The Rise of Chief Data Officers in the Federal Government

Last Published: Aug 05, 2021 |
Michael R Anderson
Michael R Anderson

Chief Strategist, Public Sector

With the US Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) recent release of the Federal Data Strategy 2020 Year One Action Plan, there is now unprecedented opportunity in the coming decade to fundamentally change—for the better—the Federal Government’s approach to leveraging data as a strategic asset. The Action Plan, coupled with the 2019 OPEN Government Data Act, provides agency Chief Data Officers (CDOs) with the justification to lead change throughout their organizations that will not only democratize data for public use, but will drive internal efficiencies and effectiveness across operations. And although the Action Plan is a significant milestone representing years of committed work by many dedicated and innovative Government leaders, it really is only the beginning, meaning that the 2020s should truly be the golden years of the CDO.    


What the Action Plan Does

The plan clearly articulates 20 actions for federal agency accomplishment over the next 12 months, with associated completion deadlines and reporting requirements occurring throughout the year. The actions do not apply equally to everyone:

Actions 1 - 6: Applicable to all agencies (e.g., data assessments, plans, governance, inventories)

Actions 7 - 10: Applicable to OMB or communities of practice (e.g., established executive steering committees)

Actions 11 – 20: Applicable to individual agencies intended to provide shared solutions (e.g., pilots, toolkits)

The OMB has tied the actions not just to the 2019 OPEN Government Data Act, but to the Administration’s Executive Order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Improving Implementation of the Information Quality Act memo, and its own guidance for Data Act implementation. This approach should have positive impacts on agency efforts to prioritize funding and solicit for additional implementation resources.

Starting out Right

As President Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Less well known was his next line, “But if you haven't been planning you can't start to work, intelligently at least.”

Given that both Actions 1-6 and the OMB’s guidance for data act implementation for all agencies are largely focused on planning and setting the conditions for success, agency executive leaders and their CDOs would be wise to heed Eisenhower’s sage advice to plan with the intent of working intelligently with the plans they currently have.

At the outset within Action 1, Identify Data Needs to Answer Priority Agency Questions, OMB requires agencies to “…identify the data needed to answer priority questions of interest to the agency” by September 2020. These priority questions are designed to help establish a “… process through which an agency can allocate its statistical, performance management, research, and evaluation efforts, and funding to the most critical questions that face the agency.”

This is a logical and practical approach. Priority questions will lead to the desired end state the agencies want to achieve. Having a vision of where an agency wants to be in the future drives the identification of the ‘means,’ or resources available or required, as well as the ‘ways,’ or processes and actions, needed to get there. This is the classical Ends – Ways – Means planning approach to achieving long-term organizational goals.

Once priority questions are established, OMB further articulates the next critical step of including “…a list of data the agency intends to collect, use, or acquire to facilitate the use of evidence in policymaking.” OMB also recognizes that high-quality data inventories and data catalogs—as mandated in the OPEN Government Data Act—are essential to success.

I’ll take this last Action 1 guidance one step further. To meet Eisenhower’s emphasis on working intelligently from planning processes, agencies need to set themselves up for comprehensive visibility, situational awareness, and understanding of the data they have now, and will continue to exponentially scale up over time, so this exercise does not fall into a simple one-time compliance or ‘once and done’ action.

Creating capabilities to continually identify the data created or collected by an agency, wherever it may reside (on-premises, cloud, multi- cloud, or hybrid environments) and cataloging that data for rapid access and insight will allow for innovation and flexibility in utilizing that data in the manner the Action Plan intends. For this data to be truly useful, the inventorying and cataloging must be accomplished with a nod toward data hygiene— ensuring its quality for analysis and consumption while at the same time protecting that data with a thorough understanding of its lineage.

Given the legacy data that most agencies have today, and the exponentially increasing amount of additional data created and collected by government daily, agencies will struggle tremendously and not hit the Action Plan milestones, either now or in any future efforts, if they attempt these important first actions using manual processes. Efficiently and effectively automating the inventorying and cataloging at the scale of government data while ensuring its quality and protection can only be achieved through automated means. Establishing automation early on sets the conditions for success and allows for continuous monitoring of clean and protected data—which may even generate new priority agency questions and lead to better outcomes and more mature desired end states.

Efficient AND Effective Data Inventorying and Cataloging for the Long Haul

The mechanisms and capabilities to automate data management for exponential value over manual methods are already available, and the return of investment is worth the effort, especially for agencies wanting to set themselves up not just for this Action Plan iteration, but also for future Action Plan iterations and achievement. As CDOs and other agency leaders consider the ways to achieve their data end states, they should address the boundless possibilities of having the automated capability to:

  • Get a complete picture of their data environment
  • Discover and understand their data assets with a holistic view including lineage, relationship views, and data profiling and quality stats
  • Automatically catalog and classify all types of data across the enterprise using an embedded AI-powered catalog
  • Find data assets through powerful Google-like semantic search
  • Achieve open APIs to integrate into your environment and expose intelligent metadata anywhere

Are the 2020s the decade of the CDO? They will be when CDOs approach the Federal Data Strategy Year One Action Plan mandates with a long-term view, automating legacy and cumbersome manual processes to demonstrate the value of data for internal and external US public consumption. CDOs have within their power the capability to discover and understand their data assets with holistic relationship views and lineage. To get the most value from data, agencies need to understand what they have, where it comes from, how it has changed, and what level of trust they have in the data.

Additional guidance on meeting Federal Data Strategy and Year One Action Plan requirements with intelligent data cataloging is available at

First Published: Jan 15, 2020