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Latah County, Idaho, IT Does Big Work in Small Jurisdiction

Laurel Caldwell, IT director in the county of just 39,000 residents, discusses delivering a full suite of online services and building strong relationships among county agencies despite limited resources.

1. You recently helped launch a statewide County CIO Forum. What do you hope to achieve?

That started from attending a National Association of Counties conference where Iowa presented on its county association, and we wondered whether we could do that in Idaho. It’s about county IT leaders coming together to work on similar initiatives. It happens that 35 of the 44 counties use the same vendor for a lot of their software, so there’s a lot we can do to compare and to help each other. 

We had our first meeting last year and we are trying to meet three times a year. At our next meeting, we plan to talk about how to handle forensic evidence when we have a cybersecurity breach. We’re going to have someone from the state presenting on how we can work together, especially around cybersecurity issues. For me, it’s all about having a bigger set of IT people to bounce ideas off of. 

2. Latah is a small county. What challenges does that present?

For our state, Latah County is more of a medium-sized county. We have a small staff, about four people, but other counties have just one or two people. But we have the same problems as bigger places, especially around cybersecurity. We still have to secure the network and there’s never enough money, never enough expertise and never enough time in the day to get it all done. The smaller tax base obviously is an added limitation to how fast we can move on things.

We prioritize based on what the county wants to move forward with, and we move through those methodically — sometimes the answer is no, we can’t do it this year. From my perspective, the top priority is cybersecurity, getting solutions in place to protect the network and data, and doing end-user training on cybersecurity. But that means that when the sheriff’s office asked for a new evidence server solution, we just don’t have the funding for that this year.

3. What’s your biggest recent accomplishment?

We did a major overhaul on our county website and did that in-house, which required a lot of resources. We had an older website, built around 2007, and it needed to accommodate the ADA requirements and to work on other devices like tablets and cellphones. It took a lot of dedicated staff time, and there were challenges in getting updated information from each department. The result is a big improvement from where we were, and it’s still a work in progress. There are always things we can make better with the website.

4. You’ve been in this role for 10 years. What’s changed?

In government, things are always changing. Whenever you have new elected officials who cycle through, you get different requests for what the network should do. And the technology itself has changed considerably in 10 years. We’ve tried to take advantage of all the training that is available to keep up with the technology options, especially the emergence of cloud.

I also see that a lot of the public agencies are more willing to share information and collaborate. When I first started, things were siloed, you were on your own. Today when we see that county and city issues overlap, people will compare what they’re doing, what software they’re using. There’s a lot more open discussion now, and that helps a lot. It gives us more options for how we can solve any given problem when people aren’t limited to their own networks. When neighboring cities and counties collaborate, everyone benefits. 

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.
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