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Spring 2007

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

From Governance to Action

How GIS Works in King County

By George Horning, King County, Washington, GIS Program Manager

A simple model of how GIS technology is implemented by local government agencies describes two basic scenarios. In one scenario, the technology is introduced at the staff level, where motivated staff members pursue GIS to improve and refine their own business processes. This can be termed the "grassroots" or bottom-up approach. By this method, the use of GIS technology within an organization often grows from multiple kernels of innovation. In the other scenario, GIS technology is brought into an agency under the directive of a high-ranking executive, such as a department director or elected official. This can be termed the "champion" or top-down approach, where a mandate is given to use GIS to replace outmoded business practices.

Over time, these two approaches to GIS implementation often result in organizational structures that are unsuited for realizing the full potential of the technology. The grassroots scenario can result in a GIS that is too fragmented, lacks standards and protocols, makes data sharing difficult, and generates duplicate work. The champion scenario can result in a system that is too centric, lacks the business intelligence to support the specific needs of diverse users, is constrained by rigid procedures, and provides data and applications that only suit a narrow need.

When the shortcomings of a GIS implementation are recognized, agencies react by making organizational changes. If the GIS is too fragmented, a central operation is created to provide coordination and a common infrastructure and develop standards and procedures to be shared across the organization. If the structure is too centric, there is a push to distribute roles and responsibilities for GIS technology throughout the organization to allow business units to exert greater control over the data, maps, and applications they use and create. The result in both cases is an organizational structure that attempts to strike a balance between a centralized and a distributed GIS, something that could be called a federated GIS.

King County, Washington, today has a federated GIS, but getting there was a lengthy process. Being the 14th most populous county in the United States, with 39 cities and a diverse geography covering more than 2,100 square miles, King County has a government with a very large and complex bureaucracy. For these reasons, it is not surprising that implementing an effective GIS for the entire organization would be challenging. Initially there was strong grassroots development of GIS in several county agencies, and later there was a multimillion-dollar capital project to develop core data layers and create a central GIS unit (the King County [KC] GIS Center). However, several more years were to pass before the county organized its GIS in a manner that succeeded in fostering a truly collaborative GIS.

There are three keys that can be cited as finally helping King County build a successful federated GIS. First, the King County GIS Center is now organized by county code as an internal service fund, responsible for its own revenues and expenditures and independent of the IT Department within which it previously resided. The King County code gives internal service funds full financial and operational responsibility to provide designated services. Agencies receiving services or benefiting from internal service fund activities are required to budget for internal service fund costs. Establishing the GIS internal service fund accomplishes two goals. It creates an independent entity that can fully concentrate on the objectives of an enterprise GIS, and it enables a process that ensures a stable source of funding for the program. (Details of the funding model are available on the KC GIS Center Web site at

A second key is the formation of two GIS governance committees chartered with clearly stated obligations and authority. An oversight committee reviews and approves GIS budgets and annual work plans for all county agencies, as well as standards, procedures, and priorities as recommended by a committee of GIS professionals. A technical committee, composed of the aforementioned GIS professionals, is tasked to develop an annual coordinated work plan, generate technical standards and best practices, and identify priority work initiatives. All county agencies with GIS work programs are represented on the technical committee, which makes decisions by consensus rather than majority vote. Issues that cannot be decided by consensus, a rare occurrence, are forwarded to the oversight committee for resolution. The oversight committee is a smaller body, made up of representatives from five "sponsor" agencies. Sponsor agencies have large investments in GIS technology with GIS implementations that are tightly integrated with their core business functions. They also pay greater cost shares into the GIS funding model to become sponsor agencies. With governance committees in place, the county has a blueprint for collaborating on work plans and budgets, a method to promulgate GIS standards and best practices, and an inclusive forum for identifying and taking action on the next round of important GIS work.

A third key is defining complementary roles and responsibilities for the King County GIS Center and the GIS programs in the various business units. The King County GIS Center has three main roles. First, it provides a slate of enterprise GIS services, the primary one being an enterprise spatial data warehouse. Second, it provides a pooled resource of highly skilled GIS professionals that are contracted to agencies on an annual basis. Third, it provides an hourly fee-based project and consulting service for internal and external clients. The role of the GIS business units is to provide industry-specific service to clients internal to the organization. Leaving the GIS business units intact is essential, because they possess the business intelligence and background knowledge to best serve their discipline. At the same time, it is necessary to have a central GIS function with a clearly distinct role that does not overlap with the business units. With roles defined, GIS users know where to go to obtain service, and GIS professionals have guidelines for their interactions and a clear understanding of their own scope of responsibilities.

The King County GIS Center services, aligned with the three roles described above, work in concert with the business unit GIS programs. Enterprise Services ensures the central infrastructure is operational. Matrix Staff Services, the skilled staffing pool, provides GIS niche skills to agencies in increments they can fully use and can afford. Client Services meets the needs of individuals seeking GIS technology to support their objectives and creates a single point of contact for anyone looking for GIS services. These King County GIS Center services free the GIS business units to concentrate on their core objective, which is to provide the best possible service within their discipline.

The county's GIS program, nearly 20 years old now, is in its sixth year under its current governance structure. The annual GIS work plan, which can be found at, is a prime example of the governance structure's positive influence on collaborative planning of GIS services. The priority work initiatives, also included in the annual plan, create a rallying point for collective action and establish common goals for the federated GIS.

While King County has a robust GIS program, many challenges remain. Primarily, there is the need for improved data. Too often a question goes unanswered or an analysis is not performed because of a lack of supporting data. There is much work still to do, but the county now has an effective governance structure that allows it to collaboratively take action to continuously improve the GIS to meet the needs of King County and its citizens.

About the Author

George Horning has been with King County for 22 years as a cadastral drafting technician, computer mapping specialist, and the last 14 years as a GIS program manager. He has been the King County GIS Center manager since June 2002. His primary interest in GIS has always been the practical application of the technology to improve government services, especially at the local level. During his career at King County, he experienced the transition from a completely manual mapping environment to fully automated. He has a B.S. degree in biology and a certificate in cartography, both from San Diego State University (California), and an M.A. degree in geography from the University of Washington.

More Information

For more information, contact George Horning, King County GIS Center (e-mail:

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