The Impact of Public Sector Chief Data Officers

Published: September 20, 2017

Big Data

The chief data officer position continues to develop and evolve across the federal government, potentially influencing growth in initiatives and spending in big data.

With the increase of big data in both volume and critical use, it is no surprise that organizations in the public and private spheres are looking to institute a particular person to manage and deploy big data and analytical platforms, otherwise known as a chief data officer (CDO).

At one point in time this position was likely someone focusing on the technical aspects of data and how to monitor, separate, mine and organize it to meet an entity’s mission and needs. In a blog about the evolution of a CDO, the writer points out the fact that a chief data officer is no longer dealing with just the bells and whistles of data, they must deal with its strategy and become change agents – “knowing how things operate, where and why there’s resistance to change, and how to help people understand the applications of complex data to drive growth.”

According to a NIST guidance on CDO roles and responsibilities, a chief data officer should hold responsibilities in four capacities: technical, non-technical, data steward and evangelist. The guidance describes the latter two functions as a CDO working with those both inside and outside their organization to help build data experts and products and develop successful collaboration to further progress its data strategy.

As a result, a need in implementing chief data officers throughout the public sector, particularly in the federal government, has taken place in the last several years. Within the past year, the Air Force and Navy have even described exploring the idea of having a chief data officer within their organizations.

In digging around, I was able to identify chief data officers in the following departments and agencies:

Agriculture Consumer Financial Protection Bureau HHS (CMS) DOT
Army Defense (DLA) DHS (FEMA) DOT (FAA)
Commerce (Census) GSA DOJ (Marshals Service) USAID
Commerce (NOAA) HHS Labor (Wage & Hour Division) U.S. Postal Service

Interestingly, these results reveal the fact that out of 24 CFO Council agencies and some of the largest in the government, only 7 have chief data officer positions at a department-wide level. Several entities that deal with mounds of data, such as NASA, Energy and Treasury, are missing from this CDO group. Meanwhile, a handful of departments strictly have CDOs within their sub agencies such as DOD, DHS, DOJ and Labor.  Additionally, agencies such as Education and the VA have offices devoted to big data strategies rather than a CDO.

Putting all of this together, is there a correlation between a CDO and a federal agency’s development and/or success in big data goals?

There does not seem to be a short answer to this question.

According to an article out of KPMG, a CDO should be “promoting data-sharing among groups, setting data policies to create standardization of data assets, and establishing enterprise data governance. They often also lead enterprise data strategies, develop ‘data as a service’ to department ‘clients’, and coordinate cross-agency analytics initiatives.” The difficult part is proving this to be true.

In looking at big data spending across the government between FY 2014 – FY 2016, a majority of the agencies that reported contract dollars in big data grew year over year in spending during that time frame: Agriculture, Commerce, Commerce (Census), Commerce (NOAA), EPA, HHS, HHS (CMS), DHS (FEMA), DHS (ICE). While growth can be attributed to the overall trend of increasing use in big data and the agency’s digital mission, there may be somewhat of a relationship between agencies with CDO positions investing more in their respective data and analytics initiatives.

Likewise, in searching through some agency Information Resources Management (IRM) reports, those that have CDO positions described in the report tended to have clearer, more detailed data-driven goals for that agency. For instance, within the Commerce report, the CDO is described as needed to “centralize its data strategy and improve data operations” followed by an outlined set of key strategies.

Again, while these observations from historical spending and IRM reports may only hint at describing the importance and correlation between chief data officers and their business development roles in big data for their agencies, given the defining role of the CDO and their responsibilities, it is safe to surmise that those with chief data officers have a better chance in making use of big data technologies throughout their enterprises.