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CDOs: Change agents for data-driven government

As more data becomes available and the tools to analyze it grow easier to use, data-driven government is gaining traction. One sign of such change is the creation of the chief data officer position -- one of the newest jobs in the federal government. The first agency CDO was created less than a decade ago.

A new report from the IBM Center for The Business of Government digs into the role of federal CDOs and offers recommendations for getting the most out of the position. “Data-Driven Government: The Role of Chief Data Officers,” describes why CDOs are being established and how they are evolving in different agencies.  The author, Jane Wiseman of Harvard's Kennedy School, also offers advice on how new CDOs can succeed the federal level, based on her research of the first CDOs and the experiences of state and local data officials.

Only three of the 10 largest federal non-defense agencies had CDOs as of July 2018: the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Transportation, making the position less common in federal agencies than in state and local government. The CDOs in place, however, are delivering impressive results with their creative use of staffing and procurement models and innovative partnerships with state and local government, the report says

The role of federal CDOs varies from agency to agency, with data management a common feature. Other activities include data infrastructure management, data governance, data literacy and analytics, geographic information systems and provisioning of common tools. Broader functions include open data, smart technologies and digital services.

The report features in-depth profiles of five CDOs and their agencies that describe how the  CDO fits in with agency culture, program results, lessons learned and advice to new CDOs.  

The report also offers six recommendations for improving data management by standing up a CDO office: 

  1. Create conditions of success for federal CDOs, including ensuring the office has a full-time leader, sufficient resources and a way for peers to exchange information.

  2. Establish a data leader or CDO position, hire someone with both technical and people skills and make sure that person has the authority to advance data-driven government.

  3. Let strategy drive operations and focus on the agency's customers by developing, documenting and sharing a data strategy. They should also conduct a listening tour of employees and identify problems that matter to the agency.

  4. Build a skilled and diverse team, hiring people with complementary expertise and people skills.

  5. Develop a culture of data and innovation by advocating for data-driven government and building a culture of data literacy and innovation.

  6. Deliver on analytics by getting the basics right and providing data stewardship. CDOs should address the problems that matter to agency employees, deliver timely, useful results in a user-friendly format and leverage existing tools, resources and partnerships.

“In government, we’re making decisions about resource allocation -- improved safety, more economic growth and prosperity, and better targeting of resources to combat problems like poverty, natural disasters, or opioid addiction,” the report concludes. “CDOs in government are positioned to make a lasting difference in our lives.”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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