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The Challenges for Public Sector CDOs (Part 3 of 3): Institutional Obstacles

Author: Nora Stechschulte

Publish Date: October 23rd, 2020


As organizations create more data, an executive position to manage and utilize data called the Chief Data Officer (CDO) has become increasingly common. Several private sector organizations established the CDO role earlier in the millennium, whilst federal agencies have only 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 have adjusted to their roles and begun to take on new responsibilities, Federal CDOs are now facing the challenges private sector CDOs faced in the early years of their role with added bureaucratic restraints. 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, federal CDOs are faced with especially challenging obstacles given their unique position in government organizations. In order to implement changes and create a data-driven government, it is absolutely essential that institutional obstacles like data silos, lack of autonomy from the Chief Information Officer, and a lack of public trust are addressed.

Data silos


Different agencies within the same department, and even different offices within those agencies, often collect and store data in different ways. Furthermore, different departments in the federal government often fail to effectively share relevant and useful data. A lack of communication both within departments and across the federal government hinders data integration. As a result, it can often be difficult to decipher trends in data that spur valuable insights.


Data silos can be solved through the creation of an effective data governance structure tailored to the needs and characteristics of each unique organization. Every organization has different needs, but the way to identify needs and create an effective, customized data governance structure can be simplified. To start, bring together diverse perspectives that understand data governance through various lenses, such as people, process, and technology. Then, find the most senior executive interested in data, and invite him or her to participate in these data governance conversations. Getting a group together in a low stakes environment to talk about data governance eliminates the feeling that creating and implementing a formal data governance structure is a burden. Once the senior executive starts to hear from other data enthusiasts from across the organization, they will quickly recognize the value of data governance and likely become more invested, at which point a formal data governance structure will emerge more organically and simultaneously yield a cultural shift.


Another key to ensuring effective data sharing is to build or enhance enterprise data platforms. Building enterprise data platforms will make data storing and sharing easier across the organization, and as a result, simplify the utilization of data to identify trends and create policy. Additionally, enhancements to existing open data platform will make sites like data.gov more powerful.


Lack of Autonomy from the Chief Information Officer


Many federal CDOs report to the Chief Information Officer, which can create the perception of competition. Limited resources and a reliance on funding from the CIO can make it hard for a CDO to accomplish any meaningful initiatives without the full support of the CIO. Additionally, though every CFO Act agency is required to name a CDO based on the Evidence Act, the law does not specify that the Chief Data Officer must be a stand-alone role. As a result, many agencies added the role to an existing federal employee, usually the Chief Information Officers or Chief Technology Officers. Though a few CDOs argue that this is acceptable, by and large, most agree that a dual role spreads the executive too thin and undermines the value of data-driven insights.


In order to improve the relationship with the CIO and gain support for technology acquisitions and other investments, CDOs should work with the CIO on mutually beneficial initiatives and build out necessary infrastructure to support data initiatives. Digital infrastructure that promotes data sharing and consumption should be the first step before “leapfrogging” to large-scale data projects. Many of these projects will be mutually beneficial to the CIO and CDO, so start by asking for assistance on initiatives such as building a data governance structure or data architecture. This will demonstrate to the CIO that the roles of CDO and CIO can be mutually reinforcing rather than competing, and it will increase the autonomy of the CDO. Over time, reexamine the CDO’s role with the CIO and determine if a strategic realignment under another executive, such as the Chief Operating Officer, would enhance the CDO’s ability to affect policy.


Privacy concerns & lack of public trust


According to a 2017 Pew Research Poll, 28% of Americans were not at all confident that the federal government can protect their private information and only 12% were very confident. Comparatively, the federal government collects much more sensitive data than the private sector, including health data, social security numbers, and financial information. As a result, security standards are much higher and the mining of citizen data for government use can be controversial. Additionally, citizens cannot “opt-out” of sharing their data like they can with many private sector organizations. Furthermore, as the government starts to mature its data capabilities and invest in Machine Learning and AI, agencies will be faced with even more serious ethical concerns regarding the potential misuse of personal data that could result in unintended consequences in policy.


Gaining trust starts with ensuring the security of government data. To do so, it is important to work with the Chief Information Officer, Chief Information Security Officer, and/or the Chief Privacy Officer to create clear policies for storing and sharing data and ensuring the policies are well understood by staff so that the data is secure no matter where it resides or who has access to it.


Another key to gaining public trust is to enhance transparency of how the government is using data. If the public knows how their data is being used and what to expect before a CDO delivers results, citizens will be more confident and trusting of government data use. Government agencies should clearly communicate their plans for using data so the public knows what to expect and understands how the usage of data will improve American lives. Additionally, the government has done a lot of good with data so far, yet it often fails to share the story of its success. Federal CDOs must showcase these success stories to illustrate the power of data and its ability to enhance government services.

Though institutional obstacles are especially challenging in the federal government, federal CDOs are also uniquely positioned to solve them. With improvements to data governance, open data, security policies, and collaboration with the CIO, Chief Data Officers in the federal government can overcome data silos, gain autonomy, and gain the trust of the public; and propel their organization into a data-driven, future-oriented federal agency.

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