Feds Offer Tips to Better Leverage Agency Data

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Making better use of agency data is not as simple as flipping a switch.

Incentivized by the Federal Data Strategy 2021 Action Plan and laws, like the 2019 Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, federal agencies are looking to make better use of their data.

Modernizing legacy approaches standard in sometimes-siloed federal agencies is a difficult task that requires a combination of the right data modernization action plan, leadership buy-in and execution, according to several federal officials speaking Wednesday during a webinar hosted AFCEA Bethesda.

“In our data modernization action plan, we are using ‘driver projects’ that generate value for the agency,” said Ram Iyer, chief data officer for the Food and Drug Administration. “We believe if we just focus on back-office work for months and years, we may not have the buy-in from our stakeholders, so we are starting with our key projects.”

Iyer said FDA is running additional data best practices “in parallel” with the agency’s key projects, including the automation of data ingestion at FDA. Further, Iyer—who is the FDA’s first chief data officer and has been in the role about 15 months—said the agency is making changes to its talent strategy. The agency is looking for new skillsets, including data “story-tellers,” agile software delivery experts, artificial intelligence experts and others.

“There’s an ongoing conversation at the [chief data officers] council and across industry on how do we attract, train and retain talent in data, AI and other aspects,” Iyer said. “All of these become critical components of how we have set up our data modernization action plan. The challenges we are facing in terms of siloed data strategies, talent strategies and immaturity of data practices is probably going to resonate for every agency and organization we deal with.”

Ted Kaouk, CDO at the Agriculture Department, likened his agency’s data strategy “as a form of social movement, like a consciousness-raising.” In the last three years, Kaouk said the agency “made a lot of progress,” moving from aggregating data and answering questions to a more mature data operation built around an enterprise analytics platform.

Kaouk said decision-makers across USDA’s 19 sub-agencies “began asking more mature questions” of the department’s data as its enterprise analytics approach matured.

“There’s a great synergy between the initial development and work happening now, our hiring practices and broader data strategy,” Kaouk said.