The pandemic has elevated the importance of the digital world and set new standards of connectedness for all of us. Nearly every industry has had to adapt, and the public sector is no exception.
County governments, with vast responsibilities for community health, well-being, infrastructure, safety, environmental stewardship and a host of other key functions, have adapted to new realities, challenges and opportunities. Much of this has been accomplished with the expertise and assistance of county IT leaders.
County IT leaders have also developed a series of technology priorities for 2022, including improved cybersecurity, IT leadership recruitment and retention, data governance, broadband, cloud adoption, autonomous innovation, and technology support for rural counties.
There are several challenges that resonate across industries and are increasingly significant for local governments: cybersecurity, staffing recruitment and retention, cyber insurance and broadband.
Counties Face Staffing Challenges in Securing Infrastructure
To address cybersecurity challenges, counties are implementing and maintaining secure infrastructure, which is necessary to protect resident and county data. This includes finding funding to implement monitoring tools and continuous end-user phishing testing and education and to conduct cyber simulation events.
Another challenge for county IT departments is recruiting and retaining technology employees with relevant experience. Counties are searching for solutions that will provide competitive compensation, advancement opportunities (especially in small counties), and the option of remote work. To help with IT staff recruitment and retention, counties have access to robust training programs such as cyber leadership development and quarterly weeklong cyber simulations.
Counties Also Confront Issues with Insurance and Broadband
Maintaining affordable cyber insurance is among the most pronounced challenges for counties. Counties are required to meet higher security standards, which is good, but we are also experiencing fourfold increases in premiums as well as decreased coverage. They have had to balance cost with risks in protecting county data assets.
Access to broadband has long been an issue for counties and residents alike. Lack of reliable broadband is a major barrier to socioeconomic opportunity, education, health care and improved quality of life. Without access to high-speed internet, many rural communities — and even pockets in urban areas — are isolated and left behind.
The National Association of Counties (NACo) continues to provide resources to help expand access to affordable broadband. Three years ago, we were pleased to launch the TestIT app, which allows users to test and report broadband speeds anonymously and in real time. The resulting data is being used to better inform federal investments in broadband infrastructure. We also released a report that outlines paths forward for bridging the digital divide.
Tech Xchange Brings County Leaders Together to Pool Knowledge
The NACo County TechXchange network has become an instrumental resource as counties transition to a new normal that includes increasing cyberthreats and greater demand for connectivity and online tools for residents. This network has grown to over 530 counties, with 820 individuals participating.
Tech Xchange members have developed new resources to share their collective knowledge and experiences. These include a telework toolkit, an assessment of cyber security priorities and best practices, and a cyber guide for counties.
As county technology priorities have evolved during the pandemic, we have seen complex challenges converted into opportunities. Many counties pivoted to online to deliver marriage license services. Other counties expanded library Wi-Fi so that residents without internet at home could access online services in library parking lots. And where county staffers didn’t have laptops, county IT staff quickly created “desktops to go” that were delivered to employees’ homes.
While technology challenges remain, counties are poised to address them with ingenuity and coordination with our state and local partners.