How CDOs Can Tackle the Federal Data Strategy 2021 Action Plan 


Chief data officers will be making quick decisions that have far-reaching implications for their organizations.

Data sharing is a key pillar of the 2021 Federal Data Strategy, a roadmap intended to make it easier for government agencies and private sector users to access previously unavailable information. The upside is clear: more access to data should support better decision making, reduce redundancy across agencies and speed up the development of new capabilities. But that’s only one part of the equation. 

With the aggressive goals embedded in the Federal Data Strategy 2021 Action Plan, chief data officers will be making quick decisions that have far-reaching implications for their organizations. Prioritizing how to view and implement data sharing processes that support both your mission and Federal Data Strategy is much more than a technology issue. It brings up common themes that resonate throughout an organization, from security and governance to data management, and agency culture. 

While keeping in mind that collectively, each aspect impacts the others, we will examine these concerns below and outline a few questions CDOs should ask themselves before tackling the Federal Data Strategy 2021 Action Plan. 

Security Is Non-negotiable

Allowing complete access to data can make your organization vulnerable because you not only risk something going out, but something coming in as well. Organizations must equally consider the data they are sharing with others and the data being shared with them. 

Ask yourself, who needs the data, and how could it be used? Understanding the range of prospective users is critical to the decisions you’ll make regarding access, governance, security and risk management, even as you determine the technology path to establish. 

The more access points and inroads to your data sources, the greater the possibility for malware, spyware or other threats to slip past defenses, and the more attention required to ensure that you know what is being shared. 

Further, sharing the entirety of your data runs the risk of overwhelming your network resources, which can have serious consequences for your mission—or at the very least, will require a significant expansion of your infrastructure. For the military, for example, bandwidth limitations can result in information not reaching frontline operators at the moment of need, with potentially disastrous results for warfighters and national security.

The security aspect is both cumbersome and unabating, but there are certain strategies that agencies can employ to enable safer data sharing. It starts with governance, establishing policies and protocols that recognize not only the growing need for data sharing but also the evolving nature of attacks like zero-days and ransomware, as well as insider threats that are harder to mitigate.

Zero trust is not just a buzzword; it is becoming a necessity. It’s how you prevent or mitigate attacks before they damage your data and your network and negatively impact your mission. Look into solutions that go beyond compliance with security standards and allow only the people with both need and authorization to access sensitive data. 

Turning Up The (Data) Volume

There is also the issue of “too much data.” Last year, then-Federal CIO Suzette Kent estimated that the government will produce at least 163 zettabytes of data per year by 2025. Add in other publicly available sources—including state and local data shared with federal users, coupled with private databases that are relevant to government needs—and the volume expands exponentially, as do issues of ownership, maintenance, availability and integrity. 

It’s critical to remember that siloed, legacy systems are going to be with us for the foreseeable future, even as many systems are being reimagined as cloud-based solutions. Being able to make use of information—wherever it resides, however it is formatted—is crucial to your own mission operations. Consider what types of data will be shared and implement a system that can quickly and securely index and analyze your data in its natural state and location. This can save considerable time and resources over migrating data to a centralized repository that must be maintained in addition to the original systems.

Navigating Who Has Access to What Data

Although sharing data between agencies can reduce redundancy, organizations accessing that data must have the capacity to view, analyze and categorize it in ways that can turn that raw information into meaningful conclusions. Do you need different skill sets, procedures and tools than what is currently in place in order to effectively share or make use of shared data? The answer is an unqualified “yes.” 

Improved data science skills are necessary so that agencies can use all of the additional information while also benefiting from artificial intelligence, machine learning and other emerging technologies that can power critical processes such as predictive and prescriptive analytics, threat hunting and supply chain security.

Data sharing has the potential to benefit agencies and the public in myriad ways, enabling greater transparency and reduced friction. For CDOs, the pressure is on to implement the bold vision and clear requirements of the Federal Data Strategy 2021 Action Plan while ensuring minimal disruption to operations and without introducing risk to an already complex threat environment.

Implementing data sharing processes that support your mission and Federal Data Strategy can be daunting, but it also provides opportunities to identify where processes can be improved and strengthened. By correlating information from multiple sources, a holistic picture of a situation emerges—one that can help generate faster, more thorough responses to diplomatic, financial or health crises and fuel entrepreneurship and innovation. 

Steven Coles is vice president of U.S. Federal at Elastic.