Chief data officers focused on accelerating AI adoption across government

Chief data officers across the federal government see their work as the key to accelerating the adoption of artificial intelligence tools across the federal gov...

Chief data officers across the federal government see their work as the key to accelerating the adoption of artificial intelligence tools across the federal government.

More than half of federal CDOs who took a survey conducted by the Data Foundation and Deloitte said they’re already using basic or advanced AI tools.

Nearly all CDOs who took the survey said they expect their agency to adopt AI tools next year.

In a 2022 survey,  45% of CDOs said they had no responsibility for AI tools at their agencies.

Rob King, the Energy Department’s chief data officer, said agency CDOs recognize their work is the foundation for accelerating the use of AI tools in government.

“Data can be that strategic enabler, especially on the emergence of AI. It’s even more of an accelerator, in terms of that strategic change,” King said in a webinar Tuesday.

Over half of the survey’s respondents said their agency has only had an official CDO role for the past three to five years. But about 90% of respondents said they have more than 10 years of experience working in the federal government.

“Despite the relatively new official role of the CDO, the expertise that they have really lends itself well to a position that’s focused on improving management and governance of data assets across an organization,” said Katie O’Toole, a senior policy and research analyst at the Data Foundation.

King said CDOs, in terms of influence at their agencies, are following the same trajectory that agency chief information security officers (CISOs) have seen over the past decade.

In the coming years, he expects agencies to prioritize data as a strategic asset, the same way they’ve elevated cybersecurity efforts in recent years.

“I think we’re going to get to a point — and we need to get to a point — where data is on that equal footing. What is the data architecture? What are the data requirements? Where does that data need to flow between distinct business processes?” King said.

Agencies are staffing up with CDOs and data scientists, but King said they haven’t spent as much time developing a career trajectory for other data professionals, such as data stewards and engineering roles.

“We’re seeing some negative impacts by not making those investments in other data practitioner roles, namely the steward and engineer roles. And so we need to get back and start looking at what does it mean to be a data steward — and what those key skill sets?” he said.

King, however, said AI and automation tools could help agencies tackle some of the data management and maturity functions that haven’t been adequately addressed by the federal workforce.

“There are definitely some very mature capabilities right now in the marketplace to help drive automation into data governance and data stewardship. We still need the humans, but it’ll drive down the hours and it’ll mature though the whole the broader ecosystem, in a manner that we haven’t seen yet to date,” King said. “That’s going to be a huge win for CDOs, especially as we get our data prepared for ingestion into AI models.”

CDOs, however, see a long road ahead in these efforts. About 90% of CDOs who took the survey said their agency’s data infrastructure was only “a little” or “somewhat” mature.

About 40% of respondents said they feel successful in achieving their agency mission.

Meanwhile, CDOs identified many of the same barriers at their agencies.

Most respondents said limited staffing and budgets, as well as unclear authorities, prevented them from having a broader impact on their agencies.

King said most agency CDOs face “identical” challenges, and that the governmentwide CDO Council is focused on taking on these persistent challenges.

“There’s some nuanced differences, but for the most part, it’s the same challenge set. And I think we see some opportunities to what are the things that are we doing really well … let’s start to share those across the CDO community,” King said.

King, however, plans to lead those governmentwide data efforts as the CDO Council’s new vice chairman. Kirsten Dalboe, the CDO at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, will serve as the council’s new chairwoman.

The survey also found CDO functions are not organized consistently across federal agencies.

About a third of CDOs report to their agency’s chief information officer, and 15% reported to the head of their agency. But 37% of CDOs provided a write-in response, meaning they don’t report to the CIO or the agency head.

“This can reflect unique agency needs, but it really does introduce challenges for a more consistent approach to CDOs and data management across the federal government,” O’Toole said.

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