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State of the Counties

NACo's CTO and new president talk technology, homeland security and collaboration.

by / October 4, 2004
Angelo Kyle, a member of the Lake County, Ill., Board of Commissioners, became president of the National Association of Counties (NACo) in July at the association's annual meeting in Phoenix, Ariz. Kyle unveiled several presidential initiatives, including development of a Web portal to allow NACo member counties to share best practices, RFPs, architectures and application source code. Kyle and NACo Chief Technology Officer Bert Jarreau discussed county technology issues and the organization's future plans in an interview with Government Technology.

What are NACo's technology goals for the coming year?
We are developing a technology sharing initiative where all counties will have access to a portal for sharing technology-oriented information. County governments have the opportunity to tie into that network, access information and implement potential programs.

One of the things we initially sought was to give "have" counties the ability to provide applications to "have-not" counties. Once counties expend the money and effort to develop an application, they're very happy to give it to others. But they don't have a good mechanism to share those resources.

We're working with Microsoft and HP to create the platform to readily share applications. And I think we've come up with an easy way to do that.

Our business partners like it too because they understand if a county wants to implement a project tracking system developed by Los Angeles County, for example, they'll need help.

This is one of three "presidential initiatives" you've outlined for 2004. What raised it to that level of importance?
We feel the information has been available, but counties have not been in the position to readily share it. They come up with their own individual programs isolated within their own counties. There might be other counties across the country that have similar needs and could benefit, but those two county governments might never cross paths. So this gives other counties the ability to access that information about how one particular county addressed a problem.

In addition, we want to provide video conferences -- maybe on a quarterly basis -- to give county governments an update or status report on what's happening on Capitol Hill. We'll set up video conferences where county governments across the country can tap in and access the latest information.

What challenges do counties face in deploying new technology?
A lot of the rural counties don't have the infrastructure available to take advantage of the benefits of technology. It could be an issue of money or of just not being astute enough to realize the benefits of technology.

We have a NACo board member who still uses a typewriter -- not an electric typewriter. He says he doesn't use computers, and e-mail to him is a 37-cent stamp. He doesn't have a laptop or a desktop PC. These are the types of individuals who need to be educated and indoctrinated as to the benefits of technology.

How is the current economic climate in county government?
A lot of state governments are encountering million- and billion-dollar deficits. A lot of cities are encountering million-dollar deficits. But in general, county governments are some of the most financially stable governments in this nation.

I think we are prudent budget overseers. We really try to stick to a balanced budget. We don't try to overextend our means.

How well are federal homeland security funds reaching counties?
We are still encouraging the federal government to allocate more homeland security dollars to county governments. Out of the three terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, county governments were the first responders in two of them. You had Arlington County, Va., and Somerset County, Pa.

This shows that in the case of an attack, the state probably won't be the first on the scene. You're not going to bring in state troopers. They won't be the first there. They don't operate fire departments, police departments or emergency medical services.

That in itself should justify and substantiate to the federal government why county governments should receive those federal dollars for homeland security. You have states lobbying that the money should go there, and what's happening now is most of the dollars are going to states. It trickles down to the local level, but not without the state taking theirs off the top.

What do counties need?
It's equipment and technology, but in addition, it's training. County governments need training dollars for how to respond to a terrorist attack. As you know, we were caught totally off guard. It wasn't like city and county governments were having continuous training programs for how to respond to terrorist attacks. So first and foremost, we need dollars to train county officials how to respond. And then we get into equipment and supplies.

The ability to communicate across various jurisdictions is key to effective response. What technologies will be important to that?
We're finding that counties need fire trucks, but those trucks also need to know where to go. So they need information systems and technology that provide them with a GIS map of how to get where they need to go, for example.

Interoperability is critical. Historically counties have been stovepiped IT operations. They don't have enterprise-type systems. So interoperability efforts started after 9/11 with radio systems, trying to get them to interoperate.

That's a continuing effort, and now you also have information systems that need to interoperate. If you have a terrorist event taking place, police and fire department information systems have to work together.

In addition, neighboring counties' systems also need to interrelate with them. For example, is a criminal justice information system providing information to the police department in the next county in the case of a police chase? Those are real things that have happened in the Washington, D.C., area where bad guys have gotten away.

So interoperability is happening at two levels: telecommunications and enterprise architecture information systems.

KYLE: It forces cities and counties to work together for a change. In our county, we've never worked that closely with other local municipalities. So homeland security forces us to network, prepare and work together to respond to these threats.

So it's not just a technology issue?
Right. It's partnerships and working together. That's what it's all about. A lot of local jurisdictions never even talk to each other. A lot of cities never confer with counties, and vice versa.

Homeland security forces us to share information and use technology so we can know what neighboring jurisdictions are doing, and the planning aspects of that. Each of us needs to know what our responsibilities are, so we won't clash.

In Lake County, we have what are deemed potential targets: the Zion nuclear power plant, Lake Michigan -- the Great Lakes provide 30 percent of the nation's fresh water -- and the headquarters for several major pharmaceutical and medical supply companies.

We feel like we're responsible for the security of the entire county, but we also must work with other local jurisdictions -- the city the power plant sits in, for example. We need to coordinate with that city, so they know what we're doing and we know what they're doing.

It forces us to work together -- it's network by default.

Where do you want to be a year from now, as far as technology is concerned?
We want to raise awareness by showing counties the benefits of technology. We're showing them how, in the long run, it can actually save the county dollars. Technology can help them provide those services that they don't have funding to hire a physical staff person for.

And then we're developing the portal for information sharing. It's the platform for collaborating with other county governments. If they're experiencing challenges, this portal will identify other counties that have the same issues and problems, and identify how they resolved those challenges.

We want the sharing of ideas to lead to solutions and long-term collaboration between counties.

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