Look Beyond the Law Part 2: Agencies & Organizations Across the Federal Government Should Hire a CDO
Author: Victoria Velasquez
Publish Date: April 23rd, 2020
When a crisis hits, policymakers must make quick decisions that will have a lasting impact on the nation. Some decisions will impact the response to the crisis and others will impact the country’s ability to recover from the situation. Decision-makers often lean on intuition and expertise to make policy decisions. However, intuition-based decision-making can fall short for unprecedented events where there are no comparable prior events to reference. Data-driven decision-making becomes even more important in these times of crisis to drive sound policymaking.
The global COVID-19 pandemic is a good example. Data has played a pivotal role in both understanding and misunderstanding the crisis. California used data to justify early county and statewide stay-at-home orders, which helped keep the hospitals in stasis. Moreover, the early data pointing towards evidence that social distancing works gave other states and local governments a better understanding of the need to enact similar policies.
In contrast, data from other countries showed that the elderly were the most vulnerable to COVID-19. This data may have been wrongly misinterpreted, as it failed to show just how harmful this disease could be to younger adults, resulting in younger adults being less likely to take precautions than older adults. Testing data from South Korea shows that asymptomatic young adults may have unknowingly been spreading the disease as a result.
These are just two examples of how data is driving the international response to COVID-19 for better and worse, but there are countless other examples. Models and data tracking dashboards help people stay informed and aware of our progress against the virus, whereas limited data seems to have informed Congress about the size of economic recovery packages.
Data impacts policymaking and has proven to be effective in the response to COVID-19, so it is important that federal government agencies build capabilities around data and analytics, starting with the appointment of a Chief Data Officer (CDO). The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, which was signed into law in January 2019, mandates that the heads of all 24 CFO Act agencies designate a CDO. While this is a step in the right direction for the federal government, every executive agency, independent agency, board, commission, and quasi-agency of the federal government should have someone in a Chief Data Officer role. It is imperative that the federal government proactively collect, manage, and analyze data to drive strategic insights that will help policymakers better respond to the next crisis.
As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic not only in the United States, but also throughout Europe, electing to use data to inform policymaking is not a light decision. Individuals are constantly generating data on their personal devices, which in the case of COVID-19 has helped us better understand the impact of stay-at-home orders to limiting people’s movement—but not without raising privacy concerns. Before a government agency can begin to think about using data to set policy, the agency should set standards and policies around data collection and data sourcing. A Chief Data Officer can lead the efforts around setting these standards and policies, ensuring, for example, that data being collected is aggregated and anonymized. Additionally, they can help make tough ethical tradeoff decisions around data collection, balancing individual privacy and public safety.
During this pandemic, data-sharing has been critical to the fight against COVID-19—but it has not been met without its challenges. Not only have government agencies had to navigate data-sharing across agencies and with state and local governments, they have also had to manage data-sharing with private companies. Additionally, when handling sensitive data such as medical data, the government has had to take precaution around who can access this data. The Chief Data Officer can establish a data management strategy that defines processes and practices for how data is shared, who can access it, how it is handled, and more. Setting a data management strategy when there is no crisis helps the CDO minimize the organization’s risk and ensure its compliance with data-sharing regulations during a crisis.
Finally, another challenge we have seen throughout this pandemic has been the ability to effectively analyze data and generate actionable insights. The United States ineffectively analyzed data on its early COVID-19 cases, preventing it from seeing the impending spike in infections, and consequently, delaying its action in communicating quarantining measures. To prevent these delayed responses during critical times going forward, agencies must have the ability to both perform complex data analysis, as well as empower its staff to maximize the use of analytic insights in their daily jobs. Chief Data Officers have the experience to build a robust team with a blend of competencies and skills that includes data scientists who can perform analytics. CDOs are also largely responsible for democratizing analytics throughout an organization, making it possible for staff of all technical skills levels to more easily understand what data is telling us and incorporate those insights into decision-making.
As history has shown us, it is not a matter of if another global event will occur, but rather when it will occur. To better prepare for the next natural disaster, economic crash, or humanitarian crisis, government agencies must have a dedicated CDO and CDO team collecting, managing, and analyzing the agency’s data so that policymakers can make real-time, data-driven decisions. In fact, having data readily available to inform policymaking at all times might even help the agency be better prepared to control the negative impact of these events, saving lives and taxpayer dollars in the long run. That is why agencies or government organizations without Chief Data Officers should prioritize hiring for this ever-important role before they find themselves in the midst of a crisis, struggling to find a person with the right qualifications who can effectively lead the change to becoming a data-driven organization.
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