How Agencies Can Make the Most of Their Data

Government likes to tackle challenges by designating new management chiefs: The latest to join the C-suite is the chief data officer.

Last year, the Economist wrote that “data is the new oil.” And in government, this perspective is increasingly reflected in its priorities. For example, the Trump administration has made the development and implementation of a federal data strategy a key element in its management reform efforts in coming years.

It is a key element for good reasons. Data underpins performance measurement, program evaluation, artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, and more. While the federal government has set open data policies and created greater access to government data, it lags behind the private sector and state and local governments when it comes to having a governance framework and leadership on the issue.  

Pending legislation, however, could create a stronger focus on data at the federal level. The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (H.R. 4174) would require that all agencies designate a chief data officer.

But what is the value of having a chief data officer? A new IBM Center report by Harvard Kennedy School’s Jane Wiseman describes the work of pioneering CDOs in selected federal agencies, discusses their roles and responsibilities, and outlines the competencies needed to be successful.

CDOs Currently in Government

Given the amount of data the federal government collects and stores, there are relatively few data leaders: Just six of the 24 departments and major agencies have top-level CDOs. At the bureau level, CDOs tend to be in the scientific and statistical agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most the largest federal agencies lack enterprisewide data leadership. This makes CDOs far less common at the federal level than in state and local government.

While few in number, federal CDOs, according to Wiseman, “excel at levels to be admired across both the public and private sectors.” For example, she points to successes such as the development of predictive analytics models to root out fraud. She found that many current federal CDOs have been in their positions for several years, far surpassing the average tenure of CDOs in city and state government, and that they have assembled highly capable teams to deliver important results for their agencies. In one case, she documents a return on investment of $5 for every $1 in staff cost.

Not unlike other “chiefs” in the federal government, such as chief information officers and chief financial officers, she found “no two federal CDOs share the same portfolio of responsibilities, as each one has adapted the role to the unique needs of his or her agency.” Federal CDOs who have pioneered their roles in their agencies tend to, “view themselves as enablers of data-driven decision-making capacity in their organizations and execute on that in different ways, ranging from being centralized providers of ‘analytics as a service’ to creating the tools and platforms that enable employee self-service across their departments,” according to Wiseman.

What Does a CDO Actually Do?

The role of a CDO often seems opaque to outsiders, but Wiseman develops a series of personal profiles of trailblazing CDOs. For example, Brandon Pustejovsky developed the role of CDO in the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was appointed to be its first CDO in 2014 and reports to the CIO.  

Pustejovsky was not born a “data geek.” His background is in development policy and management and has an MA in International Relations. He has built a team of 40 specialists and is responsible for enterprise data analytics and reporting, open data, data governance, and data literacy within USAID.

According to Wiseman, “Pustejovsky has created an enterprisewide view of data as a strategic asset and has developed the platforms that support an ecosystem of data culture and innovation.” And as a result, USAID is “among the leading federal agencies in using data to drive decisions and has embedded a culture of data, performance measurement, and evaluation across the organization.”

Pustejovsky’s advice to new CDOs is worth noting:

“Never forget the mission of your agency, and be a good listener. If, at any point, you silo yourself in the technology shop and forget the people you are there to serve, you won’t be effective. A new CDO should expend significant energy reaching out to learn about the business of the organization. We simply cannot succeed without listening to the needs of our partners.”

Key Competencies

According to Wiseman, a successful CDO is one who can balance a vision for new ideas with the ability to get things done. CDOs who excel in each of the following three dimensions are most likely to achieve success:

  • Develop competence in the organization’s basic data infrastructure. At a minimum, a CDO must competently manage the basic data infrastructure of the organization, supporting open data and data visualization platforms and maintaining the data warehouses and tools needed for the organization. These operational nuts and bolts form the core of what a CDO must do well.
  • Display openness to innovative ideas and approaches. A great leader is open to pushing his or her organization forward, to innovation, to new ways of thinking, and to new methods and tools. Each of the CDOs profiled here has nudged his or her organization along the journey toward data-driven government while keeping an open mind and being able to adapt to changing opportunities.
  • Demonstrate the capability to deliver on promises. While openness to innovation makes for a visionary leader, the vision can only be realized with consistent attention to delivery. This is an often-overlooked but critically important element to success.

Key Recommendations

Wiseman recommends the creation of CDOs in all major agencies and that they should be provided the resources to be successful. But she focuses her key advice for how future CDOs can lead change in how their agencies use data:

  • Let strategy drive operations and focus on delivering value for customers. An agency’s business challenges should drive a CDO’s work, and CDO teams should solve the most important public problems, as expressed by the managers and executives in their agency.
  • Create a team with diverse and complementary skills. A CDO should bring together specialists across disciplines such as business process analysis, data science, data management, and data visualization. In hiring, CDOs should not underestimate the importance of people skills, and should use creative hiring strategies.
  • Create a culture of data and innovation. A CDO should advocate for data-driven government and build data literacy across the organization and, within the team, allow staff the freedom to fail.
  • Get the basics right and provide data stewardship. A CDO needs to solve the problems that matter most to their organization’s customers, deliver timely and useful results in a customer-friendly format, and leverage existing tools and resources.

Even as new data leaders are steadily being appointed in agencies, the challenges they will face are mounting rapidly. Wiseman notes with a tone of urgency: “As more digital natives enter the workforce, data leaders will need to respond in kind with tools for them, and with data literacy training for their supervisors and leaders.”