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Governance for GIS: Decisions and decision-making

Rapid advances and increasing investment in geographic information systems (GIS) and location technology have created considerable concern over governance. Organizations need to think big and focus small to establish an effective GIS governance program.

The friends who met here and embraced are gone,
Each to his own mistake.
― W.H. Auden

The CIO of a medium-sized city government was concerned. The City was in the midst of a large-scale digital transformation that promised to reinvent how services were delivered to its citizens. The City had committed millions to revamping department systems and investing in critical “smart” infrastructure. Early results were promising: the City had enjoyed a high-profile win by integrating road disruption notifications with social media. The ability to be notified of planned and unplanned disruptions on a map in real time was a hit with residents. However, the CIO noticed a concerning trend—the demand this win created for new map-based solutions was stretching his team’s ability to deliver.

In the past, GIS was acknowledged as an important system of record for City assets as well as the home for most of the City’s mapping information. This new demand had pushed expectations for location-driven applications to new levels. But without a way to manage demand, set expectations and nurture development of these apps, the CIO recognized he was facing failure. Without strong GIS governance, could he deliver on the promise to reinvent the City through digital technology?

This premise is not unusual. Much of the success with GIS comes not from implementation of the technology but the ability to build a location capability. This means marrying the technology of GIS with the science of geography and ingraining it in the organization’s DNA. A well-developed, robust GIS capability is the foundation on which the dreams of a location-based digital transformation are built. To do this, good governance is critical.

By governance, we mean the system of control. This control extends to the applications and infrastructure that drive your location platform, the data at the heart of your maps and information products, the people who build and support the platform, and the capital used to grow and sustain your location capability.

In short, governance is one of the most important factors determining the long-term success of a GIS. Without good governance, plans stall. They are doomed, as W.H. Auden put it, “each to his own mistake”. In this article, we discuss some of the reasons why organizations fall short in this regard and look at a comprehensive framework for GIS governance.

Where do organizations go wrong?

GIS governance often falls short for several reasons.

First, governance is generally a poorly understood topic in GIS circles. It’s not uncommon to hear managers say that they know they need governance, but they don’t know exactly what it means. This speaks to a lack of a shared understanding of why governance exists in the first place. What results are often piecemeal, unstructured attempts at implementing governance in a single area such as data access or application ownership. A fine starting point but not comprehensive when considering the range of decisions required to sustain a modern GIS.

Second, GIS governance programs often lack attention to the ongoing job of governing. It’s one thing to establish a steering committee and assign accountabilities, but another to keep the program going beyond a semi-annual meeting. A well-executed program requires commitment and energy to govern day to day.

Third, governance of GIS relies too much on other, broader levels of governance. To be clear, GIS doesn’t exist in isolation. So, it’s not surprising to see governance of GIS fall under an organization’s IT governance or data governance programs. The problem is that these corporate-wide governance programs are often too general and overlook some of the unique aspects of GIS that require focused attention. These include platform decisions, unique geospatial data considerations (standards, models) and worker skillsets. Effectively, this speaks to the hierarchical nature of governance. Where higher levels of governance dictate broad standards (e.g. corporate data privacy policy) and lower levels shape those standards appropriately (e.g. geospatial asset information access rules).

Lastly, governance is a cultural shift that requires discipline. For some, this means rules, and rules mean bureaucracy. Organizations that fail in their governance ambitions often fail because the opposition to change was too much to overcome. A systematic and explicit approach to governance is needed so that stakeholders understand the value of taking this on.

A comprehensive definition

To address these challenges, we need to start with a broad definition of governance.

Governance is about decisions and decision-making. Specifically, it’s about defining the major decisions that need to be made with regards to an organization’s GIS (the decisions), and how and by whom those decisions are made (the decision-making). Done right, governance creates a system of accountability that defines and enforces the rights of stakeholders.

To be clear, governance is not management. Governance is about setting direction. Management is about executing according to those directions. The distinction is important because much of the GIS conversation has traditionally centered on management topics. While management is vital, we want to draw a clear line between the two to keep the focus on doing the right things (governance) versus doing things right (management).

In practice, governance involves executing a set of governance processes. These processes are defined based on the major GIS decision area they support (discussed in the next section). Each process is comprised of a defined set of goals and metrics (KPIs), structured activities, roles and responsibilities, and policies and procedures.

Collectively, governance processes drive key business outcomes. These include: improved accountability, compliance, delivery oversight and resolution of issues. Effective governance brings structure to decision-making and clarity over responding to change.

Ultimately, governance creates stakeholder value. With greater accountability and control, the organization is positioned to make better decisions with their GIS—decisions that align with and support the strategic mission of the organization and work to find an effective balance among the competing constraints of benefits, risk and resources.

Exhibit 1 summarizes the GIS governance value pyramid.

Exhibit - GIS Governance Value Pyramid

A structured framework

With the definition of governance in mind, we can turn our attention to the specifics of implementing governance for GIS.  Based on our experience, we’ve identified six major decision areas for GIS, called domains (Exhibit 2). These are comprised of over 20 governance processes which we have compiled into best practices. Building a successful governance program requires a clear focus and maturity across these areas.

Exhibit - GIS Governance Framework

Strategy. Smart organizations have a clear vision of where they want to go with GIS and how to get there. Effective GIS governance means establishing core principles, determining short-term and long-term objectives, defining the optimal organizational structure and monitoring progress against the plan. Governance of the Strategy domain supports alignment of the GIS vision with the business vision.

Specific governance processes included in this domain are Guiding Principles, Strategic Plan, Stakeholder Relationships, Organizational Structure and Innovation.

Platform. Applications and infrastructure are the foundation of GIS. Many decisions must be made that impact the integrity of the technical environment and alignment with the strategy, now and in the future. This cuts across the vast world of location-based technology, including mapping platforms, geoanalytics solutions, mobile applications, imagery management and so on.  Governance of the Platform domain enables a sustainable, flexible and fit-for-purpose GIS technology architecture.

Specific governance processes included in this domain are Technology Architecture, Solution Portfolio, Platform Access and Platform Performance.

Data. Data is at the heart of GIS. This is true whether we’re talking about geospatial or non-geospatial data, or structured or unstructured data.   Effective GIS governance establishes consistent GIS data standards, architectural models, data usage and access controls, accountability across the data lifecycle, and quality controls. Additionally, a key architectural decision relates to the structure of data ownership. This refers to ownership of systems of record versus ownership of derived sources and the business rationale behind decision rights.

Specific governance processes included in this domain are Data Architecture, Data Usage, Data Stewardship and Data Quality.

Workforce. GIS requires unique skills and competencies across a range of technologies and disciplines. As a broad enabler, however, GIS is also leveraged by all manner of stakeholders. This means effective GIS governance considers development of the competencies, talent and external relationships across the entire workforce. Governance of the Workforce domain supports sustaining a skilled and informed workforce.

Specific governance processes included in this domain are Training and Development, Talent Management and Partnerships.

Delivery. An effective GIS is well supported and delivered as a service to the business. Good governance supports practices that promote efficient delivery of GIS as a service, including needs capture, delivery, communication and change management. Governance of the Delivery domain establishes an effective GIS operation.

Specific governance processes included in this domain are Service Management, Communications, Business Needs and Change Management.

Investment. The end game for GIS governance is an answer to the question: “where do we invest our resources?” Effective GIS governance provides a mechanism for prioritizing investment decisions and monitoring progress. Governance of the Investment domain aligns resources with GIS priorities and business priorities.

Specific governance processes included in this domain are Budget Management and Investment Prioritization.

Management structure

To bring it all together, an effective governance program requires a strong management structure. This means organizing stakeholders into meaningful teams and establishing clear reporting relationships. While there is no single management structure that works for all organizations, we generally see GIS governance roles arranged like that described in Exhibit 3.

Exhibit - Typical Governance Management Structure

Influencers. This group is comprised of influential and vocal stakeholders who do not make the final decisions on the GIS but whose input is critical to its success. They’re generally interested in business value, risk and alignment with the overall business objectives.

Steering Committee. The steering committee is the primary decision-making body for the organization’s GIS. They’re tasked with setting the overall direction and approving key GIS decisions.

Strategy Working Group. This group is generally responsible for developing the governance processes supporting the Strategy and Investment domains. Depending on the size of organization, these stakeholders might sit on other working groups or be a part of the steering committee.

Technical Working Group. This group is responsible for developing the governance processes supporting the Platform and Data domains. Stakeholders in this group might also participate in corporate IT governance and data governance programs. They often act as an important conduit to these other, broader governance programs.

Operational Working Group. The operational working group develops the governance processes supporting the Workforce and Delivery domains. These stakeholders are typically involved closely in the day-to-day operations of providing GIS services. They may also work closely with broader IT service delivery programs.

This management structure represents general groupings of key governance roles. In many cases, individuals will play multiple roles and contribute to multiple aspects of governance. This is especially true for smaller organizations.

Implementing governance for GIS is a challenging but extremely valuable undertaking. It takes focus and commitment. With a bit of structure, however, any organization can achieve the benefits of good governance. This doesn’t mean it should happen overnight. By focusing on the key problem areas and implementing the processes and management structure that will bring these problems areas under control, organizations can set themselves on the path to good governance.

If you’d like to learn more about governance for GIS and our evolving framework, drop me a line at or leave a comment below.

About the Author

Matthew Lewin is the Director of Strategic Advisory Services for Esri Canada. His efforts are focused on helping management teams optimize and transform their business through GIS and location-based strategies. As a seasoned consultant, Matthew has provided organizations in the public and private sectors with practical strategies that enable GIS as an enterprise business capability. At the intersection of business and technology is where Matthew’s interests lie, and he thrives on helping organizations bridge the gap to achieve their most challenging GIS ambitions.

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