The Challenges for Public Sector CDOs (Part 2 of 3): The Culture Gap

Author: Nora Stechschulte

Publish Date: October 21st, 2020

Many organizations have found that with an increase in the amount of data they produce, an executive tasked to deal with these data, the Chief Data Officer (CDO), has become an absolute necessity. 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 entering uncharted territory and facing new responsibilities, federal CDOs find themselves facing many of the same challenges that private sector CDOs overcame earlier in their tenure. However, federal agencies face bureaucratic obstacles that private sector CDOs never experienced, making common solutions for CDOs more difficult to implement. This is the second post in a three-part series that explores some of the unique challenges facing public sector CDOs and some of the creative solutions that will help them succeed.

Though there are many challenges CDOs face in their infancy, overcoming cultural challenges and barriers to widespread adoption is essential to shifting to a data-driven organization. Without an organization-wide understanding of data and acceptance of data-driven policies, CDOs will struggle to obtain resources and support to implement data-related changes. Increasing data literacy across an organization and driving a shift away from data-driven decision-making are two ways in which CDOs can lead a cultural transformation and shift the organization towards becoming a data-driven government agency.

Poor data literacy

Employees in the federal government are not effectively trained to use or interpret data to drive operations and decision-making. Agencies often lack governance and standards around how to input data into a system, leading to data that lacks uniformity and is difficult to manage for analysis. At the executive level, many senior leaders are reluctant to learn how to use and interpret data, as it can often feel daunting to learn skills in front of their teams. Instead, they rely on their experience and intuition to drive decision-making, very similar to the challenge faced in the private sector.

In order to promote data literacy across the organization, a CDO should offer data literacy training classes and incentivize people across the organization to take the training classes by incorporating data literacy as a component on their yearly performance reviews. Data literacy classes should focus on why using data is important, how it can add value to employees’ and executives’ jobs, and how to use it to supplement decision-making processes across the organization. Moreover, these trainings should start at the top. Executive trainings should take a more personalized approach to data literacy, providing a one-on-one learning experience that eliminates the fear of speaking up and asking critical questions by testing these skills in a classroom environment.

Another aspect that encourages improvement in data literacy is a CDO being an enabler, not a doer. The best way to get organizations on board with data-driven policies is to enable employees to work with the data themselves. Employees will be more likely to trust findings they discover on their own and will be motivated by the opportunity to present those findings to senior leadership. Furthermore, allowing executives to hire their own data talent gives them a sense of ownership of the work and provides them with a trusted advisor whose advice and recommendations are rooted in data.

Intuition-based decision-making

The U.S. Federal workforce is designed around expertise. The executive departments and agencies foster years of service and knowledge to create stability and balance for their services despite political leanings of the day. This well-fostered expertise drives the decisions and recommendations across the federal government, and it serves most very well. However, it has also led to intuition-based decision-making in some places where employees underestimate the value of data in policy decision-making and are reluctant to incorporate data in their decision-making processes. Switching to data-driven decision-making is difficult and some employees may even fear that using data in their jobs will reveal performance gaps or shortcomings.

Moving from intuition-based decision-making to data-driven decision-making is a mindset shift and it requires a significant culture change. CDOs often cite culture change as a major obstacle to success in both the private and public sectors (Gartner’s third annual CDO survey). In order to challenge the government culture of experience and intuition, CDOs must gain organizational buy-in through sustained change management. CDO teams may lack sufficient communications skills to help their organization understand why change is necessary and struggle to incentivize change adoption, or they may lack the influence with senior executives that is necessary to ushering in these types of cultural changes in the first place.

One way to gain organizational buy-in is through demonstrated return on investment for data initiatives. The best way to do this is to complete a data pilot project that supports the organization’s priorities, produces tangible return on investment value, and provides a direct benefit to employees and executives. By focusing on an area of importance, demonstrating clear benefits, and improving the efficiency of government employees, a CDO is likely to gain the trust of both executives and employees and garner support for larger data initiatives.

Outreach and engagement are a critical part of a CDOs success in driving culture change. CDOs should supplement their data team with communications specialists. Most CDOs tend to focus on recruiting technical talent and overlook hiring candidates whose skills are more strategic. By placing candidates with better interpersonal skills directly in the office of the CDO, they can focus on outreach and assist in communicating data wins in a way that is more palatable to staff on the business side. This will lead to faster buy-in, fewer misunderstandings, and a quicker transition to a data-driven organization.


Though the cultural challenges faced by CDOs in the public sector are unique, CDOs are uniquely positioned to solve them. If CDOs put forth the effort to train their organization in data literacy and clearly demonstrate the value derived from data, they can cause a cultural shift in their organization or government agency towards a data-driven industry. If CDOs are able to overcome cultural challenges, their organizations will be better equipped to thrive in a data-driven world.