Centralized vs Decentralized GIS

Blog by: Toby Soto - MuniGovGuy

There aren’t many times you have to wrestle with determining to go with or switch to a centralized or decentralized GIS Program.  While window shopping at the Esri Users Conference Showcase Expo I ran into an old colleague of mine from the City of Anaheim, CA.

As we were chatting about work and family she told me some news that made me do a double take.

Anaheim is consolidating their GIS Program into a centralized division under the Finance department.  Why the double take you ask?  Anaheim has historically been decentralized and the lion’s share of GIS has been funded by the Utility department.  Making the decision to move from decentralized to a centralized GIS requires careful considerations.  The kicker is that my current organization has been contemplating centralizing our GIS Services as well, except we would go the other direction and move under the Utility.

An organizational GIS Program attracts attention when an executive, board member, or elected official identifies with the value it provides.  The momentum could be generated from the top down or from the bottom up.  Either way, the value of GIS becomes infectious and the desire for implementation and results run high.  I had one Assistance City Manager walk into Esri and asked Jack Dangermond, “I want to buy GIS” and expected to walk out with a turnkey solution that came in a box of software.  After the Assistant City Manager was consulted in GIS implementation best practices, there was a main question that needed to be answered:

“Do we centralize all GIS mapping activity to one department or delegate mapping of special interest to their perspective departments?”

In my career I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in both centralized and decentralized GIS Enterprise Programs.  Each has their pros and cons based on the nature of the business and the current state of economy.  The two scenarios of either implementing or converting a GIS Program to centralized or decentralized is a major undertaking.  Let’s explore the differences to help determine what is best for your organization.

5 Considerations of Centralized or Decentralized GIS Programs

  1. Management Considerations

    An organization needs to consider the management needs of an Enterprise GIS.  A champion or champions in management that understands the process of growing a GIS is critical to its success. An existing manager or the hiring of a GIS Manager can help keep the GIS progression alive and in line with the organizational GIS Vision.

    This manager needs to be able to analyze staffing needs and skill sets to determine if converting existing staff is practical or hiring experienced GIS talent is necessary.

    Does each department or division with GIS needs have this manager or are they willing to hire a manager to perform these tasks?  If not, then a centralized GIS maybe the way to go.

  2. GIS Staff Considerations

    GIS tasks can include data conversion, data maintenance, integration, mapping, analysis, system support, application development and help desk.  As GIS has evolved over the years, it has become much easier for end users to utilize interactive maps reducing the mapping/analysis projects but increasing the demand for data maintenance, integration, system support, and application development.  GIS tools and functionality have been refined for many industries that have lead into hiring industry specific GIS personnel.

    Determining which departments need specific industry expertise verses those that don’t will help in your decision of centralized or decentralized GIS model.

    Departments participating in a decentralized model can individually manage their GIS effort by growing and/or reducing staff levels based on their needs.  If the organization already has a mapping division(s), then you’re already half way there.  It’s just a matter of determining required skill sets and needed training or hiring of GIS staff.  A centralized GIS model with pooled staff enables cross training of data maintenance tasks which is especially useful when GIS needs aren’t high enough for full-time GIS departmental staff.

  3. GIS Vision, Standards, and Policies

    It’s important that a consistent set of GIS standards and policies are established and refined across an entire organization that adheres to the organizational GIS Vision.  This helps in the use, interoperability, support and efficiency of the GIS system.  It’s easier to establish in a centralized GIS model since the GIS division takes ownership and implements, integrates and supports the organization’s GIS Enterprise system.  In a decentralized GIS model, it’s a little more difficult but not impossible.

    By establishing a GIS Advisory Group or Committee that meets on a regular basis can generate and enforce the GIS standards and policies.

    More details on this can be found from the Communication for GIS Progression post.

  4. Funding

    Where the funding is coming from has a big contribution on which GIS organizational model is implemented.  Possible funding sources include the General Fund, Processing Fees, and Service Charges.  Some departments such as a Utility generates a steady revenue that can support a centralized or decentralized GIS program.  Other funding can be generated through cost savings that GIS provides based on staff time saved through automation and reduced research time.  The latter is a harder sale to executives and needs tracking to show validity by providing hard figures.

  5. GIS Innovation

    GIS Innovation starts from a Vision to solve a problem or improve a process.  This can include organizational wide and/or departmental Innovations.  In either case, specialized GIS programmers or developers are needed to create and maintain the GIS applications.  In addition, a good communication with IT is required on these Innovation Projects because they provide the hardware, software, databases and securities needed for implementation and integration.  GIS Programmers are in high demand because they bring out higher ROI from the GIS investment.  Departments such as a Utility, Community Development, or Economic Development could each utilize a full time GIS Programmer with the depth of applications that could be created.  Alternatively, you could have GIS Programmers centralized and farmed out to other departments on an as needed basis.

    Some cities like the City of Los Angeles and the City of Long Beach have chosen to create an Innovation Group on top of a decentralized GIS whose sole focus is on applications to improve government transparency and attract technology businesses to take residence.

    With an Innovation Group, many departmental lines are crossed to break down the data silos and workflows to improve efficiency.  They can also control the resources, staffing, and project management of these projects, thus reducing the risk of cost overruns and failure.  This model has proven to be very successful for them when aligned with the technology initiatives set forth by elected officials.

In Summary

In trying to answer the question of whether to implement or convert to a centralized or decentralized GIS Program, it’s all a matter of organizational efficiency, staffing and funding.  I don’t think there is any one right answer but be aware of the issues and benefits each possesses.

In retrospect, I found that a centralized GIS in the beginning enables a faster implementation but can fall short in providing departmental focused GIS service needs if the funding runs dry or the GIS Communication is not established.

Decentralized GIS places the data maintenance and operation burden on individual departments but also allows them to innovate at much higher rate.  The tradeoff is that some departments may lack in GIS support resulting in incomplete or outdated datasets that other departments rely upon.  Having a succession plan is vital in a decentralized GIS because data maintenance and operations will cease as employees get promoted, leave or retire.

Some cities have implemented a hybrid model where a decentralized GIS program exists for the departments in their organization but also have a separate Innovation Group.  This enables a focused approach to developing applications to improve government transparency and increase community engagement using data across all organizational departments.

Toby Soto - MuniGovGuy