Chief Data Officers in 2020

Published: August 26, 2020

Federal Market AnalysisBig DataCoronavirus (COVID-19) PandemicInformation Technology

The significance of the Chief Data Officer at agencies is growing at a rapid pace, particularly highlighted by policies and several events in 2020. Nonetheless, barriers remain in allowing the role to see its fullest potential and effect in the federal space.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Evidence Act and Federal Data Strategy seek to establish the CDO role in the federal space by defining their roles and responsibilities in creating a strong data culture at agencies.
  • In 2020, CDOs are moving forward with the requirements established by recent policies to implement data strategies and establish data governance at agencies.
  • The urgency for the CDO position is highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which requires daily decision-making from volumes of real-time health data.
  • Key barriers inhibiting the CDO role and data governance activities from blossoming include a lack of data culture and understanding of the position, and timing of appropriations for new and planned activities.

In recent years, the recognition of data as an underlying factor in federal activities has gained traction. As such, a slew of policies and initiatives to improve the management and utilization of data have emerged across federal agencies. Consequently, the position of the Chief Data Officer (CDO) has substantially expanded in presence and popularity. In fact, CDOs are beginning to gain credit in laying the groundwork for improved federal mission and operations. The role of CDO has evolved from a supportive technical position, to one at the intersection of business, operational and technology sectors. The growth and change in the CDO role is apparent in 2020 thus far, from cross-government collaboration to aiding in the recent pandemic. Despite this, several barriers remain for CDOs, inhibiting the full potential of their role in the federal sector.

Policy and Legislation

Key data policies and legislation have attempted to solidify the roles and responsibilities of the CDO in the federal government. Collectively, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (Evidence Act) and Federal Data Strategy forge the definition and authority of the CDO at federal agencies through several requirements:

  • Requires the head of each agency to establish a CDO and a Data Governance Body, chaired by the CDO, to set forth priorities to manage data as a strategic asset for agency missions
  • Establishes the CDO Council among all agency CDOs to collaboratively share ideas, initiatives and successes in data management
  • Designates CDO authority over the data governance and lifecycle data management at agencies, participate in any training or technical assistance related to maturity assessments, and develop data inventories

The CDO Role in 2020

With the groundwork of the position laid out by the Evidence Act and Federal Data Strategy, the role of the CDO has taken a more definitive shape in 2020. Reporting structure of the CDO varies by agency, likely according to where the data resides at that agency. A portion of federal CDOs report to the CIO position in the department, while others report to a mix of senior executives such as Chief Operation Officers or agency heads. Some CDOs are dual-hatted, attaining the CDO title along with an existing position at the agency, such as the CIO.

Furthermore, the launch of the CDO Council by OMB in January 2020 gives federal CDOs a common platform to, “promote interagency, data-centered collaboration and further advise the government across its open data efforts,” according to the Evidence Act.

A recent survey published by the Data Foundation, in partnership with Grant Thornton Public Sector and Qlik, dives into the activities CDOs are focused on in 2020. Among them, 71% of CDOs confirmed that establishing data policies and data governance were their top priorities. In order to achieve these policies, however, CDOs and their staff spend much of their time collecting, cleaning and preparing data at agencies vs. focusing on the business intelligence and analysis needed to use the data effectively in the organization.

COVID-19 Impact

The ongoing pandemic further highlights the necessity of CDOs in agency response to the crisis. For instance, COVID-19 requires real-time health data to allow decision-makers to make quick and effective deductions. However, government data systems are typically designed to report processes and analysis on a longer-term basis. The current environment requires CDOs to create opportunities of change in the utilization of data in government decision-making. As the pandemic continues, CDOs are receiving more and more new data requests to help monitor and respond to the health situation. This even includes requests to oversee spending of extra funding allotted towards the pandemic.

The vitality of the CDO role in COVID-19 was especially seen when the federal organization at the helm of the pandemic, CDC, recruited for the previously non-existent CDO role at its agency at the onset of the pandemic.

Former Federal CIO Suzette Kent succinctly sums up the role of COVID-19 on the CDO position, “I don't know that it changed anyone's understanding of the role and the importance…it might have certainly changed the urgency.”


Within the survey published by the Data Foundation, CDOs identified several key barriers inhibiting their influence at federal agencies:

  • Lack of Resources: 75% of CDOs surveyed identified a lack of sufficient resources available at their agencies to meet planned activities, with appropriations not yet materializing for the under the recently identified role
  • Change Management: 58% of CDOs surveyed stated they face challenges in defending the importance of the role to agency leadership, garnering enough support for CDO activities, and growing an agency culture surrounding the prominence of data
  • Definition of the Role: 50% of CDOs surveyed stated they continue to struggle with the definition and expectations of their role with CIO and other key personnel
  • Data Governance Deliverables: 31% of CDOs surveyed stated barriers existed in achieving data management deliverables such as development of strategies, standards for cross-information sharing, and secured sharing of protected data
  • Data Literate Workforce: CDOs identified that the absence of data literacy in initiatives, particularly among senior leaders, represses a data-driven culture at their agency.

Looking Ahead

The Data Foundation’s survey reveals CDOs share the same ongoing priorities. Moving forward, CDOs agree that establishing data governance at agencies will continue into the next year. Additionally, many of the CDOs plan to complete agency data inventories, improve the quality of their data and asses data maturities. Moreover, functions of the CDO and their staff in tedious data curation will lead to sought after automation solutions to reduce time and expense of activities. In the coming months, the CDO position will continue to be refined across federal space, as more agencies fill the position and CDOs settle into the role at their respective organizations.