Annual polling shows how county governments are using digital technologies to serve their citizens and streamline operations.
Montgomery County, Md.; Chesterfield County, Va.; Catawba County, N.C.; and Charles County, Md. made it a clean sweep for the East Coast in the 2013 Digital Counties Survey announced Thursday, July 18.
The four counties earned top rankings in their respective population categories for effectively and efficiently using digital technologies to serve their citizens, streamline operations and achieve measurable benefits. The annual survey is conducted by the Center for Digital Government in conjunction with the National Association of Counties. Hundreds of submissions were judged by a panel of experts, including Center for Digital Government executives.
Editor’s Note: Government Technology and the Center for Digital Government are owned by the same parent company, e.Republic Inc.
Survey questions were asked in a variety of areas such as computing, networking, applications, data and cybersecurity, open government, mobile services, and much more. The survey results reflect work done during 2012. The top 10 counties in each of four population categories received a ranking. (See sidebar below.)
Besides identifying the nation's most tech-savvy county governments, the survey also points to some big-picture trends that are occurring across the country. For instance, 84 percent of counties that submitted the survey said they are consolidating data centers, applications and staff – a 13 percent increase over the past two years. Meanwhile, 80 percent are pursuing joint service delivery – a 10 percent increase compared to two years ago. In addition, 49 percent said they were implementing business intelligence and/or advanced analytics at the enterprise level – up 18 percent from last year.
And the Winners Are ...
500,000 or more population category:
250,000-499,999 population category:
150,000-249,999 population category:
Less than 150,000 population category:
“This year counties are focused on saving money where they can by simplifying their information technology infrastructure and sharing systems with other governments,” said Todd Sander, the Center for Digital Government's executive director. “Many of them have found ways to provide better information security, transparency and citizen engagement with innovative uses of social media and advanced decision support tools.”
The winning counties in this year's survey are actively working on projects in these focus areas. Here are synopses of what the four No. 1 counties have accomplished.
Montgomery County is tackling the issue of open data and transparency like few counties have, reaching for goals more common in big cities and state governments. Backed by a mandate established through local legislation, the county launched a major open government initiative featuring a suite of interconnected websites designed to offer data sets and engage citizens in conversations, as well as bring them to the county's mobility, transparency and accountability offerings. In whole, the program is called openMontgomery.
“We're very excited about it and have grand plans to expand it in the future,” John Gillick, the county's technology services manager, said about openMontgomery.
In tandem with the transparency program, Montgomery County launched a mobile application strategy of creating HTML 5-based mobile applications. The county's mobile website is now the launching place for HTML 5 applications such as real-time bus data and 311. With openMontgomery, the county is encouraging the public to use the data for writing their own applications.
In addition, many of openMontgomery's online components are hosted in the county's private cloud, which includes more than 100 applications and 22 departments, groups or agencies. Montgomery County says it’s saving $2 million annually through the private cloud strategy.
Last year the county also started a formal innovation program and appointed a chief innovation officer, utilized its data analytics program called CountyStat, continued to expand its private fiber network to additional sites, including the local public school system and a college.
In the midst of all this, Gillick said everyone that recognizes the budget is a constraint for Montgomery County’s government, as it is in most other counties.
“Money is tight; we try to do the best with what we have," he said. "We have smart people working here, and that's how we get things done."
Chesterfield County has regularly placed in the top five in the Digital Counties Survey, and came out on top this year due to the completion of several projects that were a long time in the making.
As with many local governments, Chesterfield County is engaged in mobile and social projects. A major bring-your-own-device pilot is leveraging desktop virtualization for hundreds of users and devices. The county has finished a speedy mobile version of its website, and county departments like animal control are moving into Facebook and social media channels.
Work continues to optimize citizen services. Chesterfield County has been expanding its CitizenWiFi initiative to nearly 90 locations. County libraries, meanwhile, are now lending PCs to residents.
Chesterfield County and its Board of Supervisors also continue to get high marks for transparency. When the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors approved a financial plan for fiscal 2013, all presentations, videos and a searchable line-item version of the budget were posted online for citizens to view.
CIO Barry Condrey said it all starts with the Board of Supervisors, which he said has always supported investing in technology. The county tries to proactively provide solutions as departments need them, and priority is given to projects that can be used at the enterprise level – 10 or more departments.
“We spend a lot of time making sure we're working on the right stuff," Condrey said. "There's always three times as much need as there are people and resources to do the work."
Chesterfield County is one of eight Virginia counties making an appearance in the 2013 Digital Counties Survey Rankings. Condrey said that may be due in part because cities and counties are completely separate entities in Virginia. Cities don't reside in counties.
“We're used to having to be more independent and fending for ourselves, and that's led many Virginia localities to seek their own efficiencies and innovations, and ferret out their own applications for their population," he said. "I think it drives a lot of innovation."
Catawba County is trying hard to ensure all its technology services and systems are as mobile-friendly as possible.
“We are constantly exploring ways to make our system better and adapt to all the new devices out there,” said CIO Terry Bledsoe. “I think that's probably what put us out front [in the survey rankings]. There's hardly a week that goes by that we don't change something to make it a little bit easier for somebody to use some type of device.”
For instance, the maps on the county’s GIS site are available on everything from a desktop to a smartphone, and are adaptable and easy to use for citizens and workers alike. The county’s programmers commandeered every type and brand of device they could find to make sure the maps worked correctly.
Mobility even has reached into the world of building permits, where Catawba County has put QR codes on building permit cards to help contractors and interested residents access property ownership details, inspection times and other information on their smartphones. The QR codes link to a GIS site where these data sets are publicly available.
Catawba County is making strides in several other areas besides mobility. The county launched “best practice dashboards” that link metrics to budget and performance goals. For example, under a dashboard for the county’s 911 center is updated information on dispatch call numbers and call times, as well as several other statistics.
The county also is involved in a public-private regional EcoComplex with Appalachian State University that is converting waste products to energy or raw materials. The facility is selling excess power back to the grid, and a biodiesel operation there is turning corn, soybean and sunflower crops into biofuel, some of which is powering the county’s vehicle fleet. Bledsoe’s department used a National Association of Counties grant to build out a wireless mesh network throughout the EcoComplex, which is several hundred acres.
Charles County made two big leaps last year that propelled it to the top of the Digital Counties Survey. One was an all-in approach to mobility, which gave county employees the “either-or” choice of bringing their own device or opting instead for a county-issued BlackBerry. The county also began issuing tablets and installed an overarching mobile device management system called Airwatch, while focusing on developing and acquiring mobile applications for use in the county's mobile ecosystem.
The other priority was a complete overhaul of Charles County's website and development of a new mobile website. Employees in all areas have been empowered to update the websites' content so that IT staff doesn’t have to manage the updates alone anymore.
Along the way, Charles County constructed its first LEED-certified building (a library), installed building automation systems, has three electric vehicle charging stations at county facilities, offered streaming video of live and past meetings of the County Commissioners, and put the Planning Commission's documents on a cloud solution to improve efficiency and transparency.
Charles County IT chief Evelyn Jacobson said the community is reaping the benefits of a supportive governing board that realizes the value of technology, and is leaning on the county's experienced IT staff and developers, who bring many years of institutional knowledge to the new projects. The county's institutional fiber network also is invaluable, she said, because it's bringing high-speed Internet to about 100 sites, and allows those locations to utilize the same tools as what’s being used at the county building.
“We have a lot of positive things going for us here,” Jacobson said.