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Implementing governance for GIS (Part 2): Structure and processes

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 Part 1 of this article I presented the scenario of a mid-size city government in need of improved GIS governance. I reviewed an approach to developing a GIS governance model and identified the city’s governance priorities. In Part 2, I discuss development of the model itself. This covers two core concepts: the governance decision structure and the governance processes. Additionally, I provide recommendations for establishing the governance model within an organization.

Establishing the decision structure

The city decided to tackle the governance decision structure first. The decision structure is an essential component of a governance model and provides clarity around accountabilities and decision-rights. It is usually comprised of an organizational structure that defines membership, reporting lines and relationships amongst stakeholders in the decision structure.

Typically, governance decision structures are organized as hierarchies with descending levels of authority. The top of the hierarchy consists of an executive steering committee comprised of senior stakeholders from IT, relevant business units, related management boards or committees and occasionally external partners. The group’s responsibility is to provide strategic direction and overall business approval of governance decisions. With so many competing priorities, it’s vital that this group is highly collaborative and has a clear definition of how conflicts and disagreements are resolved.

Reporting to the executive steering committee are functional working groups. These groups plan, implement and monitor key governance processes and provide recommendations to the executive steering committee. In this configuration, strategic decisions are allocated to the steering committee while actioning of those decisions and related tactical decisions are assigned to the working group level.

The city preferred this approach as it provided a clear and simple structure while avoiding becoming overly authoritarian. The trick was defining how many working groups were appropriate in the decision structure and the specific areas of responsibility that would be assigned to each group. They also needed to define the specific responsibilities of the steering committee and its relationship with other levels of corporate or IT governance. These groups also needed names and they needed to fit the culture of the city.

After many rounds of discussion, the city landed on a decision structure summarized in Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1 - Governance decision structure

At the heart of the structure were three working groups responsible for the technology, data and operational (i.e. workforce and delivery) aspects of governance. These groups were accountable for governance of the priority areas identified in the previous assessment (see Part 1). Specifically, the technology working group was responsible for the Solution Portfolio, the data working group was responsible for Data Stewardship and the operations working group was responsible for Training & Development and Outreach.

The technology and data working groups were comprised of senior technical GIS and IT staff and power users from the business units. The focus was having staff assigned who were most familiar with the technical and usage aspects of GIS. The operations working group was comprised of GIS and IT operations leads. The focus of this group was having staff who were responsible for development of staff and delivery of services.

The city also recognized the importance of collaboration amongst the groups, particularly when there was a need to investigate and recommend solutions or practices that crossed governance boundaries. For this purpose, the concept of initiative teams was introduced. Initiative teams were temporary groups formed from a collaboration of the three working groups to explore new concepts. These teams were typically a mix of business and technical subject matter experts.

Steering committee level decision-making was assigned to a strategic advisory committee. This group was made up of managers from the GIS and IT teams and senior business stakeholders and was responsible for governance priorities relating to the GIS Strategic Plan, Stakeholder Management, Organization Structure and Procurement (see Part 1). Additionally, the strategic advisory committee approved (or rejected) recommendations provided by the technology, data and operations working groups. Beyond approvals, this committee was also responsible for addressing escalation matters, establishing veto rights and creating the governance charter, terms of reference and operating procedures.

Above the strategic advisory committee was the city’s IT review board. The board provided formal approval of matters involving operational and capital funding. The CIO, as chair of the IT review board, was familiar with the board and how it functioned. She knew it was important that reporting and recommendations provided by the GIS governance team aligned with and were consistent with the board’s approval mechanisms. GIS does not exist in isolation from the rest of the city’ IT investment, thus it was critical that GIS governance aligned with ITs direction and practices. To accommodate this, she mandated that the timing and formats of submission provided by the GIS governance team were in lock step with the IT review board.

Defining the governance processes

With the decision structure defined, the city had a good handle on the static side of governance. It now needed to define the dynamic side. This involved defining, in detail, the processes owned and executed by the strategic advisory committee and the various working groups.

The CIO and her team took a structured and systematic approach. For each of the eight priority governance concerns (see Part 1), the team defined a key set of elements required to effectively govern that area. Combined, these elements form a governance process. There was one governance process for each governance concern. The elements include:

Objective. A description of the intention and goal of the governance process.

Controls. The policies, documents and artifacts to be produced by the governance process.

Decision-rights. The Responsible Accountable Consulted Informed (RACI) matrix for key activities or decisions defined in the process. The groups and individuals identified in the RACI are the committees and working groups identified in the decision structure.

Decisions. Key decisions required during the planning, implementation or monitoring of the process.

Inputs. Resources needed for decision-making. This includes compliance specifications, corporate strategies and legal and regulatory frameworks.

Activities. Key tasks or actions to be taken during planning, implementation or monitoring of the process.

Measures. The performance metrics used to monitor progress and effectiveness of the process.

Defining each governance process to this level of detail brought clarity to the responsibilities of each city stakeholder. The goal was not to dictate how each process would function but to define the key decisions and responsibilities required to effectively govern the city’s GIS investment. It also made clear what each process would produce and how success would be measured.

The processes were documented and incorporated into the city’s GIS governance charter and operating procedures. Exhibit 2 summarizes the elements of a governance process and provides an example for governance of the Strategic Plan.

Exhibit 2 - Elements of a governance process

Putting governance to work

Establishing the governance model was going to take work and would introduce considerable change into the organization. The CIO needed a measured approach that would move the city forward but would avoid disrupting work. She developed an approach that would essentially ‘prioritize the priorities’ and progressively roll out the GIS governance program.

Initiating the model. The first step was to enshrine the governance model in a governance charter. This involved communicating the intention and expectations of the governance model with stakeholders and gain commitment. The charter also established the mechanics of meeting frequency, decision milestones and reporting requirements.

Strategy first. As decisions relating to the city’s GIS vision and roadmap were most impactful, it was prudent to focus on these first. The first six months of the governance program involved establishing the strategic advisory committee and developing a long-term strategic plan to be directed and monitored by the committee.

Operations, data and technology next. With clarity on the strategic direction in place, the operations, data and technology working groups were established and began work on priority items relating to revised staff job descriptions, establishing data stewardship roles and data quality policies, and rationalizing the solution portfolio.

Expand outward. As the program took flight other areas of governance were assessed and prioritized and brought into the governance program. These included innovation, technology access and community outreach. The city made sure to clearly define the objectives of these areas and the processes that would be followed.

The CIO was satisfied. She had an actionable and practical governance model that improved accountabilities without being overly controlling and adding miles of red tape. With clear responsibilities and realistic expectations, the city felt confident that GIS was positioned to support its smart city aspirations for years to come.

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 Management Consulting 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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