data visualization

Chief data officers making strides in federal agencies

A report studying the role of chief data officers (CDOs) in the federal government found some significant improvements between 2020 and 2021.

In “CDO Insights: 2021 Survey Results On the Maturation of Data Governance in U.S. Federal Agencies,” recently released by the Data Foundation, 75% of respondents said their role within their organization was “very” or “completely” clear, up from 21% in 2020. That is significant given that agencies were only directed to designate CDOs as a result of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act signed into law in 2019.

Another sign of progress, according to the report, is an increase in the number of people assigned to the role. In 2020 and 2021, about half of CDOs said they had 10 or fewer full-time equivalent employees and contractors supporting them, but the number of offices reporting more than 25 FTEs grew from 25% to 40% in the past year.

CDOs are also collaborating with officials and in functional areas both within and outside their agencies. For instance, 90% said they collaborate with business customers on a daily or weekly basis, while 79% work with their chief financial officer and 70% with their CIO.

The most effective organizational structure remains to be seen, according to the report. “In 2020, based on survey results, it really looked like CDOs were mostly going to be reporting to the chief information officers,” said Tracy Jones, data strategy and governance lead at Grant Thornton, which collaborated on the research. Now, it’s more dispersed. In 2021, 30% said they report to the CEO, up from 7% in 2020, while the number of respondents who said they report to the CIO fell from 39% in 2020 to 15% this year.

Another positive development is that 90% of CDOs have worked at their agency for at least a year, with 40% having worked there for at least five years. “Additionally, since the CDO role is relatively new to many agencies, we have seen an increase in the length of tenure for CDOs between 2020 and 2021,” according to the report. “In 2020, only 57% had served in the CDO role more than a year and this increased to 80% in 2021. This indicates that CDOs have a relatively deep knowledge of their organization and the data it produces and consumes.”

Regardless of structure or tenure, CDOs are making progress. Seventy-five percent of respondents said they had started or completed five of the six action items named in the Federal Data Strategy 2020 Action Plan. Most CDOs reported already constituting a data governance body (75%), which 42% said was the strategy’s least challenging action. The most challenging items were identifying opportunities to increase staff data skills (95%), identifying priority data assets for agency open data plans (84%) and assessing data and related infrastructure maturity (80%).

At the same time, however, respondents also said the data strategy’s action items were helpful. Eighty-seven percent credit the action items for spurring them to constitute a diverse governance body, 86% credit them for identifying opportunities to increase staff data skills, and 83% credit the guidance for assessing data and related infrastructure maturity.

Dan Morgan, one of the first CDOs in the federal government and currently CDO at the Transportation Department and vice chair of the CDO Council, said the study’s findings are consistent with those of a study the council conducted. The council, created by the Evidence Act, started in January 2020 and now has members from more than 80 agencies. Morgan spoke Sept. 23 during a Data Foundation webinar on its survey.

“Our own members are really focused on things like data strategy, data governance and policy, and open data,” Morgan said. “You’re starting to see more and more agencies publish a data strategy” and include data in their strategic plans, which “means we’re starting to see an uptake of the role of data right there with the agency’s mission.”

This article was changed Oct. 6 to clarify that the Evidence Based Policymaking Act required agencies to designate CDOs. The position existed prior to that.  

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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