Privatizing Geospatial Activities to Make States More Efficient

According to an association of private sector firms in the geospatial field, modern mapping technologies can make state government more efficient and present an opportunity to put a robust private sector market to work in the public interest.

In a letter to each of the 50 governors, the Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors (MAPPS) presents a checklist of issues relevant to the private geospatial business community that states should consider when developing and implementing reform initiatives. In short, the gist is that by reducing unfair government competition with private enterprise and enhancing a state’s utilization of geospatial technologies, government can be more efficient.

For those unfamiliar with what “geospatial technology” means, think “things like Google Maps” that blend maps, data and imagery, generally within geographic information systems (GIS) that over the last two decades have become ubiquitous in government, industry and consumer markets. In a government context, GIS provides officials more complete information and better analytic tools to make crucial decisions—e.g., where tax revenues are generated, where infrastructure investment is needed, and how and where to spend, maintain or conserve resources—faster and more accurately.

The geospatial market has been identified by the U.S. Department of Labor as one of the fastest growing workforces in the country. The geospatial profession is a practice that uses geographic information as a base, but layers and integrates includes other data to provide faster, more efficient and accurate solutions to a plethora of issues. Geospatial applications offer a visual perspective to clients, users and consumers that decades ago was only previously available to a limited market.

And the role that geospatial information plays in our economy is subtle, but profound. The federal National Geospatial Advisory Committee estimates that up to 90% of government information has a geospatial information component and as much as 80% of the information managed by business is connected to a specific location (see here, here and here). Add in things like GPS and location-based services via smartphone apps, and it becomes clear how widespread the use of geospatial tools really is in modern society.

But as is all too common in government, when public officials began deploying GIS systems in earnest in the 1990s and faced the “make or buy” decision, in many jurisdictions the default answer was “make.” So instead of partnering with engineering firms and other technical specialists that already provide mapping and other geospatial services widely in the private sector, they opted for the riskier and often costlier route of building in-house systems staffed by government employees.

This failure to apply the “Yellow Pages test”—e.g., if one can flip open a Yellow Pages and find a company providing a service or activity currently being performed by government, then that service is not “inherently governmental” and could be bid out—is no small concern to John Palatiello, executive director of MAPPS (and occasional Reason Foundation author). In an email, he noted:

“With a number of reform-minded governors beginning to implement changes to improve the operation of their state governments, lower costs, increase productivity, reduce the size of government, balance the budget and create private sector jobs, MAPPS believes the increasing use of geospatial technologies should be an opportunity for free market growth, not competition and duplication by government.”

We’ve highlighted government competition with private geospatial firms before at Reason Foundation, along with the benefits of privatization. For example, see my 2006 feature on government competition with private mapping firms (see page 8), or this 2004 article noting that state transportation agencies have used federal and state highway funds to build in-house capabilities in surveying, mapping, engineering and planning rather than contract to the private sector (see page 14). Also, a 2000 Reason study found that outsourcing engineering, surveying, mapping and other infrastructure-related services can bring several benefits, including cost-effectiveness, improved service delivery, innovation, access to specialized expertise and accommodating fluctuations in peak demand more efficiently than traditional public sector efforts.

Returning to the main story, MAPPS recommends six specific initiatives that Governors should consider:

  1. Conduct a review of each state agency to determine whether geospatial activities are conducted with state employees that could and should be contracted to the private sector, with particular attention to the state’s department of transportation.
  2. Create a current, accurate GIS-based inventory of all state owned land so determinations can be made which land is surplus and can be disposed for tax-generating activities in private ownership. [for more, see Palatiello and Reason colleague Anthony Randazzo’s how-to-guide on conducting real property inventories.]
  3. Establish a state GIS Coordination Council, with private sector participation and representation.
  4. End state prison industry performance of mapping and GIS services.
  5. Audit practices of state universities to assure they are not conducting mapping and geospatial services for hire with state and local agencies or other entities in unfair competition with the private sector.
  6. Conduct an assessment of state utilization of geospatial technologies to determine whether the most cost-effective and state-of-the art services and solutions are being provided to citizens.

Read more on these recommendations here. As in many other areas of government activity, by partnering with the private sector and maximizing the use of cutting edge technological tools in the geospatial arena, states have an opportunity to lower costs while improving the efficiency of services to taxpayers.