Is a proposed IT investment going to pay for itself? If it will, how soon will it do so?

The return on investment question is -- or at least should be -- a common concern in the business world. But in the public sector, where making a profit is not a concern, what yardsticks are used to measure success?

For 15 years, I've observed how GIS has made an impact on service delivery in both the public and private sectors.

If a semiconductor company and invests in research and a production line for a new chip, it wants reasonable assurance there will be a profit as soon as possible. That doesn't apply in the public sector; there's neither a bottom line, nor shareholders who want answers.

But that doesn't mean there's no way to measure success in government, and it's certainly no reason to use resources ineffectively. City council members and other policy-makers want a businesslike approach to an investment such as GIS.

Government agencies provide services that simply can't be provided by the private sector, because of cost or risk factor. Therefore, the success of government agencies is usually measured in terms of provided services, and their effectiveness and efficiency.

Municipal and state governments can be compared to private-sector conglomerates: a collection of widely different businesses that have little in common except their shared source of funding. In the public sector, the varying tasks of different government agencies can sometimes compete for the same dollars.

Research has shown many examples in which investment in GIS technology paid for itself in terms of increased efficiency and quality of service. In some cases, GIS implementation even resulted in new sources of revenue.

Though the general awareness of GIS and its benefits has grown over recent years, it can still be difficult to persuade decision-makers to approve funding for the technology.

Classifying the five different categories of benefits provided by GIS and finding examples of each type can help convince policy-makers and executives that the technology is worth the initial investment.

GIS payback can be divided into the following types:

Bill Lloyd  |  Contributing Writer