GIS Organization

Dear Management Doctor:

I'm a graduate of the Planning Management course, having attended the seminar in Salt Lake City in January, 2009. I'm trying to find some information about where GIS functions of local government (preferably counties) are located. Our department - responsible for planning & development administration - is being asked ("required") to assume the GIS functions of the county, moving the GIS staff and functions from the Info Tech Department to Land Development. We've done our own research on cities/counties throughout the southeast, finding where GIS functions are located in both planning/development admin departments as well as IT departments. We're certainly not averse to doing this, but naturally our IT folks are balking.

Have you compiled any information, documentation, or reports discussing this matter, with perhaps a pro/con analysis? I'd sure appreciate your help.


Bo Duncan
Jefferson County Land Development

Dear Bo,

Good to hear from you. I talk about your question at some length on page 335 to 337 in my new book, The ABZs of Planning Management, Second Edition. I can't believe it but I did notice that GIS didn't make it into the Index.

In many communities, GIS started in the Planning Department and, as it has grown and impacted virtually all government departments, it has generally migrated to an IT Department. It is unusual to see a function that is already in IT migrate to Planning. Sounds like there may be some other issues going on in your County. I wouldn't necessarily resist this so long as it comes with some money and equipment. Also, I'd try to charge other departments for their part of the GIS.

Having said this, for most communities I think IT may be a good place to lodge the central part of GIS. However, most Planning Departments will also need one or more GIS training staff within the Planning Department. Often IT wants these to be IT staff. That is okay by me so long as they are housed in the Planning Department.

I'm currently working with a large city where IT took over GIS from Planning, Development, Engineering, and Utilities. None of them are happy with the service they are getting.

Good luck and let me know how it turns out.

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

In 1990, I began a collaborative relationship with Dr. Wei-Ning Xiang, a true GIS guru, a fellow landscape architect and a faculty member of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. As a contract project, I employed his graduate students to develop a municipal GIS for the Planning & Community Development Department of the City of Concord, North Carolina. Over the next two years we created the GIS at the university and transferred it to a single Sun workstation at the City. At that time, I had the good fortune to hire one of the final graduate students permanently, who remains as the keeper of our municipal GIS in the department that I still direct. During development of the GIS, we prepared a plan for the ultimate distribution of the GIS throughout the City organization. That plan has been followed for the most part.

For several years, P&CD provided GIS service to other departments with a staff of as many as four GIS analysts. We recognized the need for many City departments to have a trained GIS staff member to handle their specialized needs and to be able to provide the most timely service. We also recognized the need for the City's IT department to become a centralized keeper of the base data to relieve the staff in my department so we could focus on our own work. The centralized "GIS Support Group" was to be the "hub" of a spoked wheel, with my department and others supplying them with updates. That has worked fairly well. On the downside, our experience has been that IT professionals do not really know the spatial/geo side of GIS. They are excellent with database management, but few really "get" GIS. That has kept my original GIS coworker closely involved with the IT staff, where there has been fairly regular turnover, which creates another problem.

I am a strong proponent of maintaining experienced GIS staff in planning and community development departments. That may be with, or without, a more centralized IT GIS unit. If GIS becomes a totally centralized internal service department, the capability to meet your GIS needs within the timeframes required may be diminished too much. You have to look out for number one.

J. Jeffrey Young, AICP, ASLA
Concord, NC

I was also at your SLC session this year, and was interested to read the management doctor newsletter from one of my compatriots. I am in a similar situation dealing with GIS here where I work, however I am dealing with it from the perspective of having established it and built the system. I was looking for contact information for Bo Duncan, but was unable to find any immediately. I was just hoping to be of service in helping him avoid some of the pitfalls that we have found and had to fill in. If you would pass my information on to him or send me an email for him I would appreciate it. Appreciate your newsletters as always, short and to the point.

Josh Runhaar, AICP
Cache County, Utah

I would like to add to the answer that GIS is a decision-making tool and most of the decisions in a municipality occur in the planning department, therefore, the planning department is by far the most appropriate place for it to be located. In our municipality the GIS department is located at the engineering department and it is a struggle to balance the GIS needs of engineering versus planning.

Dennis M. Stachewicz, Jr.
City of Marquette

My response to Bo is: be happy — be more than happy at GIS migrating back to Planning! When I worked for a County where GIS left Planning to be ruled by IT, which occurred after I left, all I heard from county planners was how little response or priority they got for their GIS work requests. I think it's working better now after several years of ironing procedures out but when I came to the city and found GIS here in Planning, I vowed it would not ever migrate to IT if I could help it given the constant workflow we have for GIS and the frequent last-minute changes that must have priority attention. Of all government functions, planning and community development probably have the highest demand for visual aids as in maps to print, maps for powerpoint, geo-based data and analysis for reports, and presentations etc. all based upon GIS. The advice to charge others is very good. These days, program budgeting is very popular and can be part of the justification. Everyone who uses should help pay for the service, if they are not part of the annual budget source. The last piece to help with this situation is having a capable person oversee the GIS functions, ensuring both in and out of department work tasks are addressed, so you/Planning does not have to.

Celeste Deardorff

For what it's worth, we are in the middle of a City-County GIS Management study by GTG (Geographic Technologies Group), which has done similar studies around the country. So far, there has been a pretty thorough study of each city and county department's use (or non-use) of GIS and the present loose collaborative system of management by 4 different core user departments (City IS, County MIS, City-County Planning and City-County Tax Administration). The study is not complete yet, but it has identified three different potential models of GIS management —1) a centralized model with a GIS department and staff who serve the needs of other departments, with some technicians in heavy user departments, 2) a decentralized model (more like we have now), and 3) a hybrid model which has a smaller City-County GIS management office providing overall management/maintenance, special projects help, and assistance to smaller users - but with additional GIS experts residing in the big user departments. I think we are headed toward the hybrid model.

GIS has grown to be a tool used by an increasing number of departments for a wider array of functions. Planning is certainly a major player and stakeholder, but because our own needs are so specialized, we don't want to be "driving the bus" on the overall management and support of the system. But with all due respect to the talented IT department folks, we don't think that model contains either enough hands-on knowledge of GIS as a specialty, or the priority to keep the system fed and growing amongst all the other IT priorities. Hence, the idea of a hybrid office that is not embedded in an existing department, but is accountable to all.

Paul Norby
City-County Planning Director

Our GIS started in Public Works and Utilities as a joint effort to map our little piece of heaven. It migrated to IT as it grew, which was the best thing for us and I recommend it. Public Works kept on their own analyst for years until a retirement. Once the system is fairly robust, maintaining it with GIS professionals in the IT department is the best way to go especially if your needs are modest or intermittent. If you are with a moderate sized community with a modest case load or if you want to do a General Plan update you will be better served with adding a GIS position in the planning department. You will save money (and headaches) in the long run, unless you like the service and bills from consultants who promise to solve all your worries.

The Planning Department added a GIS position several years ago (which is a story in and of itself). It works extremely well this way, however, a problem arose with job classifications and pay scales. In a nut shell, mid-level planners are often paid a little more than many GIS professionals and it helps greatly if your GIS specialist is a planner. To get the right person, you might need a little more pay to get the level of experience you need. Since they are not a traditional planner, they don't fit a planning job classification either. There is a fine balancing act here and how this plays out depends upon your particular jurisdiction and how creative your HR function can be. It took a while, but we created a new position.

One primary benefit to having a GIS professional in planning is that you don't have to compete with other departments for assistance. You can offer your unused capacity to others, but you will quickly find out that you won't have any provided you did your homework on your needs first. Another benefit is that a GIS/Planner will avoid the trap of forcing planning to fit a particular computer/data model when it is better to do it the other way around. Having the core GIS function in IT is better for planning as planners honestly don't want to deal with servers, software or networks. We are happy others like that stuff. If you are a planning department blessed with their own GIS professional, you must not break the cardinal rule - do not ever assign planning applications to them. Oh, the second and possibly more important rule is to "feed" them well with whatever hardware and software they need. Red vines and a cocktail from time to time also helps.

James Campbell
City of Newport Beach

I've been through GIS deployment three times now, and have learned some good issues to consider.

In a City where I was a director, GIS was assigned to the department that "controlled" creation of parcels - or, since that's a county function - addresses. These were assigned by the City engineer, so GIS rested with that department. Planning, Building, IT, County Attorney, and Fire/Ambulance, Parks and Recreation, Police all contributed a pro-rated share of our budgets to the GIS costs. Part of the cost was training for at least two people in each user department. If a department needed an extension other departments would not use, such as Zoning Analyst, we bought the extension from our budgets. The GIS gurus essentially handled the system maintenance (software) and the geodatabases. If a "special" analysis of information were needed by a department, the GIS folks would go to one of the department's GIS specialists and train them to mine the information. The system worked really well. In fact, I think it was the best system I'd ever seen.

Another city with which I am familiar keeps GIS in the IT department - but it has an IT GIS person assigned to planning, one to engineering, and two others serving another cluster of departments. The IT person resides in the planning department.

With a county, we ran into an interesting dilemma. The County Assessor was gung ho for GIS, and started developing the system. This made sense, since they controlled the heart of the geodatabase. Everything ran smoothly, because the Assessor was very service oriented for both internal and external clients. However, after a change in the elected assessor, the next one was not a GIS fan, and kept drawing down GIS resources - including canceling the maintenance contract with ESRI. In the end, GIS was moved to IT. The IT department didn't know what to do with GIS, so it ended up in the planning department by default. However, we were not given any support positions, and so it was a significant challenge to try and maintain the database. The staff member assigned to GIS was unwilling to change from AutoCAD and hand-drawing, which made the transition ugly. It was still not resolved when I left, but appeared that the Sheriff was going to take control because he was a real technocrat.

Here are some takeaways:

  • Who has the staff to maintain the geodatabase?
  • Everyone needs the same hardware and software. If a user "customizes" the interface, a "standard" interface should also be available on the same computer in case another user needs it.
  • Establish protocol as to who can change which data and who can only read data. For example, the assessor may be the only department to change parcel boundaries, but the Planning department is able to change zoning, land use, and general plan information.
  • Data have to be available as needed - there should not be a bureaucracy resulting in a backlog of requests.
  • Ensure that the pinch hitters are nearly as skilled as the main GIS person in case data are needed concurrent with an absence.
  • Annual training is needed, even if it's the result of one person attending an ESRI-based class and then teaching the others upon return.
  • Each maintenance license comes with free tech support. Allow anyone who needs it to call or research tech needs on the ESRI site, don't hoard "help."
  • Whenever someone calls tech support, ESRI usually follows up with a link to something in the knowledge base. These links should be shared with all the GIS users, and a central reference book should be compiled and indexed with the help articles. This can be done in an Access or Excel searchable database very easily. It's about a six-mouse click cut and paste process.
Hope this helps.

Eric Jay Toll

In our County, GIS and IT are two separate and distinct departments.

Vicki Taylor Lee, AICP
Cherokee, GA