were trained to use the tool for document preparation, enhancing efficiency and reducing staff workload. The county is also looking to this emerging technology to enhance cybersecurity, with plans to implement AI-based defense technologies.

Also in the realm of cybersecurity, York County implemented enhancements to its digital defenses, including a new security information and event management (SIEM) tool that gives a 360-degree view of the county’s security posture in real time, stopping more nefarious acts in their tracks. Residents can also get involved in cybersecurity in York County with the Citizen Cyber Security program, through which individuals and businesses can sign up to receive notifications about potential threats and best practices.

Cybersecurity isn’t the only area where citizens can connect with their county, though. York County has a robust online portal where residents can access a wide variety of information and services, including paying bills, submitting permits and interacting with elected officials. Furthermore, the new GIS Data Dashboard puts a ream of county mapping resources and data right at citizens’ fingertips. And a new NextRequest software portal was launched last year to streamline the process for public record requests, saving staff time and resources while ensuring greater transparency and accountability.

3rd Bedford County, Va.

A continued commitment to advancing digital equity and investing in technology helped Bedford, Va., earn third place in its population category this year. Over the last year, Bedford County demonstrated a constituent-centric approach to its operations. In May 2023, the county IT department updated Bedford County’s website, prioritizing accessibility and user experience with a new user-friendly interface and design. On the digital equity front, Bedford County identified around 12,000 households or businesses in need of better Internet access. With this data and $25 million in grant funding from the Department of Housing and Community Development’s Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, the county is under contract with three Internet service providers to address these coverage issues.

When it comes to cybersecurity, the Bedford County IT department partnered with Lynchburg’s IT team, Lynchburg Emergency Services and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management on a cybersecurity tabletop exercise from June to August 2023. Through this exercise, the county practiced their response to a cyber incident and tested their procedures alongside other localities, allowing the IT team to fortify their defenses and look for areas of improvement.

There are several examples of growing maturity in the county’s core IT work as well. The IT team established its first Technology Steering Committee, which aims to position technology initiatives within overall county goals. The county also invested in an IT service management tool to optimize internal IT processes. Similarly, technology is powering more effective county operations overall: Bedford County used GIS mapping technology to enhance the emergency response to a 15-day wildfire in 2023. Real-time mapping and updates on the spread of the fire helped emergency responders’ containment effort.

4th Nevada County, Calif.

Careful planning keeps technology investments on track in Nevada County, Calif., with the county committed to maintaining tech spending and operating under a 2023-2025 Information Systems Strategic plan. Business value, potential risks, long-term funding and other matters are thoroughly considered before tech projects are presented to the county Board of Supervisors for approval.

Recent website revamps shifted to .gov domains, updated county branding and design, and added an AI-assisted chatbot. AI has already been helping emergency services personnel map hypothetical evacuation scenarios and now is being used to ease research within public documents. New AI usage guidelines also set the stage for a later official policy. Geographic information system tools also help the county map data for purposes like assessing whether access to polling station locations is equitable across demographics.

In an innovative move to bolster transparency, the county offers a free, 10-week Citizen’s Academy which gives residents a look at how government operations work across departments ranging from public safety to IT. Plus, the county uses tools to analyze resident emails and social media responses for recurring concerns. The county also surveys the community about topics like broadband speeds and overall priorities to inform planning.

A push toward shared solutions across departments aims to reduce costs and the amount of support work needed and increase interoperability. Plus, shifting file shares to third-party cloud storage ensures they’re accessible even if the local data center gets disrupted. The county refreshed its cybersecurity policies to explicitly align with the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, and IT has begun working with agencies to analyze their tech setups and uncover which technologies underpin core services — especially those serving vulnerable populations. Then IT and the agency create continuity of operation plans for maintaining services in case of disruption.

5th James City County, Va.

Fifth-place James City County has a highly personalized resident engagement strategy, with more than 20 different notification lists to keep its 78,000 residents informed. Topics include department updates from divisions like Parks and Recreation and the police department, along with newsletters and more. A weekly podcast, “This Week in James City County,” has aired more than 200 episodes.

Meanwhile, a new chatbot engages with an average of 582 residents a month, with a “self-resolution rate” of 82.7 percent. Remote work has called for new forms of engagement among county staff. Microsoft Teams is used to support electronic collaboration, file-sharing and more.

The county’s digital government posture has continued to evolve with more online forms for water and sewer hookups and other services, which save time for residents, contractors and staff. Even a camping site operated by Parks and Recreation can now be booked online, using technology from PerfectMind. Real estate and personal property taxes, as well as recycling and landfill fees can now be paid online with technology from InvoiceCloud.

The county’s data center got a significant upgrade with a project to modernize the 20-year-old electrical and environmental infrastructure. Meanwhile, the county Wi-Fi system is being replaced, to be complete this summer. The improvements will offer expanded bandwidth, 10 times faster than the previous Wi-Fi system, at a lower cost.

6th Coconino County, Ariz.

Cybersecurity has been a major component of IT work for Coconino County, Ariz., with some recent efforts even integrating artificial intelligence. First, all county systems are held to the same standards as the Department of Defense Information System Agency baselines. More than 23 AI sensors have been implemented across the county to make certain network decisions, with the intention of combating large-scale cyber attacks that take place outside of government staff’s working hours. The county continues micro-network segmentation as part of its cybersecurity strategy, too, which limits the impact of security breaches and the abilities of bad actors. Finally, to advance its resilience posture, the county implemented new data management software for disaster recovery, thereby reducing backup times by 242 percent.

Another big priority in the county’s work is strengthening its workforce. In 2023, a new organizationwide compensation plan was approved, increasing employee compensation and improving morale. On a related note, the county has filled several key positions. One example is a dedicated rural broadband manager to oversee equitable distribution of Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program funding. The county has also created an IT project manager position, which will oversee planning and implementation of tech projects across the county.

6th Dodge County, Wis.

Early 2024 brought significant improvements to human resources in this county north of Madison and Milwaukee, Wis., thanks in part to the efforts of the county’s information technology professionals. Coordinating with other county departments such as payroll and finance, those tech pros helped to bring improvements to Dodge County’s human resources operations via such tools as an intranet page, digital document management, employee surveys and an employee help desk, along with many other features. The upgrades apply to all county employees, including law enforcement.

At the same time, Dodge County continued to increase its digital engagement with residents, which officials say grew exponentially in 2023. That success came through the hiring of a communications and public relations coordinator, along with a content calendar, the use of high-quality graphics and original photography and easily understood language. The county also brought more digital access to public meetings via recordings and livestreaming to the county’s Facebook page, a push that also included smaller but often vital committee meetings.

7th Albemarle County, Va.

Albemarle County climbed from 10th to seventh place in this year’s survey thanks to ongoing work on fundamental IT modernizations enterprisewide. A major project for the Albemarle County Information Technology Department (ACIT) is a new enterprise permitting and licensing system that works with its existing GIS platform and allows the Community Development Department to better support residents and developers working on new construction projects. The system will have a robust payment module and will also offer 100 percent mobile access for inspection staff from the field. As part of the county’s modernization work, ACIT’s Data Services Division is cleaning and validating data countywide to maximize efficient data use. Over the next year, the data team will establish secure data-sharing policies.

To improve cybersecurity, in 2023 ACIT introduced role-based VPNs that restrict permissions to various systems based on someone’s defined job role and moved to a new multifactor authentication solution. Staff are being upskilled via an agreement with a local community college where they can take classes and complete certificate programs, and access additional training with Microsoft Evolve and LinkedIn Learning.

Innovation in Albemarle County is currently focused on the Police Department, which is piloting technology like ruggedized drones to improve situational awareness during emergencies and help law enforcement officers quickly make informed decisions. The county has also upgraded its two-way communication system between police command centers and responders on scene.

8th Franklin County, Va.

Franklin County, Va., earned a spot as one of the top digital counties this year by demonstrating innovative approaches to cybersecurity, broadband access and open data.

The county adheres to stringent cybersecurity best practices, aligning with NIST framework requirements. They've implemented advanced monitoring systems to detect intrusions, transitioned to more secure phone services and consolidated public Internet access for better control.

Franklin County secured over $18 million in grant funding, leveraged with local and private investment, to bring broadband access to over 37,000 properties. A dedicated web page tracks progress and provides resources to residents, underscoring the county's commitment to digital inclusion.

The county is refining its data governance, in part by creating a Public Safety Calls Database and enhancing its open GIS site. Future plans include some features that will enable real-time GIS data access, empowering the public with the latest location-based information.

Recognizing the importance of public participation, Franklin County upgraded its YouTube streaming capabilities for board meetings and actively engages citizens on social media platforms. These efforts have resulted in increased viewership and more robust online discussions.

9th Orange County, Va.

Closing the digital divide ranks as a top goal for Orange County, Va., and is becoming one of the top success stories as well, with the expansion of rural broadband access through FiberLync, a fiber-optic Internet service provider. The county has continued to invest in this resource over the last several years, installing 411.2 miles of fiber to service 10,887 addresses. The county expects that with the current expansion, more than 93 percent of county addresses will soon have access to high-speed Internet.

The installation of fiber is critical, and so is the ability for every resident to be able to conduct business online, as well as to be afforded a certain level of customer service, capability and efficiency as would occur in person. To that end, the county is aiming to implement digital solutions appropriate to its needs and the needs of its citizens. For example, the Development Services Department has begun using Tyler Technologies’ EnerGov platform to increase efficiency in permitting and other services for staff, as well as easy online access to building and planning services for residents. The Department of Parks and Recreation has deployed a similar solution to help with online registration.

As cyber risk management emerged as a top priority, the county partnered with the Virginia Cyber Navigator program in 2023, providing security for elections. That has entailed conducting a security assessment, which yielded recommended updates to policies and procedures. That led to a role-based security awareness program and an in-depth review of the voter registration office processes. The result was a complete business impact analysis.

10th Sherburne County, Minn.

Sherburne County, Minn., is an expansive jurisdiction that extends from the edges of the Minneapolis area to the center of St. Cloud, Minn. Sherburne — like many jurisdictions — is in the midst of several modernization projects. One highlight for the county this year was migrating planning and zoning permitting services to a new, entirely online system. This work is part of the county’s bigger goal to create ways for residents to do business with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This project was also an in-house build.

Another notable project this year for Sherburne was bringing on a software-as-a-service cloud solution from the vendor Karpel, which the county is using to provide business documentation for its attorney’s department. While the product is useful now, it was also procured with an eye toward eventually including artificial intelligence capabilities as well.

Finally, Sherburne undertook a notable cybersecurity project this year. It was one of the first counties in Minnesota to work with the state government on a weekly vulnerability scanning service. Doing so provided Sherburne with valuable insights on where it can focus its resources to maximize its cybersecurity efforts moving forward.

Click here to see our full coverage of the 2024 Digital Counties Survey.