Todd Sander is executive director of the Center for Digital Government, a U.S. research and advisory institute on information technology policies and best practices in state and local government.

The center, based in Folsom, Calif., performs a number of surveys on digital states, counties, and cities every year. It recently released the results of its 11th annual  Digital Counties Survey, showcasing the local governments that most effectively and efficiently use digital technologies to serve their citizens.

What is the Digital Counties survey, and why do you do it?

Each year, we do a Digital Counties survey where we invite counties to submit responses to a series of questions about how they’re using information and communication. Then we rank them from 1 to 10, for population categories. A panel of judges — researchers, center senior fellows, past practitioners, and so on — evaluate and rank the submissions.

We do it because part of the mission of the center is to share best practices across jurisdictions. We gain insights into counties that are leading or the best at using technology. We look for opportunities to highlight things they’re doing, and work to share that with other local and state governments. We received just under 200 submissions. We break it against the population, so big counties are competing with big counties.

Really, it’s kind of amazing what can be done without a lot of money if you have the right leadership and the focus of what the technology can do. Factors include leadership, focus, and the priority that a government of any size puts on technology. Some see IT as an answer to current challenges and economic stressors, while other see it as an overhead cost that should be contained. There’s a real difference based largely on how they view it.

What are some trends you noticed in this year’s survey?

There’s an increase in focus on shared services. In 2012, of the top 10 initiatives, shared services was number 8. It’s number 1 this year. That’s pretty significant. It indicates to us that counties, in particular, are putting more emphasis on sharing technology with cities, towns, states, and even educational institutions, k-12 public education, and community colleges. They’re even working with utilities and that sort of thing. It’s creating a broader collaboration then we’ve seen in the past when it comes to sharing technology.

The reason is economic. People have realized that not everyone can have their own implementation. Plus, the technology itself has gotten better. It lends itself to more organizations sharing systems. The move to a cloud-based infrastructure makes it easier to share information.

Also, the relationships are changing a little bit. They’re getting to know each other better. There’s a higher level of trust between the different levels of government than in the past. Some of it is economic necessity, and some of it is maturity.

What surprised you the most about the results of this year’s survey?

One of the things that surprised us had to do with another one of the categories, the implementation of business intelligence and analytics. Governments are starting to make more use of what’s sometimes called “big data.”  The implementation of that was up 18% over the previous year. There’s been a lot of talk about it, but the fact that counties have made that much progress with it was a bit of a surprise – a good surprise. It provides a lot of opportunities for governments to make better decisions. Previously, they had the data, but they didn’t have access to it. It’s moved the public policy discussion from anecdotal to one that’s more fact-based and data-driven, and I think that’s a good thing for communities.


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