Why Chief Data Officers Should Really be Chief Digital Officers


Having a chief data officer is akin to the Army having a chief bullet officer or hospitals having a chief bandage officer.

Andrew H. LaVanway is a vice president in ICF International’s Marketing, Technology & Interactive practice.

The role of chief data officer within federal agencies is on the rise. It’s about time.  

Unfortunately, it’s probably also not enough. Now that many agencies have gotten around to vetting, hiring and enabling a data executive, the needed role has grown larger. Simply stated, federal agencies do not need a chief whose primary responsibilities are to find, curate and harvest data while refereeing internal turf wars.

For one, it is not about the data; it is about what agencies do with the data. Data is not an end in itself, and agencies do not exist solely to collect and maintain data. Even the National Archives and Records Administration – a federal agency literally named for storing information – has public access and transparency at the core of its mission.

For another, the data does not exist on its own apart from the mission. Having a chief data officer is akin to the Army having a chief bullet officer or hospitals having a chief bandage officer. No doubt those things are important to their respective missions, but neither bullets nor bandages are the mission – they are just an ingredient.

To be clear, this is not to downplay the importance or consequential growth of data. In most agencies, data growth is approaching critical (even emergency) levels. More importantly, this is not to slight CDOs, many of whom are exceptional leaders who opted to take on extraordinarily difficult roles. In fact, the point is that the current and future crops of data leaders deserve a broader remit than the laden noun at the heart of their title.

Fortunately, we can fix this without even changing the acronym. Agencies should elevate the role of chief data officer to that of chief digital officer. The change may appear purely semantic, but words create worlds, and the role must critically shift from one of managing stuff to one of doing stuff.

The Mission

If the role of the chief information officer is to support the agency mission by developing and delivering information technology systems, the role of the digital chief is to apply information technology to convert the agency’s analog processes to digital ones. No doubt this involves data, but the data isn’t the output. The output is better performance of the agency mission overall.

For example, a good data outcome for the Department of Veterans Affairs would be the efficient and secure availability of veteran health information. A good digital outcome would be the efficient and secure application of veteran health data to accelerate service, predict and prevent readmissions, and extend the overall quality of life for those who served in uniform. See the difference?

The Middle

Agencies also don’t need another senior official walled off from mission requirements by separate laws or OMB dictates. CIOs are already precariously forked between department heads and technology-specific mandates, much to their own detriment and to that of agency outcomes. Digital executives must be empowered to straddle that ground between mission and means, accountable to the agency leadership for either saving tangible dollars or improving specific outcomes.

Does this sound like CIO role? Perhaps, but only in some 1998 client-server sense of the term. The boots-on-the-ground truth is that federal CIOs already have full plates, massive taskings in pure compliance, and little incentive (or appetite) to tangle with the mission owners. Managing data would be a far fairer assignment for a CIO than driving digital change.

Data is a growing, challenging and potentially painful asset maintained by every federal agency in massive quantities. But holding it safely and making it reasonably accessible is simply not enough. We should judge agencies, empowering them accordingly, by their ability to use their data to do valuable things in line with their mission. That means saying goodbye to our new chief data officers, and elevating them to the new role of chief digital officer.

(Image via www.BillionPhotos.com/Shutterstock.com)