GIS in local government
Universal lessons have emerged from Australian local governments using GIS for more than 25 years. This commonality of GIS experience rises above the significant variations in functions, statues, geographical coverage and population densities in Australian local government. These lessons are relevant to the skill development, data access, technology integration, and functional integration of GIS to any organisation managing the assorted demands upon a region, or locality.
Australian Local Government
Variations in the functions, statues, geographical coverage and population densities of Australian local government are a product of the continent’s political development. It is one of the three tiers of government in Australia; which has a national government, 6 state governments (and 2 territories) and local governments. With elected members setting the policies of each tier of government, variations in policies and priorities are more common than a commonality of focus.
The geographical coverage of a local government (usually referred to as a council) ranges from a few square kilometres to thousands of square kilometres. Councils can also range from sparsely populated rural regions to densely populated inner city. However what councils have in common is being the most community focused of the three tiers of government in Australia.
Responding to their community’s needs; a council will carry out at least the following functions:
* Access to library services;
Depending upon the political development of their region and state government, the functions of councils may also include some or all of the following:
. A full range of health services (up to public hospitals);
The greatest value is achieved from a council’s GIS as a shared common resource for the council, rather than a tool of one of the service teams. To ensure this corporate focus, the GIS should be managed by an on-going cross service management team.
There should be a clear separation between those maintaining the system and those with viewing only rights. This functional separation enables the “viewing users” to easily perform their functions with very little GIS knowledge and training. Typically customer service staff will start up their view of the GIS in the morning and keep the system live throughout their working day to answer any customer queries.
However, this straight forward operation of the GIS is dependent upon a set of predefined “maps” being created by a skilled GIS operator in conjunction with the user groups. Therefore different “maps” need to be generated for the different functions (eg rating, engineering, dog management, planning, fire and environmental management) of a council. While these “maps” typically share common data they need to be customised to the needs of each function. Typically the customer service staff use one that shows properties, the owners, the title references and the values.
Data maintenance duplication can be minimised by copying existing corporate data into the GIS data base. This can be done manually, or through an automated process (typically run after each working day, usually at 3 am). This process reduces the load on the main council sever (as typically users make a single inquiry of the server each day, after which the data they need for the day is resident on their PC) and provides a timely response to enquirers.
Data pricing has been a major barrier to the take up of GIS by councils. The focus for their discontent has been state government data pricing policies. While the era of hardcopy map production was dominated by the policy of government assets supporting the community, the era of digital spatial data is dominated by the government being a business that should fund its own activities. Hence mapping products changed from being a low cost support for development to a high cost purchase hindering development.
This policy change was an outcome of the ideology of competition (which sought to remove any unfair advantage a government activity might have over an identical private sector activity) and part of the general retreat from intervening in the market place. Whatever the actual economic benefits maybe for a nation; the impact of these policies on government mapping agencies has been severe and also by implication on local government.
The cost of accessing data (for GIS implementation and on-going data maintenance) remains a source of tension between local government and the data suppliers (i.e. both private industry suppliers and government mapping agencies). This tension remains even though government mapping agencies have reduced the cost of their digital mapping products to councils. While conforming to the ideology of competition; this recent policy argues that the price to councils is discounted in return for the data quality improvements to be provided by local governments.
Training and Support
The normal practice of councils is to utilise internal training for the “viewing users”, with specialised training given to the GIS operator by the vendor and a help desk service (annually capped). Sourcing this training will be influenced by the level of the vendor’s support skills and their user group base. Some GIS users rely upon their network of contacts in other council’s to satisfy their training and support needs. Seeking alternatives to a vendor’s support service is highest when the vendor’s key expertise is centred in a distant location.
A GIS operator is required to establish and maintains the “views” and merged data available to the “viewing users”. GIS operators have a variety of backgrounds, including biology, IT, surveying and civil engineering. The skills required by this person include both technical and interpersonal skills. The technical skills can be learnt by a person with an established ICT/ PC skill base with an “attention to detail” approach to their current tasks. However the interpersonal skills required for a GIS to deliver real value to Council must be available prior to the purchase of the GIS.
The heaviest resourcing demands occur with the initial purchase of the GIS. Typically a full time person is required for 3 to 4 months to establish the “views” and merged data available to staff. After the implementation the staffing level can drop to a part time role, or involve 3 or more staff.
The level of GIS staffing reflects two issues: centralised or de-centralised data maintenance; and the council’s priority for the use of the GIS. Decentralised data maintenance (i.e. each department maintaining their data), requires less GIS staff than a centralised data maintenance group. Should a centralised data management group also be part of one of the user departments, the GIS trends away from a corporate resource and hence its overall benefit reduces.
When a GIS is a corporate resource it will either be fully integrated with other systems or be functionally integrated with key systems. At a minimum this will include a mail merge functionality that is activated by the GIS (that produces a “mail merge file” that can be accessed by the word processing software). This functionality enables land owners to be notified of changes that could impact upon their enjoyment of their land; or people to be contacted for a particular council responsibility (eg owners of dogs; vacant land holders for fire management; owners living outside of the council area etc.).
Recognition of GIS Benefits
Most local governments in Australia recognise the capacity of GIS to better meet their responsibilities. This hard won recognition flows from the publicised benefits of GIS by high profile local governments, the experience of smaller administrations and user groups and associations. Such is the recognised benefits of GIS to local government that the Spatial Initiative for South Australia was joint initiative of the state’s Local Government Association and state government.
While GIS is recognised as beneficial to local government administration, difficulties remain is measuring the size of this benefit. With measurement difficulties for both costs and benefits.
Measuring the full costs benefits will usually be limited to comparing additional costs to council of the GIS. The additional costs will reflect the degree of utilisation of a council’s information and communication technology (ICT) assets. Commonly Australian councils already rely upon ICT to carry out their financial and engineering responsibilities. Hence if there is higher enough unused capacity in a council’s servers, PCs, printers and network then the GIS initial costs will only be the additional cost of GIS related software and “mapping” data.
In addition a high level of inhouse ICT skills will also reduce a GIS’s implementation costs. The cost of training GIS users can also be reduced by only training a key user for each functional area (who then passes on their training to their fellow workers). Hence the additional cost of implementing a GIS will depend upon an organisation’s existing ICT assets and staff skills.
Just as the council’s assets determine the implementation costs, the use of the GIS also determines the benefits. These benefits will be at their smallest when the GIS is only used by one department in the organisation and at their greatest when used by all of an organisation. In addition a GIS implemented as a standalone system will not deliver the same level of ongoing benefits as one that integrates with a council’s existing ICT systems.
However, even for the most basic level of functionality at the highest cost, with the smallest benefit situations councils have reported positive benefits from implementing a GIS. Although this does not mean that they have always reduced their overall costs of operation. Rather, the GIS has enabled the council to expand their services to meet unmet community demands within the same operating budget.