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What You Need to Know About the Future of Digital Infrastructure

Welcome to the latest issue of The Districts, where we chronicle the people, issues and activities impacting special districts across the U.S.

Expressway top view, Road traffic an important infrastructure in Thailand
Nearly 100 special district officials attended the 2021 Special Districts Annual Virtual Summit on the future of digital infrastructure, where industry experts and leaders from parks, water and transit districts discussed current challenges and identified emerging issues. The live two-hour event on May 26 took a deep dive into how districts are addressing new cybersecurity threats, meeting rising expectations for mobility, innovating on service delivery and funding new projects in spite of fiscal constraints.

Takeaways from the event include:
  • Start small to innovate: District leaders pointed to small-scale pilot projects as an effective way to test new ideas and technologies. Pilots that prove to be successful can be expanded across the organization, and those that don’t show results can be quickly shut down.
  • Question your vendors about security: Growth in sophisticated cyber crime — including recent supply chain attacks that distribute malicious code through trusted supplier relationships – means districts need to ask third-party vendors and contractors for proof of adequate security practices.
  • Build a culture of innovation before the next crisis: Organizations that were flexible and comfortable dealing with change reacted effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is the time to strengthen these cultural traits to improve resilience and responsiveness.
  • Be proactive about forging intergovernmental partnerships: Special districts often don’t receive direct funding from federal stimulus and economic recovery programs such as the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act. Therefore, relationships with city, county and state government agencies are an important mechanism for accessing these badly needed funds.
  • Get ready for evolving service demands: Special districts that provide essential public services such as water, power and housing should prepare for the end of special pandemic rules like the federal eviction moratorium or policies against shutting off utility services to customers who can’t pay. There likely will be a flood of families who still need help when these policies end, and districts must gear up programs to serve them.
  • Look for funding flexibility: Performance requirements associated with federal and state transportation funding programs have been loosened in some cases, giving transit districts more leeway to launch experimental programs that offer new mobility options and rebuild ridership.

Want to learn more? Watch the recorded event.

Managing Competing Priorities
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Polling conducted during the Annual Virtual Summit indicates special districts face a range of competing priorities. Asked to identify their most pressing challenges, special district leaders ranked four issues as equally urgent.

ATT_Pressing Challenges_June2021.png

The need for better understanding of current and future federal funding opportunities – identified as a top challenge — is reflected in poll results showing that relatively few summit attendees have received money from federal pandemic relief programs so far.


Celebrate Your Success

Does your district have a success story to tell? It’s time to submit your nomination for a 2021 Special Districts Award. We’re looking for examples of effective leadership and innovative projects to provide digital citizen services, reengineer business processes, strengthen information security and more. Send us your nomination by August 6 and make sure your district’s achievements get the attention they deserve.
Last year, we recognized more than 40 special districts for innovation in technology and leadership. Stop by our 2020 awards page to see how districts supported remote learners, improved safety for transit riders, launched virtual fitness courses, helped deliver meals to struggling residents and more.

Insights from the Crisis

Our 2020 Annual Report shows how special districts coped with unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — and it offers a roadmap for future resiliency and success.

In all, the report includes insights, best practices and innovative ideas from 20 districts that participated in Special Districts Program events and workgroup calls throughout 2020. It's packed with real-life examples of how special districts delivered critical services amid a year filled with uncertainty:

  • The Houston Airport System accelerated deployment of biometric identity systems to provide touchless security screenings
  • The San Antonio Water System in Texas is developing new performance metrics to manage remote employees
  • The Wilmington Public Library District in Illinois installed smart lockers to safely deliver materials to library patrons
  • The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission in Maryland instituted virtual inspections for new plumbing and gas fixtures
New Jersey’s NJ Transit partners with Waze to improve safety at railroad crossings. Waze traffic app users will receive an alert as they approach a crossing.

Read their stories and find out how the pandemic has permanently reshaped workforce, service delivery and leadership strategies. Get your copy today.

District Spotlight: Water Treatment Plant Hacked

A hacker accessed the computer system of a San Francisco bay area water treatment plant in January and deleted programs the plant used to treat drinking water, a senior intelligence official has confirmed.

NBC News first reported in May that the unidentified hacker used a former plant employee's username and password to gain entry to the unidentified water treatment facility on Jan. 15. Michael Sena, executive director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, confirmed NBC's report about the security breach, but declined to say where it occurred or who carried it out.

The NBC report stated that the hacker "tried to poison" the local water supply, an assertion Sena disputed. Tampering with the computer programs used to treat drinking water is unlikely to cause any widespread poisoning, he said.

Read the full story.

More Articles Worth a Read

Here are more stories from special districts around the country. Share your own news with us for inclusion in the next newsletter.

Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority moves forward with plan to offer free transit service to some riders. “Fareless Initiative,” approved by L.A. Metro’s board of directors in June, would give free rides to students and low-income residents.

Devastated by storms last year, Iowa’s power grid prepares for the next big event. Officials focus on resilience and renewable energy.