Can a chief data officer reignite federal data strategy?

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Tech think tank ITIF wants the White House to revive the Trump-era Federal Data Strategy, which it says has “stalled” with a lack of leadership support.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation — or ITIF — a tech think tank, wants the White House to recommit to implementing a Trump-era federal data strategy, and it thinks that a federal chief data officer could drive progress. 

The 10-year data strategy, released in 2018, was always meant to be implemented with annual action plans. The Office of Management and Budget released said plans for 2020 and 2021, but hasn’t released any since then, nor has it provided any progress updates on implementation of the 2021 action plan. 

ITIF argues in a new report that the strategy is “inherently flawed,” since it doesn’t connect high-level principles to government or agency outcomes, but it also posits that the strategy is still an “important, coordinated and necessary effort” that “suffers from a lack of leadership.”

The think tank wants OMB to establish a federal chief data officer to drive the implementation of the strategy, support agency-level CDOs and chair the government’s CDO Council. 

“With a Federal CDO in place, agencies will have a leader and representative in OMB who will speak on their behalf and share their concerns, such as the lack of formal guidance from OMB, funding and staffing constraints and a lack of clarity in their role and responsibilities,” the report said, also asserting that a federal CDO would add legitimacy to the agency-level CDOs.

A federal CDO role has also been recommended by the Data Foundation, another think tank.

ITIF said that OMB hasn’t yet issued guidance on the OPEN Government Data Act — a 2022 OMB memo cites forthcoming guidance on the law — and that the federal data policy committee at OMB created to implement the data strategy has been inactive. 

As a result, ITIF said that agencies aren’t prioritizing the strategy, but instead “focusing on their own agency-level data strategies.”

In addition to establishing a federal CDO, the group wants OMB to amend the strategy to connect it with governmentwide and agency priorities, writing that as is, the strategy’s “practices mean little if they are not integrated with government-wide and agency-level mission objectives.” ITIF argues that the lack of specificity in the original strategy has also bled into the annual action plans that have been released.

The report points to the Biden-Harris administration’s focus on customer experience and government service delivery as an example of where more specifics could be helpful. Agencies deemed “high-impact service providers” are required under the President’s Management Agenda to collect customer feedback data, and the strategy “should highlight which components, shared solutions, and interagency activities help achieve this result across the 10-year strategy.”

Other recommendations include progress trackers for the strategy’s implementation and the use of the existing federal data policy committee as an oversight and governance body for the data strategy. 

OMB declined to comment for this story.