State Department Wants Data at the Core of its Strategic and Diplomatic Operations

Kiyoshi Tanno/istockphoto

Chief Data Officer Matthew Graviss detailed how the new guidelines came together—and data-centered work that’s already unfolding.

Building on multiple moves to equip its top decision-makers with evidence-based digital insights and supporting technologies, the State Department recently released its first-ever Enterprise Data Strategy.

The 18-page document marks a milestone in the department’s transformation into a more data-centric organization, according to State’s Chief Data Officer Matthew Graviss. In his view, its dissemination also represents a commitment to culture change—the first goal of the EDS.

“We are working to ensure that everyone who needs access to data has it so they can make holistic, cross-functional, and informed decisions about the development, management, and implementation of U.S. foreign policy,” Graviss told Nextgov this week. “Data is a critical tool of diplomacy.”

A certified acquisition professional with a doctorate in systems engineering, Graviss was appointed to serve as State’s first-ever permanent CDO earlier this year. Previously, he was also tapped as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ first data chief. In his current capacity, Graviss leads the Office of Management Strategy and Solution’s Center for Analytics, or CfA—the official departmentwide data management and analytics hub and capability.

A variety of other components within State contribute to this broad effort to help enable the use of data as a strategic asset across its workforce of more than 75,000. The Enterprise Data Council, for example, informs and provides oversight of how the department leverages the volumes of information it captures in America, and embassies and consulates in 191 countries. 

Together, the EDC and CfA led a year-long endeavor—deemed the “Current State Assessment”—to measure the department’s level of data maturity. Representatives from “several bureaus” were a part of the process, Graviss explained, and officials involved gathered input from hundreds of employees. Discussions were also held with more than 25 external data-aligned experts, including CDOs from the Defense Department and other federal agencies.

“Stakeholder interviews captured recurring themes and pain points and converted them into goals that address the most critical area needs of the department: Cultivating a Data Culture, Accelerating Decisions through Analytics, Establishing Mission-Driven Data Management, and Enhancing Enterprise Data Governance,” he said. 

Each of those needs he listed are goals, “or foundational targets” in the new strategy, and are ultimately meant to guide how State meets its overarching vision—where “data is a critical instrument of diplomacy, the department’s global workforce is empowered with the skills and tools to derive actionable mission insights from data, and its data assets are securely shared and effectively managed.” Guiding principles that data must be “shared, applied, governed, ethical and secure,” are outlined and meant to support the execution of the EDS. 

Every goal is accompanied with objectives that translate to actions to be taken to fulfill the ultimate aims. They shed light into some of the department’s near-term priorities.

“Recognizing the need for an enhanced cybersecurity posture and requirement to ensure security of classified and sensitive data—such as Personally Identifiable Information—the department will develop a secure common platform for select datasets with integrated records management, transparent data lineage, and clearly identifiable systems of record to maintain the integrity of shared data,” the document notes. Among other pursuits, officials will also be working to expand the use of modern analytic tools like visualization software and cloud platforms, and evolve hiring practices to meet evolving needs.

Another objective is to upskill staff and increase data fluency and expertise across the entire organization—and some of that work has already begun. Graviss said more than 2,200 employees have taken data-skills-building classes at the government’s foreign affairs training provider, the Foreign Service Institute, so far.

“In addition to upskilling employees, the department is taking steps to onboard new employees who already have the necessary data skills,” he noted. “For example, the department partnered with ten other federal agencies on a first-ever data scientist recruitment and hiring initiative earlier this year.”

Alongside the Office of Personnel Management, State Department officials are also contributing to the creation of a data scientist occupational series, and mechanisms to incentivise data scientists to work for in the federal realm. 

“The great thing about this strategy is that we’re not starting from square one,” Graviss noted.

Multiple bureaus and offices are engaged in data-centered pursuits. Upon the emergence of COVID-19, CfA officials created technology-boosted products to help rapidly repatriate tens of thousands of employees in the midst of global shutdowns.

And insiders are presently working to make certain data more accessible, so that it may inform choices that pertain to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility sphere. 

“Specifically, we are building out data visualization tools that give decision-makers a snapshot of their workforce. Based on this data, we are also asking them to think about topics that merit further analysis,” Graviss said. “And the end goal here is to make sure the department is really a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible place where people want to come work—and where people want to stay.”

This work to extend the availability of such data, “respecting privacy and security, of course,” is unfolding in partnership with State’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley and her team. Part of the intent is to pave the way for more transparency and accountability, the CDO added. It could help those who manage department-wide processes such as promotions better understand roadblocks to advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, he noted, or those who manage actions around hiring, retention and awards to identify and overcome any potential biases in those processes.

The newly-developed enterprise strategy is set on a “three-year time horizon.” Officials stated in it that a follow-on implementation plan would further “outline critical activities to execute” the EDS.

“We are taking a mission-oriented approach to implementing our strategy by focusing on the department’s top priority issues,” Graviss explained. “The scheduled timetable in our implementation plan allows us to remain agile and change should priorities shift.”

He and his teams intend to provide fixated attention to as many as a dozen priorities through a series of six-month campaigns that could enable systemic improvements in data maturity across State over the next three years. “Data analytics and management resources will be surged toward a mission and management theme every six months,” Graviss noted.

Less than two weeks after releasing the strategy, “implementation is already underway,” he further confirmed. The implementation plan is not a public document, but the CDO offered a brief glimpse into what’s to come.

“The first management theme is Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility,” he said. “The first mission theme is Strategic Competition, which highlights the importance of using data as an instrument of diplomacy to engage competitor countries.”

Graviss will propose the subsequent campaign themes going forward in consultation with other experts.

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