A governmentwide council of chief data officers met for the first time Friday, satisfying the first of 20 goals agencies must fulfill under the one-year action plan of the Federal Data Strategy the Trump administration released in December.
More than a year after President Donald Trump signed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking into law, most but not all agencies have named a permanent chief data officer. But every agency sent at least an acting CDO to participate in the inaugural meeting at the General Services Administration’s headquarters.
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While CDOs play a central role in meeting the short and long-term goals of the Federal Data Strategy, Margaret Weichert, the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management, said the plan carries weight for every federal employee, whether that’s an enlisted member of the Coast Guard or an accountant at the Treasury Department.
“We’re not doing data plans for data wonks,” Weichert told reporters Friday before the CDO meeting. “We’re doing data plans and data thinking to drive mission, service and stewardship.”
In a few months, agencies must complete an assessment of their workforce’s data literacy and data skills under the Federal Data Strategy. But the plan also sets a 10-year roadmap on long-term goals like the government’s ethical use of public data .
“We understand the American people care about the government having data that could be used in ways that they don’t like. And so that’s a balancing act,” Weichert said.
While the Evidence Act pushes agencies to make more of their data sets publicly available unless statue prohibits it, Weichert said the CDO Council won’t yet take on anything as robust as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
“I think that will be a matter for the public policy realm. What we in the management realm have to do is anticipate,” she said. “How do we frame that conversation in the operational world, in the technology world, in the resource allocation world, so that if those are the public policy decisions that are made, we have actual structure things, so we can implement that?”
Down the line, the CDO Council will also address thorny issues like data interoperability. But looking ahead, Weichert said the council may set standards, but let the private sector focus on building interoperability.
Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent said the Federal Data Strategy will focus on providing the federal workforce with a general sense of data literacy, but added that it will also help stand up a data reskilling pilot.
“The data science reskilling is about people who have the hands-on roles in delivering this and the data activities at agencies,” Kent said. “So what are ways that we can upskill and add to people who already understand the mission and the data that the agency has, and bring a finer point to some of those specific skills that we’re seeing in the market and that we need to have.”
In addition, Kent said OMB is doing “tactical work” with the Office of Personnel Management focused on how agencies make new hires with these in-demand data skills.
OPM is working on a dedicated job series classification for data scientists, but in the meantime, Kent said that hasn’t prevented agencies from recruiting and hiring data talent.
“We’re hiring them now, and they’re in those roles. As we continue forward and we understand what that is, we’ll have more discipline around it,” she said.
It remains unclear when OPM will release its data scientist job series, but Weichert said efforts under the President’s Management Agenda to build a modern federal workforce have led to “fundamental questions” about the role of federal job classifications when it comes to data.
“The notion of classifications is possibly not the most important issue,” Weichert said. “We really need to say, what are the competencies that we need? We need numeracy. We need data literacy. We need an expectation that people have quantitative skills, have skills around maintaining, protecting, using data in a structured way. How important is the classification to building that? It’s an element, but I don’t think it’s even the most important element, and certainly not the only one.”
Agencies that face a “heavier lift” in meeting some of the goals in the Federal Data Strategy and the Evidence Act have begun to invest more time and attention in those areas to catch up with the rest of the government, Kent said.
For some agencies, just the Justice Department and National Science Foundation, their chief information officers have taken on a dual-hatted role as their organization’s CDO.
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But Kent said the Evidence Act set up CDOs to meet 15 specific activities that, in many cases, were already the responsibility on an existing position.
“That’s why, I think, you saw sometimes that duel-hatting. There were individuals that were already delivering on those responsibilities. It will be an evolution,” Kent told reporters Friday before the CDO meeting.
Weichert said because of this, the CDO board provides a diversity of viewpoints.
“Having only one chief data officer with only one perspective is not going to give us the portfolio view, so the more diversity we actually have, and the more people have day jobs, I actually think we’re going to get a better representation of use cases to inform our strategy. Being a CDO, to me, is largely about a governance role, not an operational role,” Weichert said.