Aug 09 2021

What Are Counties’ Top IT Priorities in 2021?

Hybrid work, data privacy, cybersecurity and the customer experience are among key concerns identified in the latest Digital Counties Survey.

County governments are often overlooked amid the development of smart cities and governors and state CIOs undertaking statewide initiatives. However, they have been the nerve centers of the public health response to the coronavirus pandemic and have been crucial providers of citizen services.

According to a recently released survey, county government leaders think the top technologies and initiatives likely to garner focus in the next year include cybersecurity, citizen or customer experience, and engagement and business process automation.

The 2021 Digital Counties Survey, which was released in mid-July by the National Association of Counties and the Center for Digital Government think tank, “identifies the best technology practices among U.S. counties, including initiatives that streamline delivery of government services; encourage open data, collaboration, and shared services; enhance cybersecurity; and contribute to disaster response and recovery efforts,” according to Government Technology.

As the pandemic raged, counties’ traditional focus on budget and cost control became less of a concern (it ranks ninth on the survey’s list of 10 top technologies and initiatives). Counties instead focused on the pandemic response, digital government service delivery and ensuring that services were maintained.

“The fiscal pressures dropped,” Phil Bertolini, the center’s vice president and former CIO of Oakland County, Mich., said during NACo’s annual conference in July, as StateScoop reports. “First, leadership priorities shifted immediately, the value of tech rose dramatically. People needed technology more than they ever had before. The acceptance of digital grew with citizens.”

Data Protection Digital Government Are Key Priorities

The pandemic has raised citizens’ expectations of government, especially in terms of responding to a major emergency, Bertolini said, according to StateScoop.

“I believe government got a bit of a pass during the pandemic on technology,” he said. “What do you think is going to happen next time? You’re not going to get a pass. Time to deliver on expectations.”

That may be why citizen or customer experience and engagement is seen as such a high priority. It is also telling that cloud computing rose from No. 7 in 2020 to No. 5 on the list of top priorities this year, as more county governments see the value in shifting applications to the cloud and employing more modern infrastructure.

Wanda Gibson, CIO and director of IT for Prince George’s County, Md., one of the survey winners, tells Government Technology that a guiding philosophy for the county was to ensure that both county employees and citizens had access to whatever they needed to thrive throughout the pandemic.

The county worked on several projects outside its pandemic response to improve citizen services, including upgrading its 311 platform, enhancing the back end of the country’s website and digitizing paper-based processes.

“How we did it? I cannot say,” Gibson said, “other than through a very dedicated, public-service-oriented IT staff with good partners.”

According to Bertolini, many counties have been working to improve their data governance and hire more data analytics specialists. Fully 85 percent of survey respondents called data privacy a “primary concern.”

“Data is power,” he said, according to StateScoop. “Geospatial data has been on your plate for years. You need professionals to do that.”

RELATED: How are counties using modern tech to improve public assistance?

Hybrid Work Appears Here to Stay for Counties

The shift to a hybrid work model was also an area of concern, as it seems clear that many counties are not going to return to having all employees come into a physical office five days per week.

“It’s tough to assume everything’s going to go back to the way it was,” Bertolini said. “Policies and processes are important to make sure this work.”

While some county leaders are hesitant about a larger proportion of their workforce operating remotely, the pandemic has shown that government services can continue to be delivered amid remote work.

“What do we care about where they do it, as long as they do it,” he said, according to StateScoop, recalling hurdles in implementing a remote work policy for his IT employees in Oakland County in 2013. “I wanted remote work for our staff so bad, and my county executive said, ‘No, I want to see them.’ I told him, ‘They work in a different building, you don’t see them anyway.’”

According to the survey, 62 percent of counties still have more than 30 percent of their staff members working remotely, as StateScoop reports. Meanwhile, 78 percent of counties reported that they can support at least 30 percent of their workforces operating remotely on an ongoing basis.

“It works, but it doesn’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t work for every position,” Bertolini said. “You need the dome. You need the place of government. Government should never be 100 percent virtual. It should be a hybrid.”

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