August 22, 2023

Innovation at the County Level: What I Learned at the 2023 NACo Conference

A case for open source software, inter-county communication, and multi-disciplinary teams following the NACo 2023 Conference.

A couple weeks ago, I spent 5 days in Austin, TX, networking with county officials, learning about the various challenges they face and discussing solutions to create equitable systems at the National Association of County officials Conference (NACo). 

As I walked inside from 102 degree weather to a chilly conference center, I could feel the excitement — county officials come together every year to exchange ideas, see their friends and colleagues, and network with new folks working in local government. The feeling of camaraderie was strong and the energy from learning new things, meeting new people, and experiencing the unexpected was everywhere. Discussions about economic mobility, workforce development, and inter-county collaboration were taking place in ballrooms across the conference center. 

Exygy team members Antonella Guidoccio, Hannah Smith (author), and Bonnie Goode gather in front of Exygy's booth in the Austin Convention Center.

Through the many panels, talks, workshops and conversations, over and over again we heard the same thing: the most impactful change happens when counties communicate, collaborate and share resources amongst one another. So how can we put that into practice? After taking some time to reflect on the experience, here are three themes that stood out as being critical for local government leaders right now. 

  1. Multidisciplinary teams succeed with focused task forces

Sonoma County reduced homelessness by 9% between 2018 and 2020 by removing silos and creating multidisciplinary teams to solve the complex issue of housing inequity. While Sonoma County had a breadth of resources available, the issue was access and integration — they formed these teams to ensure their data was accessible to case workers in a user-friendly way. The lesson we can take from this is that when different county departments possess different skills, varied knowledge, and have access to different ways they can influence change. By creating a taskforce of members from Health Services, Human Services, Child Support Services, the Sonoma County Development Commission and more, the County of Sonoma was able to have a tangible impact on their community. 

  1. Open source software removes barriers for public technology

Exygy has been a long-time proponent of removing barriers for the public to benefit from access to innovative solutions to our country’s most pressing problems. This is demonstrated in our work with Bloom Housing, an open source software that digitizes access to finding and applying for affordable housing. The ability to scale, improve, and innovate skyrockets when government teams have access to open source tools and technologies. An open source platform means a community of contributors bring their own ideas, experiences, and improvements to the technology and remove the roadblocks of needing to meet in-person to discuss them. Naturally, the technology becomes more collaborative and beneficial to each organization with each additional line of code. In other words: every contributor is motivated by the same goal — to make the technology work better for the user.

Here are some additional resources and examples of open source as a successful model in government technology:

  • CiviForm: Residents can find and apply for public assistance programs in one place through unified, accessible applications, and government teams can better reach communities in need.
  • Code for America’s Clear My Record: A free, open-source application that combs through criminal history data to find people eligible for record clearance.
  • Digital Benefits Hub: Collects content and connects practitioners in and adjacent to government who are committed to improving access to economic and wellbeing supports.
  1. Finding the value in local government led spaces

While open source software and the formation of multidisciplinary teams can open new pathways to solutions, the amount of knowledge held by county officials is enormous. Attending NACo fosters an environment of unexpected conversations, unanticipated connections and creates an opportunity to move outside your immediate network. Bringing together county officials from across the United States in one place is a unique experience and the energy that’s generated from these discussions can propel new ideas, learnings and impact. 

We are so excited about continuing to participate in these conversations, and will look forward to attending more conferences, including:

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Hannah Rachael Smith
Senior Account Manager

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