California Digital Counties Winners Cited for COVID-19 Efforts

Nine of California's 58 counties were winners this year in the 18th Annual Digital Counties Survey, conducted by the Center for Digital Government and published annually by Government Technology magazine. Generally, they exhibited a focus on planning and were underway on initiatives that proved vital when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

Nine of California’s counties, or more than 15 percent of the state’s 58 counties, were among the winners in the 18th Annual Digital Counties Survey, conducted by the Center for Digital Government* and published annually by Government Technology* magazine.

Winners, including three first-place recipients, leaned heavily on planning — with all being underway on projects that “turned out to be game-changers when the pandemic struck,” according to GT contributor Adam Stone. Collaboration tools, digital signature technologies and app development all helped California’s nine winners grapple with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s a look at California’s winners:

Population of 1 million or more

• First Place — Los Angeles County

Before the pandemic, Los Angeles County had already identified mobility as a top-priority item in its IT enterprise strategic plan. When the need arose to support remote work for some 30,000 employees, those early investments paid off. At the start of 2020, the county was already spending around $6.5 million to buy and deploy laptops and tablets. Its IT department already leveraged tools including Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams and WebEx. Another strategic goal was moving processes off paper via e-forms and e-signature, an initiative that Chief Information Officer Bill Kehoe said has been “exponentially accelerated” by COVID. Ongoing renewals such as a new identity and access management platform implemented last year; the consolidation of multiple departmental licenses into one five-year enterprise pact with Microsoft; and the deployment of Office 365 in 2015 were also tremendously helpful in enabling staffers to keep working when the pandemic hit.

• Fifth Place — Alameda County

Thinking holistically helped Alameda County look past new technology to better processes — re-engineering its application process for In-Home Supportive Services end-to-end; establishing “data marts” to smooth out data importation of information used by hundreds of employees; and, earlier this year, piloting the quicker release of people awaiting trial by getting their paperwork to judges faster, and automating inmate tracking and reporting. The county dealt swiftly with wildfires during the last 12 months, with its IT department standing up a temporary contact center within 24 hours; when a cyberattack struck two of its cities, Alameda temporarily severed contact but worked with the cities on recovery. And during the pandemic, it was able to take advantage of a new telework policy while implementing e-signature, moving meetings to video, deploying a chatbot for common health questions and creating a mobile app to help people find homeless shelters.

• Seventh Place — San Diego County

The state’s second-largest county by population after Los Angeles has outsourced its information and telecommunications services since 1999 but made a strong showing on bread-and-butter IT. Officials updated their Cyber Disruption Response Plan for the region, which hadn’t been refreshed since 2015, in December; in February, the county stood up a solution to offer employees continuous cybersecurity training. In response to COVID, staff increased the network's physical Internet capacity tenfold; implemented an Akamai VPN solution that enabled telework for more than 5,000 staff; offered telework connectivity training via live webinars; secured and re-imaged more than 600 laptops; and added AdobeSign for electronic signature. In March, over three business weeks — a timeline moved up by roughly a year due to COVID — the county migrated from a two-redundant, load balance, diverse, 1-gigabyte Internet connection to one that’s completely diverse and 10 gigabytes, to support 10,000 newly minted remote employees.

• Tenth Place — San Bernardino County

A key area of focus for this county was improving cybersecurity. In 2018, San Bernardino hired its first chief information security officer, Robert K. Pittman Jr., and under his leadership created a Countywide Information Security Program (CISP) that led to countywide information security awareness training and the first internal cybersecurity website for county staff. Officials also added a cybersecurity review to the county’s RFP and purchasing contract negotiation processes. The county recently launching a website standardization initiative targeting customer-facing websites; and upgraded to a mobile-based system for its annual Homeless Point-in-Time Count.

Population of 500,000 to 999,999

• First Place — Ventura County

This coastal county won plaudits for its work in telemedicine — building quickly on a fledgling program when COVID-19 hit, by seeking partners to work with the hundreds of physicians already engaged in telemedicine. Patients were rapidly shifted to remote visits supported by and Microsoft Teams; while inside hospitals, officials used iPads to improve the patient experience in areas where phones don’t always work well and Wi-Fi is needed for medical care. It provided “patients in isolation with some great social access, some access to family and friends,” Interim CIO Terry Theobald said. Elsewhere across the enterprise, the county had already consolidated its approach to IT security, with its CIO, CISO and information security manager all working closely on a countywide task force — and the agency blocking more than 6 million questionable emails per month since the pandemic began.

• Seventh Place — San Joaquin County

San Joaquin moved up this year, buoyed by improvements in cybersecurity and disaster recovery. The agency created a three-year cybersecurity strategy and implemented enhanced end-user training and endpoint security; and in disaster recovery, it stood up a DR site for data storage, separate from its data center, that can restore all mission-critical systems within two hours. In September 2019, the county began piloting an apprenticeship program for employees in its Information Systems Division. And in response to the pandemic, the county stood up a chatbot, AskSJC, in three languages, to take the burden off its call centers.

Population of 250,000 to 499,999

• Fourth Place — Placer County

The IT agency of Placer County grappled with wildfire-related Public Safety Power Shutoffs and the COVID-19 pandemic this year — enhancing its sustainability and resiliency by virtualizing servers and shifting apps to software as a service. The agency has been focused on cloud-first since late 2017, so when the pandemic struck, it moved about 70 percent of its workforce to telework almost immediately. IT also deployed a secure remote desktop gateway for remote access; stood up a call center for filter pandemic-related inquiries that the state praised and suggested other counties emulate; and its GIS staff used Esri’s ArcGIS tools to create internal and external dashboards with pandemic information. Based on the recommendations of its Information Security Working Committee, the county moved to an enterprise license with Okta to enable single sign-on and multifactor authentication for cloud applications; and moved to Zscaler to better safeguard equipment connected to remote networks.

Population up to 150,000

• First Place — Mono County

Mono County focused heavily on customer service and success before the pandemic, implementing a management system built in-house to drive timely ticket response. During COVID, officials have tailored an ongoing Office 365 rollout for remote work, leveraging its app proxy solution to publish on-prem apps that are securitized for working at home. The county’s GIS team used Esri technology to stand up a COVID response portal and created a dedicated app to manage the internal response, from epidemiology to contact tracing to economic recovery.

• Third Place — Nevada County

This mountainous Northern California county near Lake Tahoe also faced wildfire-related power shutoffs, which its IT department took steps to address — mapping fire risks and evacuation routes and developing an app to locate and assess dead and dying trees. IT also hardened telecommunications infrastructure and disaster backup sites and created email, text and Internet programs to deliver information with the electricity off. The agency has also implemented multi-factor authentication for all external access, which bolsters its remote work; adopted MS-ISAC’s ALBERT network monitoring program; and deployed vulnerability scanning and microsegmentation.

*The Center for Digital Government and Government Technology magazine are part of e.Republic, parent company of Techwire.