For Agencies, Chief Data Officers are All About Business


Chief data officers across government do not share all the same duties, job descriptions, reporting structures or budgets.

Peter Aiken, the author of “The Case for the Chief Data Officer,” likes to tell a story about how companies almost a century ago used to employ chief electricity officers whose jobs were “figuring out how to incorporate electricity into the company’s business model.”

At the time, the proliferation of electricity made it a sought-after resource for companies looking to make a quantum leap in operations, and its importance merited the hiring of personnel dedicated solely to improving its use.

Then, a funny thing happened. Electricity “became second nature,” and chief electricity officers phased out, Aiken said June 23 at an event hosted by Nextgov.

Aiken envisions a similar pattern forming for today’s new crop of chief data officers in government.

Data is perhaps government’s most vital nonhuman resource today, and in this era of exploding data, chief data officers are brought in to make sense of it all. Whether these positions continue in their current capacities, mirroring the explosion of federal chief information officers in the 1990s, or morph into something else entirely remains to be seen.

All About Business

Chief data officers across government do not share all the same duties, job descriptions, reporting structures or budgets.

Micheline Casey, chief data officer for the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, said as much in her June 23 keynote speech. Some chief data officers report to CIOs – not a good thing, she said – and others report to business leaders, which she said makes much more sense. Data gurus can remain tech agnostic this way, ensuring their directive is about driving business value, not technology.

Resources vary, too. Casey has a team of 46 people within her office. In contrast, Transportation Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency chief data officers, Dan Morgan and Scott Shoup, are essentially one-man bands. Morgan and Shoup also spoke at the Nextgov event.

“It’s pretty true that I thought I had a plan when I walked in the door,” said Morgan, who became DOT’s chief data officer about a year ago. “Every data problem in the organization has been laid at my doorstep.”

It’s not a complaint from Morgan, but just the truth. In many ways, chief data officers are shaping into “data evangelists” who work between the infrastructure and business sides of organizations, Shoup said.

“We’ve brought a business approach to things,” Shoup said, adding that “data-driven decision-making is literally a strategic objective.”

In short, if Meghan Trainor is all about that bass, chief data officers are all about that data-driven decision-making.

Chief data officers across government share other similarities as well.

“Who is actually looking at our data we use as an organization? Who is defining the business rules, processes and best practices around particular data sets, thinking about the strategy of data used in organizational missions?” Casey said. “Well, today it’s not really happening in the CIO’s shop – a lot of what CDOs do is deal with those issues.”

At FEMA, Shoup said he’s an evangelist not only for data, but analytics as well. Data management, quality, governance and decision-making all fall under his purview, he said.

“Our mantra since Hurricane Katrina has been, ‘Go big, go big, go big,’” Shoup said. “We need to go smart.”

Morgan, an admitted “data nerd,” suggested data is more than just something an agency collects and holds on to, siloed away like Rapunzel in a castle somewhere.

Part of Morgan’s job has been transforming the bureaucratic culture that pervades his sector of the federal government. At a large organization like Transportation, which collects and provides data that affects millions of Americans on a daily basis, the chief data officer is both a curator of data and a provider of services – both to the organization and public at large.

“We talk a lot about data as an asset, but it’s a product, too,” Morgan said. “You’re not just providing authoritative data, but a service to the organization. And you’re not going to make a decision if your data is stuck in a legacy system. You have to change the culture.”

(Image via Tsyhun/