Counties Lead the Way – View from the Digital Counties Awards 2011

A few weeks ago, I sat amongst some of the most tech savvy counties in the U.S. at the Center for Digital Government’s 2011 Digital Counties Awards.

Each year, the Center selects county winners in population categories based on a survey of their IT efforts.

Because these counties span all different geographies and populations, the discussions were a microcosm of the issues facing county government. Based on some incredible conversations with people who are passionate about government IT, here are my “big three” on what is affecting county governments’ use of IT today:

1. Grant funding stays, staff cuts go

Not surprisingly, most counties are looking for grant funds to continue their IT investments. But, at the same time a smaller majority than last year said they expected additional staff reductions to get through the next budget cycle.

Several counties commented to me that they had done some drastic staff cuts early on and that they were not interested in cutting further, although that was dependent upon how revenues looked. They were very concerned about the workload for their current staff and were unwilling to make cuts that would increase the workloads further. In their mind, this meant that the search for technology that could relieve some of the workload was a critical focus for any IT investment.

2. Same services for constituents with less staff? Enter self-service

Less than half of the counties thought they would make further cuts in services that they deliver to their constituents. Amongst the award winners, many were looking to find self-service options, mobile opportunities and increased online services to continue service delivery but with less need to staff the option. In fact, for these forward-thinking counties, how to deliver the same services for less money and at lower staffing levels is strongly motivating and driving IT investments.

3. Getting technology – even if it means cooperation and collaboration

Holding the line on the level of services is producing other strong IT trends related to how these agencies are getting their technology. Much of the discussion that I heard was attendees looking for ideas from their colleagues for sharing service delivery including 1)hosting applications, 2)hiring other jurisdictions’ staffs to do IT work and 3)joining together to do the same type of tasks using the same solutions and hardware in the cloud. The conversation suggested that shared services are being viewed as very viable options and no longer an aberration of city-county consolidation.

I was especially interested about the cloud talk. The attendees I spoke with were exploring the cloud as a way to avoid paying for hardware, or to even just share the costs of the hardware. But the unanimous value proposition for the cloud was that it could speed deployment by using a solution that is already developed and deployed. The kernel of importance for these counties kept coming back to rapid ROI. Certainly they are concerned about hardware costs, but in many ways, cloud offerings present the chance of compressing the deployment phase and showing ROI much more quickly than in the past. Faster ROI was definitely a theme and for these leaders, a way to get IT investments approved despite budget concerns.

Each year the Digital Counties Awards provide some insight into those counties which see IT as an important component in their efforts to serve their constituents. This year’s trends – continuing budget issues, a strong effort to hold the line on services and a new heightened look to IT to make services be more affordable – demonstrates the determination to keep serving their citizens as well as they can – and that they have a strong belief that technology investments and faster ROI is the only way to success.

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