Why Federal Information Governance Is a Team Sport

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The federal government needs to ensure that trust in federal data stewardship is always maintained.

Have you ever been picked last for a sports team? No? Me either, asking for a friend.

In the past decade, information governance in the federal government has been “picked last.” However, the rapid shift to a distributed federal workforce has meant that consistent, accurate and reliable data is crucial to meet mission goals—and that means information governance has become a heavy-hitter.

In a nutshell, information governance is the suite of activities and technologies that organizations employ to maximize the value of their information while minimizing associated risks and costs. Information management (to the contrary) refers to how information flows through an enterprise, whereas information governance asks why an enterprise has the information in the first place.

The federal government needs to ensure that trust in federal data stewardship is always maintained. The combination of growing volumes of information and a dispersed workforce has resulted in increasingly complex structured and unstructured datasets. This data chaos has become nearly impossible to govern entitywide. To help combat this, the federal government has put together a team and created the Federal Data Strategy.

Swinging for the Fences 

The Federal Data Strategy has been designed to help agencies harness the power of public data for the public good and leverage data as a strategic asset. Agency leaders and chief data officers have been tasked with outlining specific data strategies, governance programs and policies to manage their data more effectively.

To be able to put together a comprehensive and coherent data management program, officials need to understand what data their agency is collecting, where it's stored and why. This means asking questions such as: Where is the information located? Why are we collecting this information? What system is the information stored in? With the same information often stored in multiple places, it can be difficult to know which is the most accurate and up-to-date file.  

Answering these questions starts with creating data inventories and cataloging data. However, according to Nick Hart, CEO of the Data Coalition, “The Department of Justice inventory is seven years old, so we clearly have some agencies that have a long ways to go in making progress here.”

Going the Distance 

The International Organization for Standardization standards require that top management must be involved in the creation of information governance policies and procedures. Good governance starts at the top, so we need to empower agency leaders and CDOs to put in place the process and procedures needed to implement the Federal Data Strategy. 

It's Time to Come Out Swinging 

To manage the staggering amount of federal data under management, agencies need automation and a fundamental shift in information management. Broader automation can help agencies to meet the ever-expanding list of regulations, including M-19-21. But where to start? 

1. Create a Data Inventory 

The Federal Data Strategy priorities for 2021 has listed the “need to do an Inventory of Data Assets” as the first action item. It also appears seven times in the 2021 Action Plan—the most of all actions aside from "Diversifying Access Methods," which is a different challenge altogether.

If an agency doesn’t understand its data infrastructure, it will be impossible to protect and govern the data under management. Of the 40 practices listed in the Federal Data Strategy, at least 28 of them require a data asset inventory to be created and kept current—otherwise, other action points risk being weak at best or possibly failing.

Given the sheer amount of data that is collected in every agency, no matter the size, custodian interviews are not a scalable option. This is where automation comes in. Creating a data inventory can be achieved with technology such as file analysis software. A robust data inventory can improve decision-making and mission effectiveness. 

2. Encourage Data Stewards 

Eileen Vidrine, chief data officer of the Air Force, said at FEDSpace that she calls change champions within the Air Force “chief data evangelists.” Chief data officers need to try and reinforce that every employee is a data steward and encourage data literacy. Continual training and education are needed for policy officials and senior executives. This will help officials be better positioned to read and communicate the meaning of data.   

To encourage enterprisewide data literacy, agencies can share success stories, engage in public-private partnerships to demonstrate data methods, and hold training days to educate staff about new data handling protocols. 

3. Improve Data Quality 

Federal employees get frustrated when they can’t find the information they need to complete their work—who doesn’t? Federal agencies are sitting on vast amounts of data that contain no value. This type of data is commonly referred to as “ROT”: redundant, obsolete or trivial data. 

Data management strategies need to address ROT. Many agencies are unaware of what sensitive information resides outside of typical security protocols. CDOs need to think beyond the perimeter as data continues to grow in complexity. By categorizing unstructured data, agencies can identify data that holds no value and will be on the journey to effective risk remediation.

Keeping the Ball Rolling 

The U.S. government is facing very real data management challenges. Effective information governance has numerous and impactful benefits including increased efficiencies, reducing risk, and provides insight into workflows and business processes, but I cannot emphasize enough how important accurate and informed data inventories are to the success of implementing the steps listed in the Federal Data Strategy. The government cannot do any of this alone. It requires stakeholders from all sectors, public and private, working together to ensure the success of federal information governance. Data is a powerful asset when it is well-governed. But it takes a team.

Lynsey Jensen is director of alliances at ActiveNav.

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