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Navy plan for CDO has been stagnant for almost a year as potential benefits pass by

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The Navy collects more data in a day than all of the information in the Library of Congress. Actually harnessing that data is a tremendous challenge, but it can also be a potential gold mine for the service.

The info can be used to find patterns in enemy behavior and build applications that help sailors with financial services, improve the efficiency of the service, root out adversaries and make bases more secure.

To take advantage of that data, the Department of the Navy is exploring the need for a chief data officer as a means of using and sorting vast amounts of data.

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But the question is when will the position come to fruition? Since January, the Navy has been reviewing a plan for a CDO, according to documents obtained by Federal News Radio. But, sources say the service has yet to act on the strategy as petabytes of data that it could use to improve the life of sailors, save money and protect the homeland are not being utilized.

The Navy continues to drag its feet despite understanding the need for a CDO position.

The Navy “recognizes that there is value in the data we produce and is excited about the prospect of a CDO,” the Navy Department’s acting Chief Information Officer Kelly Fletcher said in a statement to Federal News Radio. “The CIO office believes that the functions assigned to the CDO are necessary. We are actively involved in the discussions about the role of the CDO and are interested in the outcome.”

However, building the CDO position causes anxiety for those entrenched in Navy technology leadership and that is causing some tension across the service. A Navy source, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal,  told Federal News Radio the CDO plan has hit some speed bumps on its way to becoming a reality.

Senior Navy officials are split on how to move forward and are slowing down the process.

The plan

In January, the Navy began circulating an internal proposal to create an experimental CDO office on an interim basis of two years. The approach would take an empirical approach, the source said, with the CDO charged with finding value in data. The CIO’s responsibilities, meanwhile, would continue to lie in protecting data.

The source argued the two roles are complementary but separate, since the complexity of the data ecosystem is driving the need for increased specialization in positions dealing with data and technology. A CIO works with IT, cybersecurity and enterprise architecture. The CDO focuses on data content and how it can be used operationally.

The plan, however, doesn’t push the DoN to create the position right away. Rather, it takes a slow deliberate approach over the two-year interim period that will develop an office based on data-driven evidence detailing how and where the CDO should operate.

The interim office would establish resource test beds and venues for prototyping and establishing best practices for data science.

Using the results from this experimentation, the CDO would find gaps in current policy and practices it can fill.

After establishing best practices through private and public sector bodies of knowledge, the office would create a placeholder for the next budget cycle and explicitly define CDO functions.

Finally, Navy leaderhsip would create the position after the two-year interim period. Leadership would request funds to create the office for the next fiscal year.  When the DoN sets up the office depends on when the strategy is finalized and the initial experimental organization is set up.

The need

CDOs have been a growing trend within government for years.

“The government, as well as private sector organizations, are realizing the strategic value of putting an executive in charge of its data and analytics,” Jane Snowdon, IBM’s chief innovation officer for federal said in a 2015 interview with Federal News Radio. “Leading organizations are relying on chief data officers for innovation and transformation across their organizations.”

At least 11 agencies and departments have created CDO positions, including spots at the Commerce and Agriculture Departments.

Former Navy CIO Robert Carey said the need for CDO is evident.

“CIOs are now long in the tooth,” Carey, who is now the vice president for cybersecurity cloud and unified communications solutions at General Dynamics Information Technology, said. “Any function that has been around for 21 years unchanged probably needs a refresh. As you move into the future you start to see chief digital officer, chief data officer, chief information security officer… the question is how to do you create sense out of these new, but really important roles?”

The benefits of someone managing data in innovative and cost saving ways is not lost on the Navy as a whole.

“The data we collect from our [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] sensors, the data that we collect about our people, the data we collect about our financial systems, the data we collect off of our actual hardware in terms of the performance… that data has been collected in various forms with various degrees of accuracy for many, many, many years,” said Vice Adm. Jan Tighe, the deputy chief of naval operations for information warfare, during an Oct. 3 during a speech at a Defense News Conference in Arlington, Va. “Part of that calculus requires a data strategy that makes sense of the data we’re moving to the cloud, which data needs to go to which kinds of clouds, which data needs to be organized together, what are the standards by which we are collecting that data?”

Tighe said organizing the data is a precursor to applying the analytics the Navy needs to find motifs and benefits within the data.

Tighe’s comments mirror the CDO proposal. The Navy plan outlines one of the CDO roles as optimizing the value of digital assets. The others include making high quality decisions with data, discovering trends and anticipating future trends.

To create the CDO position, Tighe said multiple moving pieces such as data, digital and cybersecurity must come together.

The other military services already have established similar CDO positions.

The Army established its CDO position in 2009. The CDO reports directly to the Army CIO and is a senior advisor on data issues to the Army chief of staff and the Army Secretary. The CDO also chairs the Army Data Council.

The Air Force established its CDO position in 2017 and put Kim Crider in the role. Crider reports directly to the Air Force secretary and to the Air Force chief of staff. The Air Force expects the office to be about 30 full time employees.

The balancing act

Despite the Navy’s excitement about the CDO position, the Navy source told Federal News Radio the CDO initiative has lost some momentum.  

The source said senior leaders in the military have seen the plan, but haven’t agreed on a way forward. Tighe confirmed she been briefed on the CDO issue and has been in talks with the Navy Secretariat office for about a year on it.

There are two forces pulling at the Navy’s CDO plan, the source said: some leaders want a full CDO office right now that can bring in meaningful results. Others see risks in moving too quickly. The interim period would give the CDO time to set up the office establish policy and technical objectives with clear roles and responsibilities within the Navy.

Some leaders also fear the CDO will step on the jurisdiction of the CIO.

The plan does not explicitly call for the CDO to be a separate entity from the CIO.

However, the Navy source said the CDO and CIO would likely work best in parallel, enabling the CDO to enhance the value and use of Navy data.

Fletcher said there is no tension between the CIO and CDO roles and the CIO’s office would welcome a Navy CDO.

“The CDO role can be effective either inside or outside of the CIO office. Wherever the position ends up, the CIO and CDO will work together,” Fletcher said.

However, the Navy source said there has been a “lack of rigorous discussions on how best to construct the CDO and CIO relationship.”

Carey explained the thought process of leaders who would want to keep the CDO in the CIO office.

“I see a little confusion reigning. When the CIO wants to do something is he now coordinating with the chief data officer? They’re all on par with one another and everyone can’t be a chief. In the operational Navy everyone is not an admiral. There’s a reason there is a chain of command and it tends to work pretty well,” Carey said. “You’re not going to make another guy own a very important, but very niche part of the IT infrastructure… I don’t see the logic in it. If there are functions you want done and they deal with data then tag the CIO and hold him or her accountable for delivering those outcomes or hiring someone on their staff to do it.”

DJ Patil, former White House chief data scientist, disagrees.

“The data scientist and the CDO is Spock on the bridge. The important thing to remember is Spock is on the bridge, not because Spock is supposed to have a chair on the bridge, but because Spock has earned the right to be on the bridge and is a critical component of every conversation,” he said in a 2015 interview with Federal News Radio. “That is that operational execution focus and that is what I think we have seen as the CIO continues to evolve, in the same way the CTO role continues to evolve. It will have overlap. Now is the opportunity for that CDO role to bloom.”

Where the balance lies in the Navy remains to be seen, but for now the service has a plan waiting to be implemented.

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