Can a one-person data shop make a difference?

Shutterstock image: charting data.

In the chief data officer world there are haves and have nots.

At the Federal Reserve, CDO Micheline Casey has a team of 46 and a budget of about $12 million working on expanding the data organization, and thinking about how to incorporate new data and new information signals into economic forecasts.

At other federal agencies, the CDO is a one person show, who has to generate institutional support through their own efforts, and the backing of key leaders.

According to Casey, who pioneered the role in government serving in Colorado as the first CDO of any state, doing data management and data stewardship on the cheap is a recipe for disaster.

"The reality is, it's really difficult to do this job," Casey said at Washington, D.C., event hosted by Nextgov. "If you're going do to this job well, you need resources, you need budget. You can't be a one-person show against an organization of 2,500 or 10,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 scattered across the country, dealing with that much inertia by yourself," she said.

Federal agencies are turning to data managers as part of the overall open data policy of the Obama administration. Some, like Ian Kalin at the Department of Commerce, are recent arrivals. Others, like Niall Brennan at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, preside over mature organizations with well-defined and expanding missions. Brennan, for instance, is responsible for a growing repository of billing and treatment data that is being used to advance efficiency, effectiveness and fraud detection in health care delivery.

Not every agency needs a CDO, Casey said, but for those agencies considering adding the role, she stressed that it's important to take the post seriously.

"If you as an agency are going to bring in a chief data officer and not give them any people and not give them any money, but expect them to walk around and get people to do things, you're setting that person and your organization up for failure," Casey said. She wants to see agency leaders giving CDOs "the dollars and resources they need to do their job from an enterprise-scale perspective the same way we do with chief information officers and chief information security officers," she said.

CDOs with fewer resources have to make do by building networks across their organization. Dan Morgan is CDO at the Department of Transportation, with 10 large components and 60,000 people. He's a one-man show, but said he looks to "resources inside the organization that help support us in improving the management and accessibility and quality of our data." Speaking at a panel at the event, Morgan said he leverages working groups inside the IT organization and, more crucially, with policy people and business office leaders to understand their data and analytic needs.

Scott Shoup, CDO of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, agreed. He sees his job as promoting the use of FEMA data collection and dissemination to help organizations inside and outside the agency support disaster relief and recovery. For example, Shoup said that a big consumer of FEMA data in the future will be private-sector humanitarian groups, including small ad hoc groups that bubble up in the wake of specific disasters. "The future is making data viable to our partners," Shoup said. To accomplish this, he is working with a community of interest of about 50 staffers inside FEMA that meets monthly to share challenges and lessons learned.

"We don't necessarily envision us having an office of 100 people because what we're going to do is organize a matrix across the organization of people that are already doing these things," Shoup said. 

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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