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Implementing governance for GIS (Part 1): Design approach

Governance is critical for organizations wanting to maximize the value of their GIS investment. The key to good governance is getting the governance model right.

In a previous article, I discussed the role and importance of governance for delivering an effective GIS program. The premise was that governance, when done right, acts as a ‘system of control’ that coordinates the decisions and decision-rights associated with an organization’s geospatial investments. Organizations investing in governance quickly realize the value of ‘good governance’ in terms of establishing accountabilities and coordinating decision-making across the people, process and technology that comprise their GIS program.

The previous article described a basic framework to understand GIS governance.  The framework defined six core domains: Strategy, Platform, Data, Workforce, Delivery and Investment. Under each domain is a set of processes which represent the key decision areas which most organizations need to focus on to run a robust and effective GIS program.

The framework provides a method for understanding governance. However, it doesn’t describe how an organization would apply it to their own unique situation. The question remains: how does an organization operationalize GIS governance? 

Here`s how.

In this two-part article I describe a flexible approach to developing a GIS governance model for organizations of all shapes and sizes. In Part 1, I present a scenario concerning a mid-size city government and describe an approach to designing the governance model. In Part 2, I walk through defining the structure and processes of the governance model itself.

The situation

The CIO of a mid-size city government was reflecting on the state of her organization’s GIS. The city, like many across North America (and globally), was undergoing a significant digital transformation and slowly recognizing the value and importance of GIS in this pursuit.  

For years, GIS had been central to many city functions. This included: asset management, city planning and public works programs. However, with the emergence of new innovations such as mobile data collection, automated feature extraction, location analytics and the mandate for open data, new demands for geospatial tools and information had emerged. More was being asked of GIS than ever before.

Sadly, the CIO felt her city’s GIS program was not up to the task. The findings from a recent assessment revealed many tell-tale signs of a sub-par GIS program. This included: redundant technologies and datasets, a lack of data sharing across city divisions, siloed decision-making, duplicate software purchases, large skills gaps across the GIS team, under-utilized technology investments, a slow and complex procurement process and a service model that was not expanding to meet the needs of the future.

The CIO had seen this before with other enterprise systems. The city had recently completed a major ERP initiative and a key factor in the success of that initiative was the implementation of rigorous governance. With so many processes and so much data impacted by the introduction of an ERP platform, a broad and coordinated governance model was required.

The CIO knew from this experience that effective governance was about setting priorities and establishing a model that encouraged continuous oversight over these priority areas. This would focus the city on what was important and prevent them from falling back into old habits. She also recognized that GIS does not exist in isolation. And it was imperative that the GIS governance model aligned with and supported governance processes established across IT and corporate data management.

She chose a design approach that would accommodate these needs. The initial efforts would focus on identifying the governance priorities, i.e. the business and technology issues of interest and the associated governance concerns. The remaining effort would focus on designing the governance solution, i.e. the structure and processes that form the governance operating model. Exhibit 1 outlines the approach.

Exhibit 1 - Governance model design methodology

Identifying the priorities

The first step was to identify the city’s priority governance concerns. The CIO and her team turned to the GIS governance framework for help.

The governance framework identifies 20+ processes (Exhibit 2). Each process represents an aspect of GIS where strategic decisions are required and performance monitoring is needed. The task for the city was to map their main business and technology drivers to the corresponding governance processes. These would form their governance priorities.

Exhibit 2 - GIS governance framework

Referring to their previous needs assessment, the city identified eight areas that required immediate attention.

Strategic Plan. The city lacked a formally articulated vision for GIS and didn’t have a shared strategy that defined a set of goals, objectives and a roadmap to meet the growing demand for GIS solutions and information.

Stakeholder Management. The city lacked the processes to engage the GIS user community regularly to understand the specific needs of departments. This resulted in siloed knowledge and decision-making at the department level. The city needed to ensure a structured, open and active mechanism to ensure stakeholder needs were understood and to promote collaboration across departments.

Organizational Structure. The organization of GIS professionals within the city was a constant struggle. Certain roles were better suited to be shared and centralized in the GIS team, while others were specific to certain departments. The city needed to establish and maintain a organization structure that supported the needs of the business and aligned with the capabilities and culture of the organization.

Solution Portfolio. A legacy of point solutions and poorly conceived enterprise platforms had burdened the city with dozens of geospatial applications, templates, tools and databases. Redundancy and outdated technology were creating considerable technical debt (i.e. the implied cost of rework). The city needed a rationalized portfolio of solutions that aligned with their established architectural standards and maximized the value in use.

Data Stewardship. The lack of clarity over data maintenance responsibility was creating havoc at the city, particularly for geospatial asset information. A process was needed to define the level of responsibility required of the various data stakeholders and establish expectations for data quality management. As the city already had a corporate data governance program in place, it was also important that any new practices concerning geospatial data aligned with the objectives of the broader corporate data program.

Training and Development. The CIO was concerned that the city’s GIS team had yesterday’s skills. The demand for newer and more advanced solutions and services that reflected a modern and ‘smart’ city was exposing gaps in staff training and development. The city needed to ensure that their skill supply met the emerging demand.

Outreach. Demand for GIS didn’t stop at the city’s organizational borders. Residents, local businesses, regional partners and the media were asking for access to geospatial tools and information which allowed them to engage more directly with the city. The city needed to engage in active outreach with the community to understand and provide access to geospatially-driven public services.

Procurement. The difficulty associated with accessing new technology was a sore spot for many at the city. The CIO recognized that the speed and complexity of technology procurement was a problem that superseded GIS but was a problem that had to be addressed to some extent if she was to meet the demand for geospatial tools and information. She was determined to improve ease of access by establishing processes to streamline deployment of geospatial solutions.

While there were other areas of concern, the CIO determined these areas as most critical to improving the state of the GIS program. In the future, other areas could be added but for now the city had clarity on its priorities and could turn its efforts to developing a governance solution that would address these pressing concerns.

This ends Part 1 of Implementing Governance for GIS. In Part 2, I will focus on developing the governance model and rolling it out to the organization. If you would like to know more about GIS governance for your organization please contact me at Also, please join me at the Esri International User Conference in San Diego on July 12, 2018 at 1pm as I present on the topic of governance for GIS.

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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