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Look Beyond the Law to Create the Right Chief Data Officers

Author: Victoria Velasquez

Publish Date: January 31, 2020

One year ago, in January 2019, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 was signed into law. A critical piece of this legislation mandated that the heads of all 24 agencies named in the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 designate a nonpolitical appointee employee in the agency as the agency’s Chief Data Officer (CDO).


Almost 20 years after Capital One appointed Cathryne Clay Doss as its first Chief Data Officer, the role of the CDO still remains somewhat of a mystery, especially in the federal sector where there are unique cultural and institutional challenges not found in the private sector. For example, given the federal government’s lower employee turnover rates, federal government employees are well equipped to make strong, intuition-based decisions. As a result, federal employees may not be as inclined to move to data-driven approaches to decision-making. Additionally, in keeping with federal hiring guidelines and practices, there is less flexibility to meet the compensation demands of job seekers in competitive fields such as data science and analytics. And there is an inherent culture of risk-aversion across federal agencies, which is intended to preserve stability in our country.


In their effort to establish and build a role similar to the Chief Data Officers found in the private sector, did lawmakers get it right when they spelled out the qualifications and responsibilities of federal CDOs in the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act? Or were key qualifications and responsibilities overlooked by relying too heavily on a model for a CDO role that may only succeed in the private sector?


The law calls out important technical qualifications for the CDO role, including “demonstrated training and experience” in fields such as data management, governance, and analysis. These qualifications are essential for carrying out some of the CDO’s functions highlighted in the law, including managing the agency’s data assets, ensuring the agency conforms with data management best practices, and improving data accessibility. Research shows that 63 percent of CDOs globally had prior experience in data and analytics roles before assuming the role of Chief Data Officer, so lawmakers got it right in terms of the technical qualifications of a CDO.


What’s missing in the qualifications of the law are the equally as important strategic skills that are instrumental in ushering in the cultural transformation of a data-driven organization, especially in the federal government. For example, many civil servants have traditionally relied upon their intuition and past experiences to drive decision-making, and thus have little to no experience with using data to inform decisions. Additionally, the Office of Personnel Management does not currently have a job series to classify data and analytics work (aside from Operations Research), which creates barriers to offering competitive compensation packages to highly technical professionals. Finally, in a risk-averse environment like the public sector, the appetite for learning new technologies is low and innovation is rarely rewarded, which hinders the adoption of new data-driven tools and approaches. No amount of experience in developing a data strategy, setting data governance standards, or analyzing data will prepare a CDO candidate for tackling these cultural challenges.

In addition to being experienced data professionals, CDOs must be effective change leaders, having the rapport and the influence throughout their organization to drive lasting culture and behavior change at all levels. This requires a blend of strategic skills that includes being able to communicate with both technical and non-technical stakeholders, wield influence with executives, and manage employees with a diversity of skillsets. When setting their organization’s data strategy, change agent CDOs give equal weight to cultural priorities as they do to technical data priorities. For example, increasing rates of data literacy in the organization is just as important in the data strategy as adhering to data quality standards. Any change is dependent upon individual behavior change, and for a federal agency to successfully undergo a transformation to become data-driven, the transformation must be led by a Chief Data Officer who is equally as competent in data and analytics as she is in acting as a catalyst for cultural change.

A candidate with a well-rounded set of qualifications that includes a proven track record of leading cultural change will be well positioned to execute the traditional functions of the CDO, as well as some of the more non-traditional functions not explicitly called out in the law. Those functions missing from the law include:

  1. Increasing data literacy across the organization

  2. Encouraging innovation, and

  3. Nurturing data and analytics talent.

For example, someone who understands and is conversational with both technical and non-technical groups of employees can properly gauge the levels of data literacy needed for each of these different groups to succeed in a new, data-driven organization. Additionally, the successful CDO has influence with executives and helps them see the value in innovating or reevaluating the organization’s cultural norms. Finally, a leader who is able to manage and respond to the needs of a wide range of employees, from communications specialists to data scientists, can sustain and grow a diverse team of talent to support the CDO.


Federal CDOs must bridge the gaps in the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act with strategic skillsets that are complementary to their technical skillsets. They must transform their agency’s culture. CDOs are facing unique challenges in the federal sector that stymie a culture of data-driven decision-making. These challenges require a leader who can build a culture in addition to the core qualifications in data management, governance, and analysis. A CDO that also demonstrates strong change management, communication, stakeholder management, and talent management skills will break down the cultural challenges within the federal sector and create a data-driven organization.


Simatree is an advisory practice that brings proven solutions to your organization. We bring the expertise and professionalism of the big consultancies with the personalized experience of a boutique firm. Our team provides support to help you build a strategy for the future and will stay with you throughout your transformation journey. Whether it is designing a Chief Data Office, growing a Chief Data Office, or evaluating and improving an existing Chief Data Office, Simatree has the right approach and the people to help you build your path and see it through to the finish.

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