Is there room in the executive suite for a CDO?

Chief data officers are becoming more common, but some question whether the emerging C-level leadership position is needed.

Micheline Casey

Micheline Casey, former chief data officer for Colorado, sees the creation of the CDO position as a natural development in organizational structure.

A new type of executive leader – the chief data officer, part technologist, part executive – is becoming more common among the government ranks, but experts question whether oversight of data management really has a home among C-level decision making.

In the federal government, the Federal Communications Commission was the first agency to name a CDO in 2010, appointing Greg Elin, a former Sunlight Foundation staffer. In addition to Elin, the agency has 10 CDOs for its offices and bureaus, each responsible for the policies and practices that make FCC data available internally and externally.

On the local level, when San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee announced Oct. 16 plans to hire a CDO, the city was following in the recent footsteps of other local governments to appoint someone in charge of data assets and management as well as analytics and information sharing.

Philadelphia and Chicago this year named their first CDOs. Chicago appointed Brett Goldstein on June 27 and Philadelphia followed shortly after, tapping Mark Headd for the newly created position.

Micheline Casey, former CDO of Colorado and current principal of consultancy firm CDO, LLC, sees the CDO role as a natural evolution from an organization structure perspective to create new roles whenever needed.

A century ago, she said, there were accountants but no CFOs. And just two decades ago, few thought of security the way we do now, which spurred the creation of a chief information security officer.

Then, of course, there is the current era of big data.

“While organizations have always have data, we’ve never existed in a time when there has been so much data and data has been so vital to organizational success or value creation in a just-in-time way,” Casey said.

Traditionally, data and technology have been bundled together from a management perspective, she said, but data are business assets that should be considered and managed individually – although supported by the IT side of the house.

A properly positioned CDO with the right level of authority and budget can bring together isolated  program managers to work collaboratively. Program managers want to make better policy decisions and better resource investments, and better understand how programs and investments are working, she explained.

“All of this requires high-quality data that reaches people where and when they need it,” Casey said. “CDOs can also advocate for more interagency information sharing and standards for information sharing. Finally, they can be the strongest advocate for open data.” 

But with all the already-existing C-level titles, some question whether another is needed to oversee data management.

“[A] good CIO or CTO should already be doing what a CDO would be hired to do,” said Daniel Castro, senior analyst with the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. “Data and technology are intimately linked, and strategies should be developed around both of them together.”

The current focus on CDOs could indicate that more are recognizing the increasing importance of data -- and realizing some CIOs have not been paying enough attention to data, he said.

“This reminds me of the ‘chief revenue officer’ or other similar titles that were popular especially in the dot-com era, which generally reflected the need for someone to come in and develop a core competency that every business or organization needs, but some had unfortunately ignored,” Castro said.

However, some larger organizations find that creating a CDO role helps them turn data assets into transformational public and business value – and focus on the data itself.

“Many public-sector organizations are establishing the chief data officer role to better leverage their ever-growing volume and variety of data,” said Dante Ricci, director of federal innovation at SAP. “Many entities have found that their organizations are not structured to capture and create value for the public from their flows of structured and unstructured data.”

Ideally, CDOs at federal agencies can help take a holistic approach to leveraging their data assets to ensure progress on strategic policy goals, he said.

With expanding technology portfolios, Casey said CIOs are less likely to think about the business advantages of the data the way that a CDO would be. CIOs instead deal with backend system needs, connectivity issues and user needs. Not to forget: the management, budget and policy aspects.

The technology layer and the data or information layer, however, “are fundamentally different beasts,” she said.

Despite the growing attention around CDOs, misconceptions persist, Casey said, with the biggest being that data is a technology issue and not for the business to manage. Many business people also are not trained to recognize that the data, the business rules, the business processes for the data, are their responsibility, she said.

“It's been too easy to say ‘it’s an IT issue,’” she said. “The IT side of the house, on the other hand, gets frustrated that the business stewards don't take a more active role, but they tend to want to drive conversations toward tools and technology. IT people don’t speak business language very well.”

NEXT STORY: Fighting the fear of ambition