Chief Data Officers are Popular

Published: August 22, 2018

Big DataInformation TechnologyPolicy and Legislation

Chief Data Officers are becoming part of the “popular crowd” in the federal government with a rise in the position throughout agencies, most notably at the Department of Defense, and an emphasis by Congress on the role.

I attended an event last September that focused on big data and analytics where DOD CIO, Kevin Garrison, answered a question about the possibility of a Chief Data Officer (CDO) for all of DOD. Garrison explained that though it was tempting, a CDO for the department would be unlikely due to how domain-focused the agency is and the logistics surrounding where to put the CDO. Less than a year later, DOD announced it had hired its first Chief Data Officer. The DOD CDO will be responsible for overseeing the management of defense data to be used for mission critical decision making purposes.  While Garrison’s response made sense, it is no surprise that the agency has made moves to maximize the value of its data. The topic of data has certainly been shoved into the spotlight this year. For instance, the President’s Management Agenda stresses the importance of data as an asset for government, particularly with its call for a federal-wide approach to data management in the formation of a Federal Data Strategy.

A Rise in Numbers

In fact, the number of CDOs in the federal government continues to grow. This year alone, NIH at HHS added the position as well as DHS’ Cyber Office. Recent trends in the placement of CDOs has revealed that federal departments, particularly those with varying missions, tend to have the CDO position for a specific bureau or smaller agency within that department. For instance, HHS also has a CDO for its CMS and OIG offices. Likewise, DHS also has CDOs at FEMA and ICE, the Air Force and Army under DOD both have CDOs and Commerce has CDOs at NOAA and the Census Bureau. After a bit of rummaging, I found that of the 24 CFO Act Agencies in the federal space, I could confirm that at least 13 of them have a department-wide Chief Data Officer position in place:

  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Defense
  • Department of Energy
  • Department of Health and Human Services
  • Department of Transportation
  • Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • Agency for International Development
  • General Services Administration
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • Small Business Administration
  • Social Security Administration

Congress Takes an Interest

Even Congress has been active in pushing for the recruitment of CDOs throughout the government. In November 2017, Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray introduced the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act which, among other things, guided agencies to use data to evaluate the success of its programs and require agencies to appoint chief data officers. Since then, the bill has passed the House but remains in the Senate. Moreover, a bill introduced by Rep. John Carter in the House last month calls for the DHS CIO to make a career appointment for a Chief Data Officer at the department.   

An Expanding Role

The popularity of the Chief Data Officer is not only due to the realization of the how important agency data could be, it is also due to a CDO’s increasing role and effectiveness in organizations. The position not only spans technical aspects concerning data but also the business processes within an entity. It is no longer a CDO’s job to simply maintain data governance within an agency. A CDO must now take the lead in discovering new technologies to make use of the data. In other words, analytics, data science, data management and digitization all fall under the purview of the CDO. The Intelligence Community has recognized the importance of a CDO and its office. ODNI announced earlier this year that it would restructure its CIO shop in order to separate the CDO and its team and place in more of an operations and strategy lane. The shift was made to emphasize the impact a CDO has in policy-oriented work.

Voted “Most Popular” in my book, it is without a doubt that the CDO position will continue to expand throughout the federal government in the foreseeable future.