A county IT leader may encounter any number of existential crises: Budget cuts shred the IT workforce. Wildfires literally burn half the county to the ground. A new business process dumps 80,000 new users into the system. These are the kinds of things that can break an IT shop.

The winners of the 16th Annual Digital Counties Survey, conducted by the Center for Digital Government, have tackled these and a range of other seemingly mortal threats, and come out shining. They’ve learned to cope with the unexpected and seen their thoughtful investments bear fruit in the face of unexpected challenges.

In this national contest, California counties represented well — Nevada County, in the population category of up to 150,000, and Sonoma County, in the population category of 500,000-999,999 — were first-place winners.

“Innovative counties are utilizing technology and data to better inform and protect themselves and their citizens, to save taxpayer money and to provide a better citizen experience,” said Teri Takai, CDG executive director. “The Center for Digital Government congratulates this year’s winners for all the efforts they are making to improve the lives of their residents and others.”

Nevada County: ‘The Secret Sauce’

In Nevada County, where staff headcount is down 26 percent from pre-recession levels, CIO Steve Monaghan is learning to do more with less. 

That means doing the big jobs first: Cybersecurity is critical, and he’s attacked that. It also means leveraging IT assets. Investments in cloud have helped him to make the most of sparse resources. Mostly, though, Monaghan’s task as an IT leader has been to impart a sense of ownership to all involved in supporting the county’s technology needs. 

“We spend a lot of time building culture around taking an entrepreneurial approach,” he said. “We’ve done workshops; we have done a whole service-management initiative aimed at defining everything we offer, every piece of equipment we manage, so that everything has an owner within IT. Everybody knows who is responsible for what, and we ask people to be entrepreneurs over their own services. We want them to run with the ball.” 

Take, for instance, the network analyst in charge of the VMware farm.

“His documentation is immaculate,” Monaghan said. “He has a very tightly run ship. We know what we have, and as a result, the service level is very high. We’ve never had an outage on that virtual farm, because he has really taken it to heart that those are his.”

Same goes for the analyst overseeing the replacement of the first-generation VPN platform.

“He taps into other members to support that, but ultimately he owns that. There’s a sense of ownership that drives the project forward, which in turn leads to an enhanced, more reliable product for the customer,” the CIO said.

How can a government IT leader spark that entrepreneurial spirit? Much of it comes down to setting expectations.

“In the last six months, we had a Ph.D. in organizational development come in for multiple sessions to refresh our Values and Expectations document, to do a workshop geared around what it means to take ownership,” Monaghan said. “As IT leaders, we have to build these cultural processes, something bigger than any one project. That’s the secret sauce of delivering excellent IT services.”

Other California counties that finished in the top 10 in this category were Mono County (fourth) and Napa County (fifth).

Full results for this population category are detailed here.

Different challenge in Sonoma

The challenges were different for Sonoma County’s IT leaders. When wildfires swept through the region in the fall of 2017, Director of Information Systems John Hartwig found the IT landscape as radically transformed as the rolling hills, now scorched and scarred.

“The wildfires put a lot of things on hold. Everybody had to step back and take a new look at the situation,” he said. Geospatial systems suddenly were front and center, along with document management capabilities. Website volume blew up exponentially.

“GIS, for example, had a huge responsibility in things like tracking the fire, tracking the road closures. All that had a spatial component to it,” he said. “The volume on the websites went up at least three times from everybody trying to seek information and find resources. With document management, suddenly everybody was processing requests that would be essential to us filing for federal aid. That means we needed a lot of forms and a lot of document-capturing tools to make sure our record keeping was clean, consistent and available for future reference.”

The key to success: an early investment in virtualization. 

“We had made an advance move early on to virtual machines, where we were able to shift resources on the fly — storage, memory and processing capacity — to the applications that were most urgent,” Hartwig said. 

The county had begun roughly three years ago to virtualize its server environment: An original inventory of more than 700 servers is now about 90 percent virtualized. That infrastructure delivered the flexibility and agility needed to spin up IT capacity and balance workloads in the face of the new, unexpected demands. 

“It put us in a very good position to add to or share resources. If we have 50 applications that are critical to the response, it’s nice to be able to slide resources over to those applications,” Hartwig said. “I don’t think we could have had all these services up and running if we were still on dedicated equipment.”

Other California counties that placed in the 500,000-999,999 category included San Mateo, which finished third; Ventura, which finished fourth; and San Joaquin, which finished 10th. Full results for this category are available here.

San Mateo County (third)

In keeping with its Silicon Valley roots, San Mateo County does not disappoint when it comes to using tech to serve its more than 764,000 residents. From efforts to push out better Internet connections and tools to its 7,600 employees to efforts to perfect performance-driven government, the county’s IT services is pushing the envelope to deliver the best services possible. Open data plays a critical role in not only the transparency of the government, but also in areas like connecting residents to food-related benefits and public safety initiatives. Through training programs with local organizations and Code for America, the county is better able to create data sets that directly impact residents in tangible ways.

San Mateo is also making great strides in its smart city work. The San Mateo County Telecommunications Authority is being repurposed to promote collaboration around smart cities efforts, policies and strategies. In spring 2018, the county launched SMC Labs at the County Center government campus, which serves as a regional IoT and smart city innovation zone. However, technological innovations also spill over into areas like using drones to assess microwave radio signal strength and using virtual reality in the pain clinic to treat acute and chronic pain.

As open as the county is with data, it's also committed to intensive countywide cybersecurity efforts. From multi-factor authentication requirements and remote access enhancements to social engineering and awareness training, cybersecurity is not taken lightly. San Mateo has also focused on leveraging new partnerships to meet increasing demands. Nestled between the city and county of San Francisco and Mountain View and San Jose, population increases have forced the county to think more critically about how it serves the public. While the region is home to some of the wealthiest Californians, it is also home to some of the most disadvantaged. Bridging the digital divide in these communities is paramount.

Ventura County (fourth)

This year Ventura County continues to push forward technology initiatives that improve processes for both the government and its citizens. The county’s efforts to leverage technology and grow and provide transparency are reflected in a new website that employs artificial intelligence through Microsoft’s chatbot services. The site allows the public to engage with the county via varied, accessible technologies and is aimed at supporting transparency by providing an open data financial site to share the county’s financial priorities and transactions. The OpenGov.com-powered portal is a financial transparency tool that presents the county’s revenues and expenses and includes multi-year trends as well as line-item details. The portal also provides budget management features for county leaders. The county continues to invest in technical training for its workforce to allow for more mobile and analytic solutions for the public.

In its effort to grow and sustain a vibrant economy, the county participates in a local grant program through its Office of Education called VC Innovates. The program aims to advance science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) and entrepreneurial programs at local high schools and encourage students to pursue careers in IT. The county also partners with local community colleges on technology internships and participates in a local IT Guild, consisting of local education and business representatives in an effort to align business needs with university and education curriculums to help generate more job-ready talent. And on the emerging tech front, the county this year created an augmented reality virtual training simulator for firefighters in partnership with a local private-sector company.

San Joaquin County (10th)

Holding steady in its 10th place spot from last year, San Joaquin County is keeping its pace. A key partnership with Google's Government Innovation Lab in the summer of 2015 sought to help the county speed up its hiring process and otherwise increase efficiency. This year, the program expanded to include new and robust employee training. “TechTalks” provide information on new software and systems being implemented to help with day-to-day tasks. 

Along with advancing efficiency inside government walls, the county has kept up strides to make life easier for its constituents. The county website has gone through an internal and external makeover, keeping open data initiatives and enhancing the availability of resources and information to multiple departments within the county. To stir more participation from citizens, San Joaquin has packaged mobile meeting kits to facilitate bringing town hall meetings to wherever a citizen is, while also creating an important presence on social media. 

Google, along with other tech giants like Oracle and AT&T, has their sights set on helping San Joaquin County become a model for smart innovation. Within the next 12-18 months, San Joaquin plans to deploy 5G technology throughout the county. Other partnerships, like one with neighboring Stanislaus County, have helped migrate Disaster Recovery (DR) to a more geographically diverse location. The county is also migrating to Next-Generation 911 in the next 12 to 18 months. 

County CIO Jerry Becker has also served as a leader statewide in the IT industry. He's the president of the California County Information Services Directors Association (CCISDA), and he's featured in a YouTube video highlighting the county's partnership with Google. 

Other California counties that finished in the top 10 nationwide in their respective population categories were:

1 Million and over:

Los Angeles County (fourth)

Easily the most populous county in the country, Los Angeles County serves its 10 million residents with coordinated approaches that share data and technology. Officials helped develop and advocate for a state law to facilitate data sharing among the many stakeholders, including external service providers, involved in providing services to the homeless. A similar coordinated approach is afoot for health-care services, with the aim of enabling a holistic view of the patient across different health departments and streamlining online services for users. The Department of Public Social Services has also automated many aspects of its public assistance eligibility and case management system. The new LEADER Replacement System, which distributes more than $4 billion in benefits per year, makes caseworkers more productive and serves clients more efficiently.

In Los Angeles County, two dedicated funds are earmarked for technology to encourage innovation and cross-agency efforts like the chatbots now in use by animal care and the library. Emerging tech is also being smartly deployed to convince residents to explore parks they haven’t visited before. The park experience has been gamified by county staff, with rare virtual items placed at parks with lower usage. The Public Works Department has a 311 app of sorts called The Works to give residents an easy route to report issues like illegal dumping and graffiti, and to track the county’s progress in dealing with them.

A major data center modernization effort is also in the works for L.A. County, in which many aging data centers will be rotated out of service and “mission-critical” applications will migrate to their own private cloud in a new facility. The process will begin in the next calendar year, with department data expected to move to the new facility by 2021.

Sacramento County (fifth)

Sacramento County is fifth this year among jurisdictions of more than 1 million residents, and California’s capital has recently initiated plans to vastly overhaul its use of technology, with leadership voting to adopt its CIO’s Technology Improvement Plan. This plan calls for replacing a number of systems, including budget management, criminal justice, county clerk recording, voter registration equipment and county property tax information. The effort is slated to extend through 2023, with the CIO publishing annual updates as it progresses. Sacramento has also worked to add other public-facing tech improvements, including 311 capability for service requests, complete with a mobile app. Data from the 311 platform is also driving decision-making processes, subsequently being used to “implement holistic solutions to community problems.” Other ongoing efficiency work includes an internal effort to go paperless.

Another area of note for Sacramento County is its use of tech to solve problems, specifically to address homelessness via an online self-service portal developed for homeless families to register for emergency shelter services. This program has already yielded results, with 1,395 online reservations submitted in the first two months. Open data work has also progressed, with the county now publishing more than 100 open data sets online, as well as deploying a new online portal to make and track requests for public records. Sacramento County’s CIO also maintains the Sacramento Regional Radio Communications System, a network that supports regional public safety partnerships by providing two-way voice radio communications for more than 100 participating agencies. A multi-year project to enhance the current radio system with a 30-channel replacement is underway. Finally, Sacramento County has initiated an analysis of gaps in its cybersecurity, aiming to soon implement an improvement plan that adheres to industry best practices.

San Bernardino County (tied for sixth)

Recent tech efforts in San Bernardino County have secured it a sixth-place showing in this year's Digital Counties Survey. For example, an increasing number of face-to-face interactions with county government are migrating online. These include development and building permits, building inspections, requests for county supervisor appearances and other services that can be handled remotely, saving residents and businesses valuable travel time, rather than driving to the county seat. This is not insignificant, as San Bernardino County covers a larger area than any other county in the lower 48 states. In fact, it is larger than Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined. Further easing citizen interactions, the county also has an “automated receptionist” named Alice that can handle many traditional receptionist tasks, including making payments to the county, and is expected to handle medical marijuana permit processing as well.

To reduce its data center carbon footprint, San Bernardino County is virtualizing much of its environment so that only 10 percent of the data servers are physical. The data center is also able to respond to department needs much quicker, and the servers include high-speed, flash-storage platforms to reduce latency and speed up response times.

Keeping with its mission to better serve a large county, often covering rugged and mountainous terrain, the county surveyor recently began using drones to conduct aerial mapping, which has resulted in reducing time and costs, and enabled mapping to be completed on shorter notice. Elsewhere, San Bernardino County has taken on smart and sustainable initiatives by designing solar and thermal innovations into its new and retrofitted buildings, such as the County High Desert Government Center.

San Diego County (tied for sixth)

A main thrust of San Diego County’s Strategic Plan is to make San Diego the “safest and most resilient community in the nation,” and a key enabler of that is technology. The “Tell Us Now” mobile app provides easy access to key services that promote safety for residents in the unincorporated areas of the county. In addition, the Office of Emergency Services created a Web-based application called “Know Your Hazards,” a localized, easy-to-use, public hazard risk map. With this app, residents can identify local hazards by entering an address to access local preparedness and response recommendations for earthquake, fire, flood and tsunami risk.

One of the county’s goals of “operational excellence” by providing top-notch customer service, is reached through the use of innovative technology, including the use of more than a dozen mobile applications on the County Apps Center. The County News Center provides up-to-date information on matters of public interest and is updated in real time. The county actively uses social media for both disseminating information and garnering feedback from stakeholders and provides a channel for “customer sentiment” to improve the delivery of services. An example is Animal Services, which uses Facebook to highlight animals available for adoption and to provide information about how the public can volunteer and participate in events.

Alameda County (seventh)

Home to more than 1.6 million citizens, the Bay Area’s Alameda County has a lot on its plate. Despite dropping three spots from its fourth-place position last year, Alameda still aims to stay as citizen-centric as possible — while also homing in on its roots and utilizing technology to improve countless services. In the next 12-24 months, a digital help desk system leveraging Cortana will be available online to answer questions and refer citizens to relevant information. Jumping on the blockchain train, new tech will be used to register land and properties, and ownership and title disputes can be tracked transparently, immediately creating a digital backup. To top it all off, a Mobile Citizen app was unveiled last year, allowing constituents to report community problems from their smartphones.

A strong IT workforce starts with strong recruitment. Posting job openings on sites such as LinkedIn, Careers in Government and Twitter help create a social media presence to spread the word about new positions. The county’s ability to retain staff also played a key part in the success of important projects. Perhaps part of its success in retention can be credited to the Training and Education Center, which provides year-round classroom training for county employees that 55 percent of personnel participate in.

On the safety side, California’s October 2017 wildfires provided the foundation for a partnership with Sonoma County and MapBox where they use aerial drone imagery to collect pertinent data during natural disasters. Another Sonoma County partnership provides a much-needed reciprocal host for Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity infrastructure, using the cloud to provide storage to support redundant services and back up data. With 311 already implemented, E-911 came next, allowing the county to track the location of 911 calls.

250,000-499,999: Santa Cruz County (sixth)

Santa Cruz County, population 262,382, was one of the many California communities that faced wildfire and flooding this past year, and the county IT department was required to rise to the occasion. When mudslides caused by heavy rain disrupted roads, power and communications within the county, the IT team brought a business continuity center online in order to maintain important functions like payroll, accounting and tax systems. A loss of the wide area network connection, caused by a wildfire, led the county to begin implementing BGP (Border Gateway Protocol). This setup will establish a redundant link between two Internet service providers — AT&T, which currently provides Internet for county employees and services, and Cruzio, the local ISP with which Santa Cruz County partners to provide free public Wi-Fi — so that if one goes down, the other can continue to provide a connection.

Reorganization and modernization was a focus for the county IT department, which evaluated and rewrote all of its job classifications, thus attracting better applicants with modern job titles and descriptions. The IT team also finally finished a two-year effort to get everyone into the same room (literally). The improved work environment includes state-of-the-art workstations and equipment and a community space where everyone can get together.

Cannabis was recently made legal in the state of California, and Santa Cruz County IT has been lending its services in facilitating this new market. First, the team built a licensing system for cultivators, and then expanded it to include dispensaries. Countywide code enforcement for cannabis also just went live.

And an interesting piece of tech that the county adopted recently is a set of smart refrigerators for storing vaccines, which alert staff of temperature changes so they can save the vaccines from spoiling if the refrigerators malfunction or lose power.

This report is excerpted from Techwire sister publication Government Technology’s full wrapup, which is available here. The Center for Digital Government, which conducts the survey, is part of the e.Republic portfolio.