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Summer 2009
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URISA logo "Managing GIS"
A column from Members of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association

Balancing Infinite Needs Against Finite Resources

GIS Project Intake Process

By Leeanne W. Pacatte, GIS Manager, City of Austin, Texas

The Austin, Texas, metropolitan region of 1.4 million people has a technologically savvy, environmentally sensitive, and highly educated citizenry with a penchant for good music and a laid-back lifestyle—a great place to grow GIS. The local slogan, "Keep Austin Weird," says a lot about Austin's creative and accepting attitude. Over the last two decades, the city's GIS has grown up in this innovative and eclectic environment. What started out as a very specialized niche technology for land planning and utility mapping with a steep learning curve is now essential to the daily workings and management of our city. Geospatial technologies play a part in almost everything we do, from police, fire, and emergency management services vehicle routing to Web map viewers serving up an array of neighborhood and business information.

click to enlarge
Project Intake Process: Proposed project must be reviewed and approved at each gate.

As elsewhere, there has been a strong and steady increase in GIS usage and understanding throughout City of Austin departments over the past 20 years. The corporate GIS function resides within the central IT department, Communications and Technology Management (CTM). In the not too distant past, with our ever-increasing GIS appetite, we became victims of our own success. And in our zeal to take full advantage of the benefits of the technology, GIS staff became overextended. We were rolling out GIS applications and providing rich stores of spatial data and information, but we were also struggling to keep up with demand. Simply adding more staff has not been an option for some time.

You are the exception if you have access to all the resources needed to accomplish all the projects requested of you. Although resource scarcity is nothing new to local governments, and the constant pursuit of greater and greater efficiencies is the norm, our diminishing tax revenues make the pursuit more urgent. Most of us make difficult decisions daily on how best to allocate increasingly limited funds, whether on the job or at home. So how do you decide where to focus? Which projects get done and which ones do not? Is your decision-making process flexible enough to adjust quickly to changing economic climates, technology advances, and strategic directions?

Project Intake Process Improvement

One of the strategies we employed to help us better focus our efforts and remain in alignment with the city's strategic direction in a rapidly changing environment was to fine-tune our project intake process. The corporate GIS group was not the only IT group suffering from overextended resources. Several CTM workgroups collaborated to help evolve our current project intake process, still a work in progress.

First things first: Have a plan. Strategic business plans come with many names and in different forms; use whatever makes sense in your particular circumstance. If you don't have a plan, get one. If you have a plan, use it. To stay on track, you have to know what track you are on. Your project intake process should align the selection of projects with your strategic business plan.

Optimizing your project intake process is an iterative and continuous endeavor. The process starts with a project request.

Project requests must be tracked through the various review gates, not only for internal efficiency, but also to help keep customers and stakeholders informed on the status of their project requests, a critical communication component. Our tracking system, Electronic Technology Review and Coordination System (eTRACS), was developed in-house to track all proposed projects through our project intake process and, at a very high level, through project completion. All proposed projects, which are roughly estimated to be greater than 40 hours of work and/or involve multiple workgroups, are entered into the system by either a customer department IT single point of contact or a CTM supervisor/manager. (Efforts deemed to be less than 40 hours go through the help desk process and are tracked there.) Proposed projects then show up as pending and are reviewed weekly by the project intake committee, made up of CTM managers.

Projects are categorized as either Run, Grow, or Transform based on strategic impact. Run projects are core internal projects designed to keep the city's IT infrastructure functioning and efficient. Run projects generally do not need to go through the business case and feasibility study review gates. Grow projects enhance or improve existing processes and procedures within the city's IT infrastructure. Transform projects are those that change existing processes and procedures or deliver new ones that provide an advantage to the city in supplying services to citizens.

All Grow and Transform projects go through the full intake evaluation, which includes the development of a business case, a feasibility study, and a project charter. Below is a sampling of the many questions these three review gates address:

  • Business Case
    • What problem is this project trying to solve?
    • What are the benefits to the City of Austin?
    • What are the risks and impacts?
    • Does it align with the strategic business plan?
  • Feasibility Study
    • What will it take to do it?
    • Can we do it?
    • Should we do it?
  • Project Charter
    • Who is responsible?
    • What are the deliverables?
    • What is the timeline?
    • Where is the funding coming from?

The project intake committee decides to approve, decline, cancel, or put on hold each project based on the information gathered during the intake evaluation. How these decisions are made will likely become more formalized as we evolve the process. When a project is approved and a project manager is assigned, the project then goes through the project coordination process, which further refines the project charter and coordinates and assigns the resources needed to complete the project.

How does the project intake process just described fit into the overall project management model? CTM's project management model is based on the five project process groups defined in the Project Management Institute's Project Management Body of Knowledge guide. The process groups are initiating, planning, executing, closing, and monitoring and controlling.

Once all the initiating processes are completed, the project moves through the other process groups to completion. When the project is finally closed, the project manager circles back to eTRACS and updates the project as completed.

Conclusion

The project intake process is not the sole influence on project approval decisions. Information technology governance, how IT decisions are made in an organization, will play the ultimate role in keeping you on track. For the City of Austin, refining our project intake process has improved our ability to allocate limited resources in a rapidly changing environment, while we structure our IT governance model. In the end, it all comes down to focus. Is your organization focused on your strategic objectives?

About the Author

Leeanne W. Pacatte, GISP, PMP, has been with the City of Austin for 19 years. She has worked in several departments (Planning, Water Utility, and Watershed Protection and Development Review) and worn many hats (planner, GIS programmer and supervisor, business systems analyst, project manager). She is currently GIS manager in the city's IT department.

More Information

For more information, contact Leeanne W. Pacatte, GIS manager, Communications and Technology Management, City of Austin, Texas (e-mail: leeanne.pacatte@ci.austin.tx.us, tel.: 512-974-2614).

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