5 Strategies for Building a Culture of Data Literacy

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Getting agency buy-in to a culture of data literacy means getting everyone at every level to appreciate the value of data.

The Federal Data Strategy requires federal agencies to cultivate a culture of data literacy. The more data-literate an organization, the more value that organization will derive from its data, the more it will change in positive ways and provide real results for taxpayers.

But what is data literacy? Just as traditional literacy is more than reading letters and words, data literacy entails more than just looking at random pieces of information. It is knowing how to interpret and use the information and understanding why that is important for society as a whole. 

Cultural shifts, however, are often hard for federal organizations to adopt. Technology implementations can be simple by comparison because they don’t challenge established roles, goals and ways of thinking. Some people see any change to the status quo as a threat, even if the potential upsides for them and their missions are huge.

Getting agency buy-in to a culture of data literacy means getting everyone at every level to appreciate the value of data for their daily operations and their agency’s mission. It’s building trust in data tools and their results, and increasing the comfort people have using those tools and data in general. Without that trust and comfort, investing in data tools and technology is a waste of time, money and effort. Agencies looking to increase their data literacy should explore these five proven strategies: 

1. Build a community and recruit champions.

The first step toward instilling a culture of data literacy is building a community interested in using data to identify problems and design solutions to address them. These pioneers can include data scientists but also people who can think critically and strategically about data. This core group leverages the organization’s data, people, processes and projects; has relationships and partnerships inside and outside the agency; and possesses an innovative spirit and dedication to the agency’s mission. 

This core group also recruits internal and external champions from the top down and the bottom up because buy-in from governmentwide and agency leadership, as well as grassroots backing at senior, middle and junior levels is critical to successful adoption. Some of the most effective champions are ex-critics who overcame their skepticism after seeing proof of the value of data literacy.

2. Use tailored language and examples.

Policy, business and technology units within the same agency all speak different dialects, and what is clear to one group may be incomprehensible or misconstrued by another. Translate among units to build a common vision of how data literacy can advance the whole organization. When community building, establish and socialize shared vocabulary, priorities, challenges and incentives so everyone recognizes as quickly as possible how data literacy can benefit them. 

3. Listen to your people and data. 

Be willing to question your preconceptions about your agency’s data and how its people are and should be using it. Be open to learning the good, the bad and the ugly and acting on each accordingly. If your people feel that they are being heard and that the data actually leads to real change the trust and comfort of everyone using data systems will increase. 

4. Quantify the mission impact. 

If you can’t measure something, you can’t change it. Quantifiable performance metrics are essential to ingraining data literacy into your organizational culture. People will work toward what they’re graded on, so incorporate realistic, actionable requirements that encourage meaningful work and results. 

5. Encourage experimental projects. 

Lasting cultural change requires concrete examples of success to inspire people to embrace that culture. Tap your data leaders to see which mission-critical needs could benefit from innovative projects that leverage your agency’s data literacy. 

At the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, its data-literate community helped fight the water-pollution crisis in Flint, Michigan by developing an app to analyze the chemistry of water samples and track the degradation in quality over time. The app played a crucial role in quickly improving water quality and safety for Flint residents. 

The success of this project and others throughout the federal government underscores how data literacy—and the systems, trust and comfort that support it—are worthwhile investments now and in the future.  

Andrew Churchill is vice president of federal sales at Qlik.