Federal Chief Data Officers Need More Resources, Well-Defined Role, Survey Says

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The Foundations for Evidence Based Policymaking Act required agencies to install chief data officers. But what exactly that role should look like remains an open question. 

Nearly two years since President Donald Trump signed the bill requiring federal agencies to install chief data officers, how to carve out a well-defined perch within agencies’ organizational structures remains an ongoing puzzle. 

At a Data Foundation webinar Thursday, two former federal officials discussed various ways in which the chief data officer role could evolve in order to reach the ultimate goal of using data to drive smart agency decisions. The webinar was based on findings from a recent Data Foundation survey of chief data officers. 

The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, signed into law in January 2019, required federal agencies to establish a chief data officer position by summer 2019. But questions about what the role should look like and to whom a CDO should report need to be answered in order to truly realize the vision of the Evidence Act. 

Kris Rowley, who recently moved to the private sector after a tenure at the General Services Administration, where he became the agency’s first chief data officer, outlined two options for CDO reporting structure at the Thursday webinar. 

“There seems to be some misalignment between organizational placement and expected responsibilities and desired outcomes of CDOs work,” Rowley said, though he added the problem isn’t universal. 

Though there is little evidence available yet to describe what kind of reporting structure works best for CDOs, survey respondents told the Data Foundation they need more clarity around how the chief data officer position relates to the chief information officer position. 

When Rowley worked at GSA as the CDO, he reported to the CIO. He described several advantages to this reporting structure, mainly that this framework positions CDOs for success in centralizing and optimizing data platforms and tools.

And if the CDO is reporting to a CIO in an agency where the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, or FITARA, is being implemented to empower the CIO and arm them with budgetary responsibilities, the CDO may be in a strong position to develop an enterprise-level data platform.

There are downsides to this option, though: Rowley said working within the CIO’s purview necessarily limits the scope of the CDO in terms of setting data standards beyond just information technology toward the goal of agencywide culture change. 

Rowley said one of the reasons reporting to the CIO worked for him at GSA is because he had a strong relationship with the CIO, and at the time, the position was new. 

“I didn’t think people would necessarily relate or interact with me directly, without some additional support from the CIO and from the deputy administrator at the time,” Rowley said. “Having that kind of double-layer of capability to help get me into the door to have conversations, while also having some authority over the financial spending around technology, that combination was very useful for me.” 

But as the importance of data and the sheer amount of data agencies need to handle evolves, the role of the CDO may grow beyond this structure. Rowley also said just because CDOs and CIOs collaborate does not necessarily mean sticking the CDO under the umbrella of the CIO is a natural or useful fit. 

The second option Rowley outlined was one where the CDO reports to a chief operating officer. Benefits of this format include giving CDOs enhanced ability to establish an executive body for data governance as well as develop processes for evaluating big agency challenges and how to make decisions to solve those problems using data. In this framework it may also be easier for CDO to drive agency culture closer to the vision of the Evidence Act. 

Still, CDOs working independently from CIO offices are dependent on the CIO to develop and manage an enterprise data platform, and they would be detached from the dollar power FITARA grants CIOs, according to Rowley. 

Whatever route agencies take, CDOs need more resources, according to the survey. More than 60% of survey respondents told the Data Foundation money is holding them back from transforming agencies into data-driven organizations. Nearly 70% said they need more support from agency leadership. 

Robert Shea, the former associate director for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and a principal at Grant Thornton, said he would like to see more Congressional oversight in this area. Grant Thornton along with Qlik sponsored the Data Foundation survey. 

“As much as I’m skeptical that it will ever materialize, I think getting Congress to continue to press agencies to fulfill their obligations here, that’s going to be what moves the dial,” Shea said. 

Shea added Congress needs to require agencies to fulfill their responsibilities around requiring transparency, and that they have shown a willingness to perform this kind of oversight in the past. The FITARA scorecard is one of the clearest examples showing the benefits of clear and simple Congressional oversight metrics. 

Dan Tucker, vice president for digital transformation with Booz Allen Hamilton, has been working with the Treasury Department on USASpending.gov. During the coronavirus pandemic, Tucker helped Treasury ensure data from the aid packages Congress passed was transparent and accessible for citizens and the media. 

In a recent interview with Nextgov, Tucker said he has seen the need for enhancing CDO offices firsthand. The Federal Data Strategy and its associated 2020 action plan have been encouraging, Tucker said, but he hopes that the priorities will get more attention. 

In his work with agencies, Tucker said he has sometimes partnered with CDO offices employing just a handful of personnel. He added it is imperative for CDOs to be empowered similar to the way FITARA enshrined the stature of the CIO position. 

“All modernization, all decisions emanate from the data and the information needs,” Tucker said. “The CDO office and that associated data literacy has to live at the highest levels of the organization.” 

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