Top 3 Priority Recommendations for the First Federal Chief Data Officer

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COMMENTARY | Many agency chief data officers would like to see the creation and appointment of a federal CDO.

Here’s the essential irony behind data in the federal government: Agencies have captured and cataloged plenty of it, but they still aren’t doing nearly enough with it to maximize its value.

The current administration is attempting to fix this: In its Federal Data Strategy 2021 Action Plan, the White House calls for agencies to pursue a “robust [and] integrated approach to managing and using data” while still protecting security, privacy and confidentiality. Its ten-year vision includes goals such as the initiation of data governance, planning and infrastructure; the optimization of self-service analytics capabilities; and the execution of proactive, evidence-based decisions.

Then, late last year, the Data Foundation released its annual survey of federal chief data officers to get a sense of agencies’ responses to the plan. Findings revealed that less than one-quarter of CDOs are making notable progress in implementing it.

Another intriguing finding which stood out was that three of five survey participants would like to see the creation and appointment of a federal CDO. Such leadership could lend needed vision and support to help them achieve key components of success, which include the development of data strategy and governance (as cited by two-thirds of the CDOs); the facilitation of data-driven decision-making at all levels (nearly one-half); and the enabling of data-sharing (also nearly one-half).

This leads to a central question: If the White House established a federal CDO position, what should be the top priorities on his or her “to do” list? I’d recommend the following:

Encourage agency CDOs to “think different”

To borrow from the iconic Apple ad slogan, a federal CDO could start by encouraging agency-level CDOs to shift their focus. Too many spend most of their time attempting to catalog their data, and then set policies for it. True, those CDOs need to play a leadership role in governance. But they should also drive teams to leverage data for innovation, by helping them discover how to securely share it and maximize its value. Unfortunately, this isn’t happening nearly enough.

Much of the problem is rooted in fixed mindsets and organizational culture. Data owners build a “hoarding mentality” about data—they want to gather lots of it to create impressive inventories and then lord over this digital fiefdom. But that’s as far as it goes. Agency CDOs do not take the critical next step of making data accessible and shareable. A federal CDO must champion the idea that cataloging data is really just a starting point, and hardly the endgame.

Direct agencies to liberate users with free-flowing—but secure—access to data

Agency CDOs often resist opening up data because they fear the consequences. They worry about all of the “what ifs,” e.g., “what if ‘top secret’ information trickles down to ‘secret?’” This freezes any forward progress. They don’t want to overshare and invite potential risks.

Much of the problem is rooted in the continued dependence on siloed legacy systems that require endless paperwork and labor-intensive oversight. Then, there are the highly antiquated security approaches that are still in play. To successfully protect massive amounts of data while still making it readily accessible and shareable, CDOs need to adopt an attribute-based access control model.

Simply defined, ABAC provides dynamic, real-time data access decisions and—coupled with tools such as data-use agreements and data-activity logging—ensures authorized users can proceed without security-based bottlenecks or friction while avoiding new risks for their agencies. ABAC is based on user and data attributes for data security, determining who should have access to sensitive data and whether they are seeking it for the right reasons. With this, it dynamically empowers authorization to sensitive data, applications and databases in real-time.

Issue report cards that grade real progress

Whenever the government establishes a new “fed czar,” we see lots of lofty proclamations and visionary statements. But we don’t see enough follow-through that results in actual, meaningful progress. A federal CDO needs to be empowered enough to inspire change.

Fully funded programs aimed at the improved securing, sharing and leveraging of data would help, obviously. And the federal CDO could make agency counterparts more accountable by developing metrics which measure how effectively they are deploying data sets, enabling end users and so on, and then by issuing regular report cards that publicly grade agencies on these key capabilities.

Certainly, the appointment of a federal CDO may result in much value-generating impact. But it might end up as yet another lost opportunity. A federal CDO who is genuinely empowered should lead a charge that leaps far beyond simply governance and proclamations, and instead goes toward optimal innovation. Doing so requires the enforcement of security controls, so people can fully utilize and share data sets. Without this, data is worthless. But with it, the federal CDO would truly drive agencies to not only “think different,” but do different.

Chris Brown is the chief technology officer for Immuta.