Jul 08 2020

CDOs Are Empowered to Guide Agencies Thanks to the Federal Data Strategy

As petabytes of data pour into the government daily, the newly important position of chief data officer will help make the flow manageable.

The federal government’s new Chief Data Officer Council met for the first time early this year, with more than 60 CDOs or their representatives in attendance to determine their roles and responsibilities and how best to handle agencies’ growing data needs and inventory.

Just weeks after that meeting, the role of data in government became all too clear, as the COVID-19 pandemic meant that officials needed to know the number of hospital beds and ventilators available, where personal protective equipment was located and needed to be shipped, and how many people were falling ill to the new disease.

Data underpins nearly all federal activities, and agencies are awash in it. The Library of Congress alone holds 60 petabytes of data — or, to put it another way, a music playlist that would last 116,000 years.

Feds Get Help to Make Data-Driven Decisions

The President’s Management Agenda called for the creation of a long-term Federal Data Strategy, which was finalized in late December. Although the first federal CDOs were hired at least five years ago, agencies were required to create and fill the position in January 2019. With those two structures in place, the government can continue to organize its overstuffed data closet in a more efficient manner.

The strategy and its action plan call on agencies to set priorities for how to manage data; to improve the use of data as an asset in decision-making; to figure out how to better access, use and share data; and to find innovative ways for both federal agencies and the public to use the data.

With more CDOs and a governing council in place, agencies should now have the guidance they need to achieve these goals.

Data should be for everyone, said Margaret Weichert, then the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, before that first CDO meeting. 

“We’re not doing data plans for data wonks,” she explained. “We’re doing data plans and data thinking to drive mission, service and stewardship.”

The CDO is key to that mission. Having a specific person overseeing the development of criteria for data skills needed in an agency, assessing how many current staff members have those skills and finding out how to fill those needs puts data under a badly needed microscope. Some agencies assign those duties to their CIOs, but that can double an already massive workload.

Experts Are Needed to Manage Data

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is an agency at the center of pandemic-related data ­collection, not to mention every other health risk and outbreak in the United States.

There, officials are looking to upgrade technology used to monitor disease spread. They’ve also asked their current vendor to focus on cloud infrastructure, beef up the analytic tools and improve the user interface.

Ben Bourbon
Data underpins nearly all federal activities, and agencies are awash in it.”

Ben Bourbon Vice President of Federal Sales, CDW•G

That’s the technology end of the deal. The technology brings in more data. While the IT staff handles the technical part of upgrades and modernization, the data staff designs processes for handling, storing, organizing, analyzing and distributing the additional data that will result.

In fact, the CDC has posted an opening for its first CDO, looking for someone who can ensure “that public health benefits from and contributes to impactful and ethical use of data for discovery, innovation, application and improvement.”

When an agency already so data-driven feels it necessary to have someone very specific to oversee the governance of that information, you know that job is essential. 

For agencies that are just starting down the data-driven path, a CDO will be an important guide along that long journey.


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