DHS mulling whether to create new role of chief data officer

The Department of Homeland Security is studying whether to name a new senior official to serve as its chief data officer. It would be only the fourth cabinet-le...

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The Department of Homeland Security is taking a close look at whether it ought to join the still-small club of cabinet-level agencies who’ve named a senior official to oversee and manage their organizations’ vast data holdings.

After some Congressional nudging — and some positive experiences on the part of other departments — DHS plans to spend the next several months studying whether to appoint a chief data officer.

The questions it’s asking are aligned with the same factors that have pushed other federal agencies to appoint CDOs in recent years: they collect and store vast amounts of information, but a comparatively small amount of that data is rigorously analyzed, or even meaningfully accessible for the purposes of day-to-day business and operational decisions.

“We have this incredibly rich vein of data out there that we just don’t utilize,” said John Zangardi, the department’s chief information officer. “We own it. It’s ours. We need to start tapping into it.”

The DHS management action group, chaired by the deputy secretary, ordered up a study of the CDO issue, set to be conducted over the coming winter. It will be led by Zangardi’s office, and is expected to present its findings in the spring.

“We do have a data strategy, but it really needs to be fleshed out,” he told attendees at AFCEA’s TechNet conference in Honolulu. “That’s a tremendous amount of work, and we’re in the initial phases of it. There’s questions about where [in the organizational structure] would that CDO be if we had one, what are the duties and responsibilities, what are the authorities? There are a lot of questions there, and the options range from the status quo to one with full-up authorities and responsibility for data across the organization.”

CDOs’ small staff can make big changes

In September, by unanimous voice vote, the House passed a bill that would have required DHS to name a CDO, but the measure was never considered by the Senate.

Not only would that legislation set up a department-level CDO, but each of DHS’s 22 operational components would also be required to name their own data officers. All of them would report to the headquarters level to help harmonize data management and analytics efforts within the component and across the department.

Some DHS components have already done that, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the DHS Office of Cybersecurity and Communications.

But if it were to appoint one at the department level, DHS would be only the fourth cabinet-level agency to do so, according to a study published this fall by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

The first was the Transportation Department in 2014. The Agriculture Department followed suit two years later, and the Department of Health and Human Services did the same in 2017.

Jane Wiseman, the study’s principal author, said the staffs in those CDO offices tend to be very small, but have managed to drive significant changes within their broader organizations.

“They come from a policy background, finance background, IT backgrounds, and what’s interesting is no two CDOs have the exact same set of responsibilities. They’re all kind of pioneers in this wonderful world of data driven government,” she said in a recent interview with Federal News Network. “The most important thing is they’ve had executive sponsorship. If I’m appointed to be a CDO, I want the cabinet secretary, the governor, the mayor, the county executive, to make a big deal about that. Whether it’s an executive order or a memo, it needs to vest me with the authority to do my job.”

In the case of DHS, exactly who the executive sponsor would be is one of the questions the study group will be exploring over the winter.

But however the chips fall in the ultimate organizational structure, data security is likely to be a major concern, Zangardi said. And it’s an issue he’s instructed his team to pay close attention to during the course of the study.

“We are moving to the cloud, and our strategy is a multi-cloud strategy. The question I have is, ‘How do I secure that data?’ My concern is the pathways I have out to the cloud, and whether they’re secure,” he said. “One of the complaints you hear from the components are that our [Trusted Internet Connections] introduce latency, and their mission requires low latency rates. So how do you deal with that? How do I ensure that the configurations that were set when they put that data in the cloud service provider are maintained over time? Those are the kinds of concerns we’re working through right now, and I think the chief data officer’s role in that will be pretty robust.”

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