The Rise of Chief Data Officers

Published: June 20, 2018

Big DataInformation TechnologyPolicy and Legislation

An increased focus has been given to the role and assignment of Chief Data Officers within the federal sector.

Data has been referred to as the “new oil” in federal government, recently given weight by both the Federal CIO and within the President’s Management Agenda. However, it is those that manage the data and seek to help their organization produce more efficient processes and capabilities that have been gaining some traction. Typically, Chief Data Officers (CDOs), particularly those in the federal space, look to integrate and organize the data contained in their respective agencies and bring both tech and policy sides together to evaluate the data’s effectiveness.  


Historically, a CDO was responsible for the technical work related to data; monitoring, organizing and mining the information. The position has since changed. As indicated by NIST guidance, CDOs now wear many hats including technical, non-technical, a data steward to develop quality measures and practices for data and an evangelist to reach out to different industry, federal and academic organizations to promote their data. The guidance states that the CDO can be located anywhere in a department from executive-level to very hands-on within a technical shop. Regardless, NIST states that, “data should be considered among the top assets of an organization. Regardless of where the CDO shop is housed and what the line of authority/reporting is, coordination and collaboration are key in order to fully integrate data assets with the mission of the agency.”

The intelligence community is one example of an entity recognizing the changing role of the CDO. In April, ODNI announced a decision to split the management lanes of the CIO and CDO to give the CDO more weight in data policy. The decision by ODNI to place more strategic, non-technical and engaging responsibilities on the CDO and separate it from the technical decisions of the CIO proves the ever-changing role of the CDO.   


The importance of Chief Data Officers has caught the attention of lawmakers as well. Last October, the Foundations for Evidence-based Policy Making Act was introduced by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray. The legislation largely focuses on measuring government efficiency through the use of a more transparent data system. However, the policy also calls for each federal agency to appoint a Chief Data Officer and form a Chief Data Officer Council as a coalition for those positions. While the potential law has passed the House, it awaits passage from the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in the Senate.


In addition to the expanding role of the CDO and attention of lawmakers on the position, the growing number of CDOs throughout the federal government has highlighted its importance.  While larger departments like the DOD have stated that an agency-wide CDO would not be beneficial due to the varying missions of the department, CDOs have primarily increased within the smaller agencies and bureaus that make up federal departments. For example, there is a Chief Data Officer at the Defense Logistics Agency under DOD. Likewise, while DHS does not have a CDO, both FEMA and ICE do. Moreover, in April, a CDO was assigned to the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications at DHS to manage the large amounts of cybersecurity and threat data that is processed from federal agencies and the private sector.

Another title popping up around the federal government is that of a Chief Data Scientist/Strategist. Last month, NIH created the Chief Data Strategist position that would serve as an advisor to NIH executives on data platforms and technologies that enable data science. At the GITEC Summit of 2018 in April, Brian Thomas, Agency Data Scientist at NASA stated his role is to understand data analytics and how to handle big data and where emerging technologies like artificial intelligence fit in.


So what could all of this mean for contractors? The agencies with CDOs or leaders/offices dedicated to data strategy are more likely to have big data goals and initiatives in place. The more data-driven goals in place means an openness to investment in related services and technologies. According to Dan Morgan, Chief Data Officer at DOT, “Big data has become key at helping federal agencies become more efficient producers and users of services and capabilities.  Agencies' datasets are the grease that makes their operations run more smoothly, so having a CDO that understands both the tech side and the business side of an agency is crucial.”