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The Challenges for Public Sector CDOs (Part 1 of 3): The Talent Gap

Author: Nora Stechschulte

Publish Date: October 19th, 2020

As organizations create more data, many have created an executive position called the Chief Data Officer (CDO) to manage and utilize these data. Several private sector organizations established the CDO role many years ago and federal agencies have recently started to implement and mature the role as a result of federal legislation that requires all CFO Act agencies to designate a Chief Data Officer. While private sector CDOs are now grappling with the challenges of baring more responsibility for an organization’s profits and losses, federal CDOs find themselves facing many of the same challenges that private sector CDOs overcame during the early years in the role. Federal agencies face unique constraints, making common solutions for CDOs more challenging to implement. This is the first post in a three-part series that explores some of the unique challenges public sector CDOs face and some of the creative solutions that will help them succeed.


Though there are many challenges CDOs face in their infancy, new CDOs must overcome the talent gap. Without the right talent, CDOs struggle to function and gain the resources, support, and acceptance his or her office needs to grow, thrive, and ultimately deliver value to the organization. Talent acquisition can be difficult for any CDO; difficulty recruiting, miscommunications about job descriptions, difficulty screening candidates, and retaining data talent are challenges federal CDOs face more frequently than their counterparts in the private sector.

Elements of the Talent Gap

Inaccurate Job Descriptions

All federal job postings must follow certain guidelines and utilize specific language to create uniformity across listings on Hiring managers send job descriptions to HR professionals to edit and post to USAJobs. In many cases, it is unrecognizable to the original author. As a result, there is a misalignment between what the hiring manager is looking for in a job candidate and the public job description. This leads to unqualified candidates applying for the job and qualified candidates passing on the application thinking they are not the right fit for the job. Additionally, job descriptions must be written often to keep pace with the ever-changing technology landscape in order to account for changing technical skills requirements.

Collaboration and communication with members of HR is key to improving job descriptions. Some CDOs might consider adding HR and communications staff in their office to help with tasks like writing accurate job descriptions. If those resources aren’t available, CDOs should utilize job descriptions that have been proven successful, and customize them to fit the position using a glossary of approved terms.

Difficulty Recruiting

A key component to any successful data-driven organization is attracting top talent. However, the federal government lacks the ability to attract the same talent as companies like Google or Amazon. Because most jobs are based in the Washington, D.C. area and the salaries are not as competitive, federal data science roles might not seem as attractive.

To compete with the private sector, federal recruiters should emphasize the mission-driven focus of government. Increasingly, recent college graduates are more interested in taking jobs where they can contribute to society through meaningful and impactful work rather than make a higher salary. According to a Gallup and Bates College Study, four out of five college students said finding a job with purpose was either very important or extremely important, yet less than 50 percent succeeded in finding purposeful work. Establishing a formal recruitment strategy for the college and graduate school levels that highlights the agency’s mission can help attract fresh talent.

Another solution to difficult recruiting is more effectively utilizing talent already within government. The federal government has several rotational programs in which fellows change agencies every couple of months. Although losing talent at the end of a rotation can be challenging, CDOs can continue to utilize this talent, albeit in a non-traditional manner. As fellows move within a department or across the government, CDOs can continue to leverage their expertise and influence to help democratize data and shift the organizational culture to one that is data-driven. This shift in culture may help employees adapt and utilize data more effectively without needing to find new talent.

Difficulty Finding & Screening Candidates

Hiring managers, especially at the federal level, have difficulty screening candidates to determine whether they are actually qualified for the job. Many candidates list programming languages and other skills on their resume that they do not know how to apply. According to the HireRight 2017 employment screening benchmark report, 85 percent of employers uncovered a lie or misrepresentation on an applicant’s resume throughout the screening process. Additionally, it is extremely rare to find candidates who not only possess the right technical skills, but have the right communication skills for the job, and in some cases, the ability to obtain a security clearance.

To ensure that candidates are qualified, interviews must go beyond behavioral questions. A technical assessment should be leveraged to eliminate candidates who might be misrepresenting their technical skills. It should be administered using a timed, computer-based technical assessment for data scientists and other highly technical roles.

However, many necessary skills are teachable, so the candidate pool should not be limited to those with highly technical backgrounds. CDOs should remain open-minded about candidates with business and policy backgrounds who are willing and able to go through training to learn the necessary technical skills for the job. These candidates should be screened for critical thinking and problem-solving skills using a case interview that demonstrates their ability to adapt and learn new skills.

Difficulty Retaining Talent

Beyond merely attracting talent, one of the biggest challenges faced is retaining talent. Government agencies especially struggle with retention. Competitors in the private sector offer higher salaries, opportunities for faster growth, flexible locations, and resources for personal projects and education. Many government hires might be attracted to these benefits and leave their positions at government agencies once they have obtained enough experience. In order to support a data-driven transformation, agency CDOs need to think creatively to retain this talent.

CDOs should put resources towards building a network of peers for data scientists across similar sectors. Data scientists can collaborate on independent projects, learn from one another’s experience, and learn about opportunities for professional growth within the government. Additionally, CDOs should allow data scientist to select their own open source tools to give them ownership over their work and drive a sense of purpose. By giving data scientists the right support and opportunities for personal growth, they can find purpose in their work, and reason to stay.


Though the talent challenges posed to Chief Data Officers in the federal government are unique, federal CDOs are also uniquely positioned to solve them. Simple changes to things like recruitment, interviewing, and cross-departmental collaboration strategies can work to attract, screen, and retain top talent. Solving these talent issues is essential to building the role of the CDO and ultimately making the government better equipped to become a data-driven organization.

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