Federal CDOs still lack clarity around responsibilities, report finds

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Most federal chief data officers have experience with their organizations, but that doesn’t always mean they know where they stand.

A recent report from the Data Foundation, Grant Thornton Public Sector and Qlik surveyed federal
CDOs to assess progress implementing their new roles and responsibilities as laid out in the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. The results showed 54% of CDOs have a clear understanding of their responsibilities, that they know what is expected and how they can be successful in their position.

“There seems to be some misalignment between organizational placement and expected responsibilities and desired outcomes of CDOs’ work,” said Kris Rowley, a former CDO for the General Services Administration, and who now holds the position at the Conference of State Bank Supervisors. “I don’t think that’s a universal case but it’s definitely, when you’re thinking statistically, and you’re looking at the analysis coming out, I would say that is that is a reasonable assessment to make.”

Rowley spoke during the Data Foundation’s Effective Data Governance: A Discussion on the Role of Federal Chief Data Officers webinar event Thursday. CDOs did, however, report progress in multiple key areas, including developing complete inventories of data assets, launching or participating in data governance boards, and improving organizational data quality.

Some key characteristics of respondents are that 97% of them had worked for the federal government for at least five years and 61% had been with the same organization for at least five years.

Robert Shea, national managing principal for Public Policy at Grant Thornton, said some traditional barriers to interference with federal data, including those of a political nature, have eroded. To restore those boundaries, Rowley said data standardization can make a big difference: Consistent data collection protocol and clean definitions. He said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this need especially when the federal government has tried to collect virus data from states.

The idea of shared data language also extends to what does it mean to be “data literate?” Heather Gittings, principal strategic advisor at Qlik and another report co-author, said it’s important to clearly define data literacy and how much of it do people need? MIT defines data literacy as “the ability to read, work with, analyze and argue with data.”

“We throw around this term a lot, and — some people like it, some people don’t … does it imply there’s an element of illiteracy?” Gittings said. “So is everyone within the organization empowered to use the data in a way that is meaningful? And then I would also put it on the flip side — are the creators of data, do they really understand the value of it in such a way that they are tied into the rest of their organization and making sure that they’re not — I’ll use the term ‘data hoarders.’”

Goals including identifying the sensitivity of data assets, and conducting data maturity assessments are still out of reach for most CDOs. So Shea asked Rowley, “what comes next?” For Rowley, it was ownership on the part of the CDO Council.

“I’d like to see more ownership of the federal data strategy by the CDO Council, and by CDOs to really drive implementation, because there’s still this, you know referencing of the co-chair of the CDO Council is the federal CIO,” he said. “And in phase one that may be totally appropriate. Now, as you start to evaluate, what are we going to focus on as a community over the next three to five years? If those top three or four things are not technology-focused, they may want to rethink who’s co-chairing the CDO Council from an R&D perspective.”

Aside from ownership of the Federal Data Strategy implementation, the chain of command for CDOs is worth a closer look. The report found that about a third of CDOs reported answering to the chief information officer in their organization. Report co-author Joe Willey, research director at the Data Foundation, asked Rowley and Shea during Thursday’s event if they thought the position should be an enterprise-level function and whether reporting to a CIO threatens that.

Shea said it did, and that the CDO role goes well beyond technology, but also that a one-size-fits-all approach across government does not work. Rowley said he had instances of discussing data-related priorities directly with a deputy administrator, when no CIO was also in the room – to whom he technically reported. But preserving relationships is key.

“Clearly, if I would have said things like, ‘We can’t do what you want to do, because our infrastructure here are so terrible,’ that relationship wouldn’t have lasted very long, right? So you still have to respect the chain of command,” Rowley said. “But then the CIO also has to understand that not every discussion that people have with me is going to be related to technology, and that he or she does not need to be in those discussions.”

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