4 ways to empower federal CDOs

To ensure chief data officers are more than data cheerleaders, agencies must empower them to be the strategic leaders we need to make an impact.

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The Federal Data Strategy and the Evidence Act are reinforcing the critical need for chief data officers who can execute the vision of data-driven government. But as we place more emphasis on the CDO role, we also must ensure we're setting these talented people up for success.

As it stands today, approximately 60% of federal CDOs lack a clear understanding of their role. Adding to this confusion is the fact that most have little-to-no budget or budget authority, causing some CDOs to question if they have the resources they need to affect real mission change. Without budget and authority, the role amounts to little more than a data cheerleader. That's why it's imperative that federal agencies accelerate their efforts to empower CDOs to be strategic leaders who can make an impact.

As the federal government evolves the role of the CDO from evangelist to mission driver, CDOs can pave the way to improved data best practices, governance, security and real innovation. These four functions are required for CDOs to succeed:

1. Oversee budget. The difference between CIOs and CDOs is not only executive authority, but also purchasing power. Unlike CDOs, CIOs have the resources necessary to staff and equip the organization, enabling them to both set and execute on a strategy. Gartner, however, predicts that by 2020, 50% of leading organizations will have a CDO with similar levels of strategy influence and authority as the CIO -- meaning CDOs will need more resources at their disposal.

When the CDOs hold the keys to agencies' most valuable data assets, it's imperative that they have the budget and authority necessary to leverage best-in-breed data platforms and technologies. With all the data that CDOs are charged with overseeing, they can even provide new business models for agencies that result in significant cost savings.

2. Define policies. Part of the CDO's job is to define, manage and govern data and technology policies for improved efficiency and effectiveness. CDOs need the support to charter policies and constitute data governance structures and bodies, complete with budget and personnel, or an agencywide data framework. CDOs should ultimately be able to define requirements for every data use case within an agency and set enterprisewide policies, regulations and standards accordingly.

To get a better sense of what a policymaking CDO looks like in action, look no further than Ed Kearns, the CDO of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Kearns created a data strategy that maps out key resources for driving value from the more than 70,000 NOAA datasets on data.gov. His goal is to drive policy in improving data standards and quality for public consumption. All CDOs should be able to define policy.

3. Establish processes. Agencies must give CDOs the power to be real change agents – and that includes innovation around data processes. In order to abide by the Evidence Act and help align agency data with best practices, CDOs need the authority to shake up the status quo as necessary.

Take Defense Department CDO Michael Conlin, for example. To overcome a historically embedded data systems analysis process that was painstakingly slow, he leveraged the Evidence Act to create an authoritative Federal Data Catalogue. As a result, Conlin and his team were able to produce a detailed cost baseline for 75% of DOD's existing budget -- including the most recent breakdown of money spent on various IT services. CDOs should have the opportunity to establish their own processes.

4. Break down communication silos. As outlined in the OPEN Government Data Act, it's expected that CDOs engage regularly with other leaders across the agency, like the agency head, CIO, CFO, etc. Because no matter how data savvy they are, if CDOs don't have the ability to attain leadership buy-in, they won't be able to affect real change.

Agencies must ensure their CDOs have broad visibility across departments and the flexibility to make agencywide decisions while driving change management. This decision-making power will be crucial for CDOs to foster dialogues within their agencies, build bridges across IT and other departmental silos and instill a culture of data literacy -- where everyone from data scientists to HR understands the importance of data to their missions.

The future of the empowered CDO

Empowering government CDOs to fully utilize the best of their strengths and talents will not be an overnight process. But the results will be well worth it for the future of public service. An IBM CDO report notes that successful government CDOs have been able to bring forth innovations ranging from predictive analytics models to counter fraud and open data programs that help keep government transparent while driving cost efficiencies. This type of success is only possible if we empower CDOs with the tools and resources they need to drive mission success.

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