How Commerce Department Data Efforts Moved from ‘First Gear to Third Gear’

Bakhtiar Zein/

Thomas Beach, the Commerce Department’s interim CDO, talked with Nextgov about how his agency’s data work has evolved from focusing on governance to deliverables.

Over the past several months, the Commerce Department’s efforts to advance the use of data have evolved beyond the kind of establishing activities needed to create a community around data. The department has moved from “first gear to third gear” as it is now working to actualize deliverables, Commerce Department Interim Chief Data Officer Thomas Beach told Nextgov

This work included a partnership with Ernst & Young’s consulting wing to conduct data maturity assessments and facilitate training sessions around data for about four months from August to mid-November. Michael Boedewig, the EY partner who led the Commerce project, said one significant component undergirding the effort was Beach’s recognition that data efforts at Commerce could not be one-size-fits-all. 

“When I consider Commerce, it's almost a conglomerate, if you will, of various constituents, and [Beach] made that point from the very beginning to us that I think set the tone,” Boedewig said. “Recognizing again this is a journey, but also acknowledging that some of these bureaus were at different stages of maturity along that journey.” 

The evolution at Commerce mirrors one about to get underway at the interagency level—the Federal Chief Data Officers Council in 2021 will move from setting up governance structures to working on member-developed projects advancing innovative data practices, according to the council’s recently released report to Congress

Nextgov caught up with Beach in a recent conversation to discuss how the Commerce Department made the shift happen and his work on the CDO Council, for which he leads a working group.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nextgov: Chief data officer positions in the federal government are still relatively new—agencies were required to designate a CDO in July 2019. How would you describe what it is like to help develop the CDO role at the Commerce Department?

Thomas Beach: I kind of like doing the startup in government. That's been kind of my jam for years. What's the most interesting thing about it is so much good work is happening and so many talented folks are already in play. 

It's not like I would arrive and espouse this sort of new way of business—it's happening. It just hasn't been given sort of the nomenclature, or sort of this way of saying it's a CDO Office. And really what's more compelling than the CDO themself is what we orchestrate. And what I mean by that is the Commerce Data Governance Board, the CDGB, which is made up of voting members who are CDO or CDO-like roles at the bureau and office. And that's really the incubator for what gets done. So the CDO Office, you can look at staffing and resourcing and things like that, but it's [about] what do you get done? The whole is much better than the parts, and the CDGB paves the way of facilitating the whole coming together. And that's been new and that's been awesome.

When was the CDGB established?

Beach: In 2019; we established it before the [Office of Management and Budget] requirement to establish both a CDO and a Commerce Data Governance Board. So we were on time for that. But standing up a large group like that and kind of getting from first gear to third gear, it was the journey last year. Ed Kearns, who was the former interim CDO, did a fantastic job. So, again, discovering you've got a ready, willing group of folks to do things all data is exciting. It's now how do you make it go forward, and that again is why we partnered with EY last year, and we got out of it. We were able to get from first to third gear. 

How did you make this shift possible?

Beach: So last year, what we were able to do by partnering was to accomplish a couple areas—those dedicated to the Federal Data Strategy. There were a couple action steps there on data maturity assessment and data skills assessment, and then a follow-on skills gap analysis. And so those three components were sort of the main deliverable. And those were the assessments that were done both at the bureau level and at the departmental level. I think the magic was really understanding the unique missions within Commerce. We have these 12 bureaus and offices that do many, many great things from weather, to economic data, to standards, to patents and trademarks and innovation, to the no-fly list, to the Census. 

So we have vast scopes of mission. How do we pull that all together as the family of Commerce? That for me was the most interesting and rewarding part of this type of effort. It wasn't ‘here's an assessment, you need five data scientists and seven data wranglers, and six of these and you're on your way.’ That was not the intent of the effort, nor was that the design. 

The design was how do we get data fit? How do we get through the next couple months, and you know, our blood pressure readings are good, our heart rate’s good. We're now getting into the mode of how do we stay and be healthy? That's kind of where the partnering came in. How do we build those skills, because we had architected the data governance board, and we had working groups. It was now how do we get in and kind of do the work in a systematic way. 

Deliverables came in. And my last bit on that is, it was so important to have buy-in from the bureaus and offices as to what the deliverables were. I think we spent a lot of time meeting folks where they were on their data journey, not telling them where they need to be. And we were purposeful in doing that. That was one of the things I think was well done by the partnership that we were able to meet organizations where they are, look to others to engage each other and figure out how to move their needles, but collectively, what did that mean at the Commerce level? I think that's where the most effort was put into the thought of how do you take all these different bureaus and offices, put them together and say something like, what is your data maturity or what are your data skills gaps, and what does that mean?

How do you balance the need to meet components where they are with the need for consistency when it comes to looking for technology solutions? 

Beach: That's a constant, meaning, there will always be that sort of push and pull as far as consistency, standardization versus freedom to operate. So where this works well—and it's interesting from a Commerce perspective—is there's a lot of IT autonomous leadership and control at the bureau and office. So our role was not really to prescribe to some of the organizations that already had a fully-fleshed and defined IT program. 

What we thought was interesting from a technology perspective was … the fundamentals matter. When we talk about bringing talent into government, what we learned across the board was making sure if talent comes in, and they have ready access to a desktop, a data science desktop, right. We don't spend six months trying to figure out what's FedRAMP-ed and one organization is and one isn't. That actually takes away from a lot of time. So that was one of the thoughts that came out. If one of us is doing it pretty well or a couple of us, why don't we join forces [instead of having] all of us go out and try to procure on our own. And that was one of the healthier conversations we had there, which then is going to move over to the CIO Council. 

Some of the smaller bureaus and offices, their IT is being done at the department with the CIO there. They're getting really informed requirements. We're now educating the smaller bureaus and offices to say, ‘I don’t just need Salesforce, I really need a data strategy platform that lets me extract this information.’ So instead of buying a sort of technology subscription, they're now able to talk in a data strategy perspective what is the solution. And I think when you get to that point, the technology gets much more interesting because it isn't about so much the new and the latest and greatest, it's about what's meeting our needs and how we're having our bureaus succeed. What's really revolutionary there is being able to answer these evidence-based decision-making questions. 

When we mature to a point where we can ask these questions of the department and be so well-choreographed that the different bureaus and offices involved can meet in the middle on that consistency you mentioned, then I think we've succeeded. I don't think there's a blanket standard, but I think there's enough of a meta-standard, if you will, a meta-schema that allows us to at least speak a common, generic language, and then letting the organizations operate in their own folksonomy, or terminology, and then meeting back in the middle. Meeting back in the middle sometimes is through the CDGB, talking there on standards with our data inventory group, or it's talking to CIO and saying these are more informed requirements. And what we see at the other side of this is having more of a menu-driven tech stack. So you can come into the data restaurant and start getting to work, as opposed to trying to onesie-twosie it. 

Talk about your work with the CDO Council over the past year. 

Beach: I work with the CDO Council on the data skills and workforce competency working group. By virtue of being a working group lead, I'm also on the executive council. We meet regularly to … figure out charters, and how things are going to operate, and how do we negotiate this terrain and that terrain in terms of what would be important for folks to have. [We’re] constantly kind of looking at how do we make metrics, how do we make sure our engagements are compelling. We do a lot of self-assessment around data to make sure what we're doing has metrics and results to it. 

So, these aren't just sort of working groups just to share things. They're working groups—the one I lead—to actually create an inventory catalog of data work skills opportunities in the federal government, as well as case studies. So we've selected a half a dozen case studies of agencies or departments that have data skills programs in play, how they're operating, whether it's in the [Health and Human Services Department], the [Defense Department] and elsewhere. Then lastly, there's a deliverable called a roadmap toolkit, on how to build one in your own organization. So if you have the leadership buy-in and the opportunity, what is the roadmap for me to help build in our organization? These efforts are to help other CDOs, but they're not built by CDOs to talk to other CDOs, because I feel like you'll get an echo chamber. The data skills workforce competency team has chief learning officers, it has HR folks, and it has librarians, it has CDOs. So we want a full picture on how does it work. Because it's great to talk about training opportunities, but how do you make them persistent, and part of one's job description or efforts? So then it's again persistent but also bringing value to the organization. It's not just training for training's sake—it’s training to really address the work that's happening. 

I want to digress and say there are some really cool, interesting things coming from that, and there are ideas about how do we build position descriptions and training opportunities to predict where folks want to grow in their career. So folks are actually looking at an algorithmic approach of filling the gap in their own resume, by looking at training catalogs and opportunities and government position descriptions. It's that kind of thought leadership that's really exciting. We're not just talking about training to get training, we're talking about training that really builds out the next leaders, as well as opening up more doors to data science.