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Digital Counties 2021: Winners Pivot from Response to Recovery

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.

This year’s 19th annual Digital Counties Survey, from the Center for Digital Government,* was conducted against a unique backdrop, with county governments nationwide facing a second consecutive year of fast-changing, unprecedented challenges and circumstances.

Whereas last year’s surveys were collected and publicized in the earlier months of the pandemic — at a time when what passes for an end was still well out of sight — this year’s were perhaps completed in slightly rosier times. Just a little bit, as vaccination distribution continues and the country begins to open up. As such, there is almost a pivot evidenced by this year’s group as compared to last year — a move from response to recovery within much of the work reported.

What this has specifically meant for many counties is a continued emphasis on as well as an acceleration of work related to digital equity and broadband. That’s not all, of course. Strong work started before as well as during the pandemic in other areas also continued, but there is definitely a sense in the surveys of new lessons learned, a changed attitude — among all involved with the work — and a desire to make some initiatives started amid crisis permanent.

Following is a look at where this year’s winning counties are at, where they have had their major successes, what some of the biggest remaining challenges are and what they’ve learned that will help shape their futures.

Albemarle County, Va., 1st Place, Up to 150,000 Population Category

The ways in which survey respondents invested in broadband and digital equity varied quite a bit. Albemarle County, Va., made one of the more direct commitments to the work, creating an office of broadband to tackle getting residents connected.

Mike Culp is now the director of the Albemarle County Broadband Accessibility and Affordability Office, and when discussing the survey, he stressed the importance of the name. It encapsulates an awareness in the county that residents — many of whom are unconnected and in rural areas — may lack the ability to afford high-speed Internet, even if the service is available where they live.

With that in mind, the county has hopes that the office can really address the affordability challenges, be it through working with existing electrical co-ops or other means. Another area of focus within this is digital literacy, which means ensuring that residents have the skills they need to use the Internet in meaningful ways that benefit their lives. Culp said the awareness of the importance of this work is something that has really taken hold throughout the county government, especially in the wake of a pandemic that emphasized the importance of being able to access everything from government to health care at home through a computer.

“In this new often-digital world,” Culp said, “it seems like the most vulnerable are often the most disconnected.”

Like the other winners in this year’s survey, however, digital equity and broadband was far from the only area of success in Albemarle’s survey. The county also received exemplary marks for work regarding cybersecurity, especially its formalized cybersecurity incident response plan designed to block attacks as well as help during the eventuality of a successful intrusion.

Finally, officials in Albemarle are also proud of how their staff have adapted to virtual meetings, with Culp noting they are now in the process of bringing people back to the office, which entails taking steps to not curtail anyone’s productivity. This could mean creating hoteling situations, hybrid work setups or making moves so that offices mirror home setups in terms of what kind of equipment is available.

“We’re trying to figure out new ways to keep people in that productivity window,” Culp said.

Click here to view all winners in this population category.

Cabarrus County, N.C., 1st Place, 150,000 to 249,999 Population Category

While all the winners learned new lessons from emergency and crisis response, they also almost uniformly stressed that the priorities that existed before the pandemic still remained, and none more so than cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity was one of the primary areas in which Cabarrus County, N.C., excelled. Todd Shanley is the chief information officer for Cabarrus, and he said, as is the case for many jurisdictions, that ransomware is Carbarrus’ top cybersecurity concern. A significant portion of the work around preventing ransomware attacks involves staff training, with a special focus on why this educational piece is important.

“If you don’t explain the why up front, you’re not going to be successful,” Shanley said, “because it may be taken as ‘they’re just making us do this one more thing.’”

The cybersecurity awareness training being done there is extensive, reaching all members of the government, right up to the Board of Commissioners, who must also undergo prep such as phishing testing.

Another area in which Cabarrus excelled is communication, which Shanely attributes to an agency-wide culture led by Mike Downs, the county manager. Under Downs’ leadership, there is a culture in Cabarrus of sharing and celebrating wins, which is a healthy piece of all successful tech and innovation offices. The county’s public information staff has also done a great job of using technology and social channels to communicate information to the public, which continues to be vital as the pivot from response to recovery takes hold.

Cabarrus actually has a long list of accomplishments that took place in addition to pandemic response over the past year, including election support, installing a new software package for the child welfare division, and migrating over to a new 911 response platform, among other things. None of which, Shanley is quick to note, would have been possible without a team in the office that stayed diligent and flexible regardless of the situation.

“The world didn’t stop moving,” Shanley said. “We were here at work, working behind the scenes to make sure things were going on ... the resilience of my team is the thing I’m most proud of.”

Click here to view all winners in this population category.

Future Ready
Now in its second year, the Future Ready Award aims to celebrate a jurisdiction that is completing work to lay a solid foundation for the future, and in 2021 it goes to Hennepin County, Minn.

Hennepin County did quite a bit of forward-thinking, preparing for what is to come in a wide range of areas. Chief among them is the equity work done to reduce disparities among residents. Leading the way in this area was the establishment of an aptly named Disparity Reduction Program, which the county split into seven areas: education, employment, income, housing, transportation, justice and health.

Within this work, Hennepin also developed a new Racial Equity Tool, a metric for ensuring that IT strategic plans are developed through a disparity-reduction lens. Essentially, a large part of what Hennepin County has done to prepare for the future involves building equity into all of its planning, benchmarking and development.

In addition, the county has engaged in some more specific future preparation, including the implementation of electronic signature and notary public capabilities, which is vital for its ongoing shift to becoming a paperless office. The county made similar outward-facing modernization progress this year when it translated many of its in-person services to online forms. This was done in response to the pandemic, yet it’s also a necessary step that accelerates institution-wide digitization.

There has also been quite a bit of culture-building done with the future in mind in Hennepin, with cybersecurity now a standing agenda item for every meeting of the County Leadership IT Strategy Collaboration Group, which includes a cross-sector membership of major county government stakeholders. Finally, Hennepin is also preparing for the future by investing in people, working to help current IT staff develop new skills to achieve higher positions, while at the same time providing an IT-specific internship for college students, which has led to 27 hired interns dating back to 2016. 

Marin County, Calif., 1st Place, 250,000 to 499,999 Population Category

Marin County, Calif., just north of San Francisco, saw more than one emergency last year. There was, of course, the pandemic, but the jurisdiction was also ravaged by wildfires.

Liza Massey, the chief information officer for Marin County, said these dual tragedies really fostered a sense of togetherness that permeated the entire IT staff, as well as the rest of the county government. In fact, public servants found themselves helping the community in many ways outside of their usual workflows.

“With COVID we had to go out on the front line. I had employees working at testing centers, housing sites ... carrying around food and other things, as well as helping set up the temporary sites,” said Massey, who herself worked for a time in a mass vaccination center, helping to schedule appointments. “It was both IT and, really, residential community service.”

That’s great, of course, but doing those things paved the way for success in the areas of interest captured by the Digital Counties Survey, specifically by fostering great working relationships between IT and the other internal county government departments, Massey said. If there was a challenge for Marin County during the pandemic, Massey said it was encouraging staffers at times to take a step back, to do less and care for themselves when necessary.

The partnerships forged in the time of COVID-19 also extended past the pandemic, with IT partnering closely with other county departments on elections, cybersecurity and digital equity, especially in the county’s traditionally underserved Canal District, where cross-sector partnerships helped get school students online via free Wi-Fi.

Looking ahead, major areas of interest for Marin include continuing the recovery from COVID-19, as well as using technology in ways that can foster racial equity. Massey said they are working on more projects to help close the digital divide, as well as to offer digital literacy training. In addition, they are looking at new data dashboards that can help bring together and share information about racial disparities.

“When you shine the light on things, they change,” Massey said, “and technology can make that happen.”

Click here to view all winners in this population category.

Prince George’s County, Md., 1st Place, 500,000 to 999,999 Population Category

Wanda Gibson is the chief information officer and director of information technology for Prince George’s County, Md., a role she took after a new tech-savvy administration assumed leadership there, and Gibson attributes much of Prince George’s success in the survey to having support for her department’s work at every level of government.

This, she recalls, has been especially important for the county during the time of COVID-19, with the county government there needing to make effective decisions regarding everything from how best to get staffers set up to work from home to managing federal relief. This extends to getting relief funds to the community as well. Tech was a major factor in connecting the relief funds with those who needed them most via tactical quick application methods.

One of the governing philosophies for IT through all of this was that they needed to make sure their constituents — both inside and outside the local government — had what they needed to thrive.

In addition, Prince George’s has been able to continue making progress with work underway independent of COVID-19. This includes a slate of essential if non-glamorous IT projects, such as turning over to a new 311 platform, re-engineering how the county’s website works on the back end and continuing to digitize old paper-based processes, among other achievements.

“How we did it? I cannot say,” Gibson said, “other than through a very dedicated, public-service-oriented IT staff with good partners.”

The county also continued to build out its cybersecurity infrastructure by hiring a CISO, a high-level position designed to have one person out in front of these efforts. In addition, there has been a concentrated effort to learn from some high-profile national cybersecurity incidents. This includes getting a handle on vulnerabilities related to the Internet of Things, a priority emphasized in the lesson of the pipeline hack. It’s a good lesson, too, with jurisdictions now relying on everything from drones to digitized water systems.

Click here to view all winners in this population category.

King County, Wash., 1st Place, 1 Million or More Population Category

King County, Wash., has long been at the forefront of county gov tech, putting forth an ambitious slate of priorities. It was also one of the best examples in the survey of both recovery from and response to the pandemic.

In the service of this, King County’s tech and innovation staff played a major role by supporting mass vaccination sites, as well as rental and eviction programs, with tech. As was the case with many jurisdictions, a new priority also emerged in the county to get as many residents as possible connected to the Internet and using it in meaningful ways, bolstering digital equity work. In fact, King County specifically offered a number of new broadband grants and also created a digital equity dashboard, both of which are major accomplishments in the area of digital inclusion.

“Digital equity is extremely important,” said Tanya Hannah, King County’s chief information officer and director of information technology. “The county released in 2020 our broadband survey that really looked at all parts of the county, including who is connected, who is not and what are the barriers that prevent individuals from participating in a digital economy.”

This has extended to see the county now working with a number of community-based organizations to promote digital literacy, too. This wide-spanning effort has done a lot, including working with community colleges and area nonprofit organizations around shared challenges of digital literacy, access to devices, affordability and skills training.

This is all in addition to a number of worthwhile and necessary ongoing projects, including working with data, modernizing processes, helping internal departments develop new management systems and more.

Another result of the pandemic is an increasingly strong relationship with the state, particularly in the area of cybersecurity. King County is working with Washington’s CISO as well as with other counties to prepare the entire region to protect itself from cyber threats. Moving forward, Hannah said she expects this sort of collaboration between larger counties and states to remain a priority.

“The pandemic has shown that we’re better together,” she said.

Click here to view all winners in this population category.

To read about all winners in this year’s Digital Counties Survey:
Up to 150,000 Population Category
150,000 to 249,999 Population Category
250,000 to 499,999 Population Category
500,000 to 999,999 Population Category
1 Million or More Population Category

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.