Data literacy for government impact

Data will inevitably become a central part of the effort to improve the delivery of critical citizen services.

The White House recently declared 2022 as the “Year of Evidence for Action” – but are federal agencies and the federal workforce ready?

Data will inevitably become a central part of the effort to improve the delivery of critical citizen services. But agencies are currently encountering several challenges as they work to reskill and upskill their personnel with cutting-edge data literacy tools and training. A recent survey of federal chief data officers found that identifying opportunities to increase workforce data skills was a challenge for 95% of respondents.

Broadly defined, data literacy describes a professional’s ability to read, work with, analyze and use data ethically to solve complex challenges and drive innovation. For individual employees, data literacy can help improve efficiency and maximize the impact of everyday job functions. And across a federal agency, a data-literate workforce has the power to transform mission-critical objectives and empower data-driven decision making, which ultimately helps modernize and improve government services.

But to get there – according to a recent study by the Data Foundation and Deloitte – agency leaders should proceed with deliberate speed and intention across four key areas:

  • Securing executive sponsorships. To stand up a data literacy program, CDOs will need proactive support from senior agency leaders. In coordination with CDOs, agency executives should establish organizational data literacy and data use standards to clarify individual responsibilities and help effectively implement data programs. Data literacy is also a cross-cutting challenge, so agency leaders should work to align efforts by CDOs, human capital officials and relevant portfolio managers to implement and uphold these standards.
  • Conducting knowledge gap analyses. Agencies will need to assess pre-existing data literacy across the workforce to identify competencies, knowledge gaps and priority education areas. Data skill frameworks and data literacy indexes are readily available and widely used, so public-sector organizations can build from ready-made tools to conduct these assessments and help create data literacy curricula.
  • Setting expectations. A data literate workforce is not just a team of data science savants. The objective is for everyone within an agency to develop some level of awareness about how data shapes and affects their organization. Any employee can achieve data literacy once they are comfortable with communicating and utilizing data to inform decisions and can critically assess data-based analyses and reporting. 
  • Establishing incentives. Employees are more likely to embrace data literacy if a program’s purpose, logistics and professional growth metrics are widely understood and accessible. This requires that agency executives distinctly communicate objectives and definitions for success. Participating federal workers should also be empowered to communicate openly about the data literacy program, and leaders should encourage and act on their feedback. 

Several federal agencies have successfully built strong foundations for data literacy programs. The U.S. Census Bureau’s opportunity project, for example, helps expand data accessibility and analysis through technological applications. Moreover, following the results of an internal skills gap analysis in 2019, the Census Bureau launched its data science training pilot in 2020, which upskills current employees with technical backgrounds and engages the bureau’s staff about emerging data science capabilities.

Today’s federal agency leaders know that data serves as the foundation for the government’s larger modernization efforts. They also know that it’s imperative to retain their current workforce and provide employees with the resources they need to succeed. Effective data literacy programs provide a critical steppingstone to help the federal government accomplish these goals. And with expanded data literacy and data access, federal workers will be empowered to make data-informed decisions, enhance day-to-day operations and improve the delivery of citizen services.

Adita Karkera serves as the Chief Data Officer for Deloitte’s government and public services practice and is a fellow at the Deloitte AI Institute for Government. She spent nearly 20 years with the Arkansas Department of Information Systems and was appointed as the state’s Deputy State Chief Data Officer in 2017.                            

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