Why chief data officers matter

Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images

COMMENTARY: Whether it's unemployment, Mars, borders or food, we need data and leaders to achieve desired outcomes.

An August analysis from the Labor Department concluded that an astounding one-third of all payments issued under the enhanced unemployment insurance program in 2020 were improper. This is often to no fault of the users navigating complex government processes. But this is a tremendous government failure because we had the data needed to verify claims before payments were issued. 

It sounds so simple to say that we should use data to improve our society, make decisions, and guide our daily actions. The Labor Department demonstrates the challenge. With better data matching to verify claims, we could have prevented much of the $47 billion in improper payments, enough money to cover the annual salary of one-fifth of the country’s public teachers for an entire year and more than 33 state budgets in 2020. Instead, the government will now spend millions recouping the costs of those improper payments. 

What should be done to address issues like this? We must intentionally focus on managing data to support programs, planning for current and future needs. Fortunately, in 2018, Congress had insight when creating the role of the chief data officer, or CDO, in government agencies as a leader to work across programs to govern data. Every agency — including the Labor Department — should now have a CDO. 

Why does a chief data officer matter? They are civil servants who think everyday about aligning data for management and use. For many in the American public, and even some program managers, this is a tedious topic. What most people want to see are results. They want to know where the Mars rover is, if the border defenses work, how child nutrition programs fight obesity, or that improper unemployment payments are being addressed. In practice, these programs require tons of data that should be securely linked together. The responsibility for facilitating that task has to fall on a clear leader, which is why the CDO is really a coordinator, a partner, and a collaborator. 

CDOs in federal agencies are making tremendous progress. At the National Science and Aeronautics Administration, the CDO helped organize data needed to operate the Mars rover. At the Transportation Department, the CDO was instrumental in improving transparency for infrastructure projects. The CDO at the Federal Reserve is promoting open data that help markets improve, while implementing a new law called the Financial Data Transparency Act. And at the Labor Department the CDO published an agency-wide data strategy to improve upon the issues that affect improper payments, including better data sharing. 

Earlier this summer, leaders from across the country converged at MIT to talk about the evolving role of the CDO and where to go next. We offer four insights relevant to public sector CDOs:

Data literacy is key across an organization and must be fostered. Whether a policy official, program manager, or average American, everyone has some level of data literacy. Applying knowledge to apply data for evidence-informed decision-making is not an intensely cerebral activity, yet we need more engagement on the topic. CDOs have a responsibility to foster data literacy programs while also bolstering the community for recognizing successful data usage that is occurring today.

Developing a data strategy is a starting point for stakeholder buy-in. Agency CDOs need context-specific and actionable strategies to guide their work. Data strategies do not need to be 100-page documents, but can highlight major themes and action plans while also communicating to key stakeholders how to support and align with the agency data priorities. It is more important to spend less time writing the strategy and more time implementing it.

Add value with internal and external partners. Many agency CDOs may perceive their priority partners are internal stakeholders, such as program managers and administrators. But external allies, including in the private sector or state government counterparts, can also offer valuable support and partnership. Publication of open data plans and offering opportunities for feedback enable collaboration that builds capacity to develop high-value use cases over time. 

Lead by knowing the work is broad and diverse. CDOs have an opportunity to align diverse programs and functional areas in the organization, including for developing data governance frameworks, for implementing data standards, and assessing and improving data quality to enhance organizational efficiency and transparency. As agencies are exploring applications of artificial intelligence, for example, CDOs are well-positioned to enable silo-busting coordination and collaboration. 

Federal CDOs need not wait for more guidance from the White House to take action now to improve our country’s data infrastructure and quality. If anything, CDOs should have the confidence they need to move forward as quickly as possible — the costs of inaction are far greater than the risks of getting it wrong. Public sector CDOs and their partners across the data community have much to offer the programmatic mission areas of agencies and we would be wise to support them at all costs. 

We cannot be successful as a country or as a modern society without better managing and using data; chief data officers in the public sector are a key element of our success.

Nick Hart is president and CEO of the Data Foundation and a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration


Kris Rowley is board chair of the Data Foundation and former chief data officer of the General Services Administration

NEXT STORY: Keep the focus in procurement on best value products and services for the government