Navy’s commitment to data centricity becomes open question with recent CDO-related actions

The Department of the Navy pushed out Tom Sasala, the department’s highly-respected CDO since October 2019, leaving it without defined leadership and potentia...

“Data is a strategic asset. Transforming the Department of Defense (DoD) to a datacentric organization is critical to improving performance and creating decision advantage at all echelons from the battlespace to the board room, ensuring U.S. competitive advantage. To accelerate the department’s efforts, leaders must ensure all DoD data is visible, accessible, understandable, linked, trustworthy, interoperable and secure.”

So begins Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks’ May 2021 memo to create a data advantage across the Pentagon.

Despite this simple, but complex concept that every part of the military is focused on, the Department of the Navy’s commitment to moving toward this approach now is in question.

The DoN decided to eliminate its chief data officer’s billet in the senior executive service (SES), pushing out Tom Sasala, the department’s highly-respected CDO since October 2019, in what many call a punitive way, using the excuse it was eliminating the CDO position to meet a new congressional cap on DoD SES positions.

Thomas Sasala left after three years as the Navy’s CDO and came back to the Army in January. (U.S. Army photo by William Pratt)

The move leaves the future of the service’s success in making data a strategic asset without a defined leader and potentially an overwhelmed data organization.

Government sources with knowledge of the Navy’s thinking say the decision to transfer Sasala out of the CDO role is both irrational and short-sighted.

“There is no CDO position. The billet has been abolished and the position doesn’t exist,” said one source, who requested anonymity in order to talk about personnel decisions. “They technically can’t put someone into it. They can assign statutory responsibilities to someone else, but there is no CDO billet. That means the work in the data office will have to be redistributed because there aren’t enough people to go to meetings and do the basic work.”

The Navy’s CDO ran weekly strategy meetings, worked on the data governance board that focused on initiatives like the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and Project Overmatch, and oversaw a host of other initiatives around creating trustworthy data in the Jupiter platform, that now will be distributed among the four remaining people in the office with the support of six contractors.

“What will end up happening is there will be a lot of pissed off customers and disgruntled employees, and then they will leave and a lot of what the Navy started will stop,” the source said. “When Tom left, there was no plan to backfill or address his day-to-day roles and responsibilities.”

Acting CDO or not?

The lack of a plan played out when Federal News Network asked 10 questions about the Navy’s decision to eliminate the CDO as an SES billet and reassign Sasala. The Navy chose to answer only three of the 10 questions while also quoting DoD and Office of Personnel Management SES reassignment regulations.

First, Navy spokesperson Lt. Alyson Hands said there is no specific CDO, but Duncan McCaskill, the DoN’s chief data analytics officer, would be filling the role and responsibility of the CDO, but was not the acting CDO. A few days later, Hands backtracked that comment, saying McCaskill is indeed the acting CDO.

McCaskill is not an SES. He is a highly qualified expert (HQE), a unique flexibility only DoD has to bring in individuals who possess uncommon special knowledge, skills and experience in an occupational field.

The Navy also has no plans to advertise to fill the SES CDO role.

“The use of data remains as important as ever in helping the Navy achieve its goals. All of the Navy’s programs are designed to be sustainable throughout leadership and personnel transitions,” Hands said in a statement to Federal News Network.

At the same time the DoN eliminated the CDO role as an SES billet, it brought in Jane Rathbun in a SES role as the new principal deputy CIO, a role that the service hasn’t filled since Kelly Fletcher left in 2018. Fletcher is now the State Department’s CIO.

Hands wouldn’t confirm if there is a SES billet for Rathbun, but did say her position is an authorized SES role.

The issue at hand is not about Rathbun or her role; that’s more of an aside to the bigger two issues.

Move to data-centricity hampered

The first is the decision to eliminate the CDO role as a SES job at a time when there may be few things that matter more than managing data to drive decisions. The Navy used the excuse that it had to reduce the number of SESers, but found room enough for Rathbun.

And second, the treatment of Sasala, who, for all intent and purposes, was “turkey farmed” to San Diego — giving him the choice to uproot his life and move across country to a job he wasn’t interested in or leave the Navy altogether. The DoN’s decision to do a management directed reassignment of Sasala came despite having as many as 34 open SES billets, including six to eight the service advertised for in December in the National Capital Region, having met the Congressionally-mandated caps earlier in 2022.

In January, Sasala moved back to the Army to be the deputy director in the Office of Business Transformation. He spent six years with the Army before taking on other roles, including the Navy’s CDO, since October 2019.

The DoN’s decision to eliminate the SES billet for the CDO is most disturbing for many former Navy and DoD officials.

Terry Halvorsen, the former DoD and Navy CIO and now vice president for federal client development at IBM, said while he’s not familiar with the Navy’s decision, he would find it surprising to cut the CDO at this time.

“I think right now cutting a data officer position in any big agency is going to make your data efforts harder to get done and it’s going to lose focus on some of those efforts. It would not be something I would want to do right now,” Halvorsen said. “If we believe data is king and the most valuable resource for any agency, then to cut that position would be a little unusual.”

Paul Puckett, the former director of the Army’s enterprise data cloud management agency and now chief technology officer of Clarity Innovations, said there has been discussions and debates across all agencies about where a CDO should sit and how it should align with the CIO.

But Puckett said no matter the approach, if the Navy has a different approach, they should articulate it in a way others could learn from.

Halvorsen added based on his experience as Navy CIO, a designated data officer could be helpful.

“Given the emphasis on data and given the other things that the CIO is looking to do, I would think right now having a data officer would be a key step forward in the success,” he said. “How you move the CDO role and how you get more value or how you structure it, all of those things will be harder to do without someone having a clear focus on data. That is regardless of any which service or anyone who is looking to cut the CDO role. They would be at a disadvantage to getting key programs that are data-centric on schedule.”

Did not stop the CDO change from happening

The Navy declined to answer more specific questions about what it means to its data-centric priorities by not having a permanent SES level CDO.

What’s unclear is why Navy CIO Aaron Weiss, who announced Feb. 21 he was leaving on March 17, would support such a decision given the progress the DoN has made in modernizing systems and technology during his tenure. The modern infrastructure means sharing and using data is much easier today than ever before.

The government source said Weiss may not have been given a choice by assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs Franklin Parker.

The source said Weiss also didn’t act to stop the CDO decision from happening either.

“Aaron and Tom didn’t agree on number of topics, including the CDO not being directly in the CIO’s organization. Aaron believes the CDO should be a part of the CIO’s organization as it is in the private sector,” the source said.

And this leads to why some believe the decision to move Sasala was vindictive.

Sources say the Navy told Sasala the reason it was eliminating the CDO billet was to meet the Congressional mandate from the 2018 Defense authorization bill requiring DoD to eliminate 25% of its SES positions across the board by 2022.

But sources also say the case that the Navy’s actions against Sasala were punitive only grows when you consider the DoN cut off his access to the Pentagon, requiring Sasala to be escorted around the building, as well as his access to his email and shared drives.

“For his directed reassignment, Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (NAVWAR) didn’t know he was arriving until three hours before he was supposed to go,” said the source. “The new position was working as the assistant chief engineer, who was responsible for system engineering for nuclear command and control programs.”

Navy spokesperson Hands said the service could not comment on personnel decisions, but that it does follow OPM and DoD regulations.

“While in the role, SES members often move within the federal system, to both gain experience and leverage their expertise toward new challenges,” Hands said. “Assignments are discussed extensively with the individual and the leadership of their losing and gaining commands. If an individual is assigned outside their commuting area, they are given at least 60 days’ notice.”

Congressional mandate drove changes

Puckett, the former director of the Army’s cloud office, said his experience with Sasala was only positive.

“Tom is a smart person and for me he was wicked easy to work with. There is no doubt he can be polarizing, but I can be too. That’s not a measure of working with someone. He’s an honest person and does the right thing for Navy,” Puckett said. “When I was coming on board, I reached out to Tom about our strategy for the Army to move to the cloud, using common cloud and data services. Tom, having come from the Army and then in the CDO role at the Navy, recognized the Navy, like many in the DoD, were doing a lot of duplicative things with data and he was going to converge and combine. He and I also strategized around role of services and consumption of Advana and where there was a necessary convergence and divergence to curate data sets.”

Jason Briefel, the director of government and public affairs for the Senior Executives Association, said cutting SES positions is usually a bad idea because these are folks that bring continuity to any organization.

He said the Navy’s decision is just another example of the turmoil happening across DoD over the last three years because of this Congressional mandate.

“I think people realize the system may not be perfect, but to drive a bureaucracy like the Pentagon, you have got to know how to navigate it and make it work,” Briefel said. “Every time you take away a SES position a reorganization results. How many SESers are double or triple hatted as consequence of these actions? It’s not clear, but it seems to be strategy by agencies.”

While Briefel said he was not familiar with Sasala’s specific situation, member of the SES have little to no recourse when there are directed reassignments.

“But firing people for not moving across the country probably is not the best way to show support in the employment of the executive cadre,” he said. “SEA has talked to OPM about directed reassignments and it’s part of our agenda to change as it’s probably an antiquated relic.”

Puckett added that every service has been trying to get under the Congressional SES caps and SES positions are in high demand no matter the agency.

Few would argue that if Weiss or Franklin wanted to move Sasala out of the CIO’s office, it’s their prerogative to do so. That is the deal SESers make when they sign the paperwork. But it’s also clear there are ways to treat people that can accomplish the department’s goals without appearing malicious and punitive.


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