Federal Chief Data Officers as Change Agents: 4 Key Roles

Federal Chief Data Officers as Change Agents: 4 Key Roles

What roles do Chief Data Officers (CDOs) play in creating a culture of evidence-based policymaking within the U.S. federal government? 

How can Federal CDOs help agencies use data to:

  • deliver better outcomes for our nation's communities,
  • deliver those outcomes more efficiently, and
  • build enduring trust with citizens?

To succeed in these endeavors, it takes more than just technical expertise. It takes change management expertise.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve been following the implementation of the Evidence Act, which includes the appointment of Chief Data Officers within 24 federal agencies and the establishment of a CDO Council to coordinate efforts across agencies.

Last month, the CDO Council held their first public meeting to share their progress. 

In this article, I’ll share my insights from this meeting about the important change management roles that CDOs play in transforming the usage and sharing of data in federal agencies. 

In particular, I’ll talk about the role of CDOs as:

  • Relationship Builders
  • Silo Busters
  • Educators
  • Strategists 

To begin, let's discuss the broader change management needs when it comes to building data cultures within federal agencies.

Federal Chief Data Officers as Culture Change Leaders 

CDOs in federal agencies are charged with establishing enterprise-level data governance and management systems. 

While this charge requires a significant lift on the technical side, it also necessitates a deep understanding and respect for the people side. 

As a change management practitioner in enterprise organizations, I am deeply impressed with the level of attention that CDOs are paying to the existing social structures within agencies. 

We know from decades of research in socio-technical systems theory that organizations need to jointly optimize the technical side and the social side for real improvements to take hold. 

Effective change agents jointly optimize the social and work system of their orgs.

This insight is not lost on agency CDOs. 

Tom Beach, the Interim CDO at the Commerce Department, spoke at length at the CDO Council about the need to consider the internal federal agency culture when introducing data initiatives. Beach said:

“Culture is the biggest piece here. We know that one size does not fit all. We need to meet agencies where they are. We cannot emphasize this enough.”

To that end, Beach introduced the “4 Plays” of CDOs

  • Play #1: Cultivate strong relationships, with a focus on mission-based problems 
  • Play #2: Encourage data sharing and break down data silos 
  • Play #3: Take the lead to improve data literacy
  • Play #4: Develop a data and analytics strategy that delivers tangible mission outcomes

Let’s explore each of these plays in more detail below.

Government Chief Data Officers as Relationship Builders 

To spearhead change effectively, CDOs need to intentionally build trusting relationships with stakeholders

They also need to communicate the overall vision for how data-driven processes will yield more value for the organization, and not focus exclusively on data governance activities that “may risk appearing to be compliance driven,” said Beach. 

CDOs need to think expansively about who belongs in the stakeholder community as well. 

For example, Tod Dabolt (CDO at the Department of the Interior and the Data Inventory Lead for the CDO Council) sees federal data as “the people’s data.” 

When considering stakeholders for data inventories, Dabolt includes internal agency stakeholders, public stakeholders (such as journalists and students), commercial stakeholders (such as regulated industries and the tech sector), and NGOs. 

Government Chief Data Officers as Silo Busters 

Chief Data Officers also have the formidable task of establishing data management processes to enable sharing, both within their specific agencies and across agencies. 

To facilitate sharing, it’s important to have clear norms for data stewardship. Kirsten Daboe (CDO at FERC) spoke at length about the role that data stewardship plays in their data strategy. Daboe said: 

"No one can be an expert on all forms of data collection. We needed a data stewardship framework so that we have clear roles and responsibilities around each data set."

Part of that data stewardship framework entails developing data sets with shared standards for facilitating interoperability. Federal CDOs are currently developing and implementing standards for cataloguing data, making sure metadata is complete and accurate, and making data machine-readable. 

This ensures that data is “available to humans and machines for inferencing and forecasting,” Dabolt emphasized.  

Another key step in breaking down silos is to develop a common understanding around the purpose of sharing data.

Dan Morgan (CDO at the Department of Transportation) presented the Data Sharing Working Group Charter, which is intended to guide the CDO Council as they consider which data sharing projects to prioritize.

The charter includes: 

  • Creating a comprehensive list of data sharing purposes and use cases 
  • Documenting data sharing challenges
  • Identifying solutions and recommended actions 

Morgan mentioned that the main challenge to executing on the charter is that there are few data sharing use cases to learn from. Morgan and his working group included a call for more examples in a Request for Information at the end of the meeting.  

Federal Chief Data Officers as Educators

Federal CDOs are working in new roles with an evolving set of skills.

However, they were chosen to lead data initiatives at their agencies because they possess executive leadership, IT and analytics knowledge, business acumen, data visualization capabilities, and storytelling prowess.

As such, Federal CDOs play the role of data science experts and educators within their respective agencies. 

Some of their successes over the last 18 months include:

Moving forward, much of the work involves creating a basic understanding of data science literacy across agencies. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) survey, only 45% of federal managers believe their staff have the skills needed to collect, analyze, and use different types of evidence.

Over the next few months, CDOs will be working in concert with Chief Learning Officers to understand where the workforce is now in order to plan out the next stage of up-skilling. 

Federal Chief Data Officers as Strategists

The last change management role that CDOs play is that of a strategic planner. CDOs need to work hand-in-hand with agency leadership to develop a data and analytics strategy that delivers tangible mission outcomes. 

As Beach emphasized:

“If the value isn’t realized within the organization, then the organization does not value the role.” 

As strategists, CDOs proactively identify needs for data inventories, data analysis, and data sharing. When they identify areas that are ripe data investments, they make sure to link them to key agency objectives. 

CDOs also work closely with agency Evaluation Officers and the larger Evaluation Council to align data initiatives to learning agendas and evaluation plans. That said, according to the the Data Foundation's study "On the Maturation of Data Governance in U.S. Federal Agencies," this is an area that has received the least attention in the last 18 months, with only 35% of CDOs citing learning agendas and evaluation plans as "very important" to their mission. This may suggest a need for further collaboration between CDOs and agency Evaluation Officers in the near future.

What support do Federal CDOs need to strengthen their change-making roles?

For the first time in our government’s history, CDOs are developing a common language and framework for agencies to work together to solve our country’s greatest challenges with data and evidence. 

Given the critical roles that Federal CDOs play within their agencies, what kind of support will further their endeavors? 

The Data Foundation recently administered a survey to Federal CDOs to develop a set of recommendations for strengthening their work. 

I provide a brief overview of these recommendations below: 

Recommendation #1: Provide more resources to Federal CDOs.

Fifty percent of CDOs report that they do not currently have the resources needed to succeed on their goals. Equipping CDOs with adequate and sustainable resources to implement data priorities will go a long way towards furthering their efforts.

Recommendation #2: Clarify CDO responsibilities and expectations within their respective agencies

As with most new roles within organizations, the role of CDO is being refined in the process of executing on actual work. CDOs would like clarifying guidance from the Office of Management and Budget on their role in data governance functions and reporting structures within their agencies.

Recommendation #3: CDOs should improve how they communicate the value of using data

Ultimately, the purpose of CDOs within federal agencies is to improve program development and delivery. Getting there is a journey - and it starts with the foundational work that CDOs are currently engaged in, such as cataloguing data and streamlining data structures.

This type of work can be a major undertaking. Agency teams need to connect the value of this work to the end goal so that they stay invested in it for the long-term. To this end, Federal CDOs could strengthen the stories they tell about the value of these early stage initiatives with cost-saving metrics and other related benefits.

Moving forward, I'm excited to follow the important work of these government change-makers. With the implementation of these recommendations, CDOs are in a prime position to improve the capabilities of federal agencies to deliver better outcomes for our nation's communities.

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