Jun 28 2021
Data Analytics

What Is a Chief Data Officer and How Can the Role Help Agencies?

The position has become more common and empowered across the federal government in recent years thanks to the Federal Data Strategy.

In May, Federal CIO Clare Martorana indicated that the Office of Management and Budget would issue an update to the Federal Data Strategy, which offers a “common set of data principles and best practices in implementing data innovations that drive more value for the public.”

“The Federal Data Strategy is really critical,” she said during a virtual conference, according to MeriTalk, adding, “we need to raise the bar for the entire government.”

The strategy, she said, can drive government innovation by helping federal agencies make more effective use of data. The strategy, along with related action plans, “continues to collectively raise the maturity bar for the whole of government,” she said.

“As we look ahead, we know we need to enhance access to discoverable and usable data, and models that feed our artificial intelligence and machine learning development,” she said. “Much of the data we have in government is siloed in systems, and is oftentimes not accessible, even across an agency, let alone across the entire federal enterprise. We must continue to reduce these barriers, while still focusing on the privacy and security that our customers expect.”

The strategy empowers chief data officers across the federal government to set priorities for managing data; improve the use of data as an asset in decision-making; determine how to better access, use and share data; and find innovative ways for agencies and the public to use the data.

“In our data modernization action plan, we are using ‘driver projects’ that generate value for the agency,” Ram Iyer, Chief Data Officer for the Food and Drug Administration, said during a webinar hosted by AFCEA Bethesda, according to Nextgov. “We believe if we just focus on back-office work for months and years, we may not have the buy-in from our stakeholders, so we are starting with our key projects.”

RELATED: New data analysis tools help agencies move fast amid crises.

What Is a Chief Data Officer?

The Trump administration’s President’s Management Agenda called for the creation of a long-term Federal Data Strategy, which was finalized in December 2019. The first federal chief data officers were hired at least five years ago, but agencies were required to create and fill the position in January 2019.

The Federal CDO Council brings together government chief data officers and began its first formal meetings last year. The CDO Council was established by statute in the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018.

As the law notes, agency chief data officers are to be “designated on the basis of demonstrated training and experience in data management, governance (including creation, application, and maintenance of data standards), collection, analysis, protection, use, and dissemination, including with respect to any statistical and related techniques to protect and de-identify confidential data.”

Agency chief data officers are responsible for lifecycle data management and are tasked with coordinating with “any official in the agency responsible for using, protecting, disseminating, and generating data to ensure that the data needs of the agency are met.”

Chief data officers are also responsible for managing data assets of the agency, ensuring that agency data conforms with data management best practices and engaging with “agency employees, the public, and contractors in using public data assets” to “encourage collaborative approaches on improving data use.”

Chief data officers are also required to “review the impact of the infrastructure of the agency on data asset accessibility and coordinate with the Chief Information Officer of the agency to improve such infrastructure to reduce barriers that inhibit data asset accessibility.”

Chief data officer are responsible for ensuring that, to the extent practicable, “the agency maximizes the use of data in the agency, including for the production of evidence,” cybersecurity and the improvement of agency operations.

What Is the Federal Data Strategy?

The Federal Data Strategy describes a 10-year vision for how the government will “accelerate the use of data to deliver on mission, serve the public, and steward resources while protecting security, privacy, and confidentiality,” OMB notes.

The strategy is designed to guide federal data management and use via a mission statement, 10 operating principles and a set of 40 best practices to guide agencies in leveraging the value of federal and federally sponsored data.

The principles are grouped around ideas of ethical governance (uphold ethics, exercise responsibility and promote transparency); conscious design (ensure relevance, harness existing data, anticipate future uses and demonstrate responsiveness); and promoting a learning culture (invest in learning, develop data leaders and practice accountability).

All agencies are required to implement the strategy through annual governmentwide action plans.

The 2020 Action Plan, which was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, identified initial actions for agencies that are “essential for establishing processes, building capacity, and aligning existing efforts to better leverage data as a strategic asset.”

The CDO Council met 11 times in 2020 and focused much of last year on “on setting up its governance structure, building a CDO community and relationships with other intergovernmental councils and groups, sharing best practices/lessons learned, strategic planning, and supporting CDOs in their implementation of the Federal Data Strategy (FDS) Action Plans,” according to a report the council sent earlier this year to Congress and OMB. According to a survey of federal chief data officers released in August 2020, more than half of those surveyed reported improvements in data quality (64 percent), assessment of staff capabilities and needs (57 percent), migration to cloud-based services (57 percent), and availability of metadata (54 percent).

It’s unclear when the government will release the 2021 Action Plan, but it seems as though it is high on Martorana’s agenda. “We can make the most of government data by making it easily shareable, adopting common standards, and improving data management,” she said in May, as MeriTalk reports.

EXPLORE: How does the Federal Data Strategy enable cooperation on data projects?

Chief Data Officer vs. Chief Information Officer: What’s the Difference?

In a May survey by the CDO Council, more than a quarter of respondents said they report directly to the head of their agencies, while another quarter of respondents said they report to their agencies’ CIOs.

What’s the difference between a CDO and a CIO? As Deloitte notes in a report on the CIO/chief digital officer relationship a CIO is responsible “for provisioning the lower levels of the technology stack, ranging from (hybrid) cloud services to shared platforms and databases.”


The percentage of federal CDOs who say they report to their agency head

Source: cdo.gov, “CDO Council Survey Results,” May 31, 2021

CIOs are responsible for “table stakes like cost containment, efficiency and reliability of the IT estate,” as well as for “setting (and enforcing) standards and policies in those domains that are critical for securing the integrality of IT across the enterprise,” such as the enterprise architecture, technology standards, cybersecurity, business continuity and vendors and contracts.

According to a 2020 survey of federal chief data officers by the Data Foundation, in partnership with Grant Thornton Public Sector and Qlik, the top identified responsibility of a chief data officer was to “establish and implement data policies and data governance.”

“CDOs also prioritized data use and a focus on quality and security,” the report says. “Recognizing the balance between developing data governance policies and ensuring capabilities, CDOs indicated that significant time is dedicated to preparatory activities, such as data cleaning and organization.”

DIVE DEEPER: How artificial intelligence tools allow agencies to analyze vast amounts of data.

How to Become a Chief Data Officer

As the Data Foundation report notes, the Evidence Act “specifies qualifications for federal CDOs appointed at a departmental or agency level,” including “training and experience in core aspects of the CDO’s prescribed responsibilities, such as data collection, management, and governance.”

However, the law “does not require that CDOs be familiar with the agency’s mission or even government in general” and the “decisions for qualifying and appointing CDOs is an agency decision.”

Most chief data officers surveyed have years of relevant government experience, with 97 percent having worked for the federal government for five or more years and 61 percent having been with the same organization for at least five years.

“This finding suggests those serving as CDOs have a deep understanding of the structure of their organization, familiarity with relevant data, an ability to navigate the existing culture of their organizations, and perhaps most importantly firsthand experience about the ways agency and government data can be leveraged to improve government programs,” the report notes.

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