Focusing government's C-suite on data quality makes good business sense
© Getty Images

Government collects reams of data, often as a routine part of managing programs. Rarely, though, is that information curated and translated into meaningful insights that improve government.

That’s about to change.

A new bipartisan law called the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which includes the OPEN Government Data Act, makes government data more accessible, transparent and useful. Together the key provisions of the law signed by President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham: America must 'accept the pain that comes in standing up to China' Weld 'thrilled' more Republicans are challenging Trump New data challenges Trump's economic narrative MORE in early 2019 set the stage for major reforms in how government operates.

An important provision in the law establishes chief data officers in federal agencies. Some might perceive the position as just another C-suite manager to complicate government bureaucracy – but it’s much more than that. The potential benefits from new chief data officers can’t be overstated. Government needs motivated, qualified leaders who focus on data to ensure we use one of our greatest assets more strategically to make our government and society work better.

Renewed Focus About Data on IT Systems

In 2017 a federal blue-ribbon panel called the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking studied the biggest challenges facing government’s use of data. The bipartisan group concluded a lack of focus by senior government leaders on data governance was a concern. While consistent attention is given to IT systems and budgets – an urgent task – understanding the data in those systems fell short.

Government’s cadre of chief information officers have similarly acknowledged that the competing priorities around system costs and management often mean data governance suffers. In fact, the Government Accountability Office identified IT management as a high risk, in part because “none of the [government’s] 24 agencies have policies that fully addressed the role of their Chief Information Officers consistent with federal laws and guidance.” Some chief information officers and the Commission requested clarification of the roles.

This year, Congress and the president agreed on what the clarification would be: establishing chief data officers consistently across agencies. The new law recognizes that data can be more than an IT asset, but also a strategic asset like human resources, financial information, and other essential areas of effective management. In order for government to effectively use the data it collects, we need to be more intentional about data strategy, governance and structure.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services created a chief data officer to improve user experiences and health outcomes. The agency made its data available to researchers to study the opioid epidemic, which led to innovative approaches for prevention, treatment and reduction in the use of opioids.

Other agencies are now poised to follow suit by thinking creatively about how government data can be put to best use to tackle major policy problems. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is exploring how a chief data officer can bridge existing policy and analytical offices to provide services that reduce the country’s 500,000-person homeless population. Even the Labor Department, long recognized as a leading agency in evaluating the impact of its programs, tapped a chief data officer to better govern the agency’s data.

Good data stewardship needs more than a focus on systems; it needs motivated leaders to emphasize how to best use data. Successful chief data officers aren’t just another C-suite level position, they are individuals willing to think strategically about agency missions and apply cutting edge approaches for analyzing data. These approaches will help government overcome the seemingly intractable problems facing our country, like reducing poverty, protecting our children and improving environmental quality.

It’s a big job. And one that is sorely needed to be filled and prioritized across government agencies.

To be clear, some agencies were moving in this direction even before the new law, signaling the need is clear. In early 2018, over a dozen federal agencies already created chief data officers at some level of the agency, without a legal requirement or new funding. The government-wide mandate will accelerate this progress.

Enabling CDOs to Succeed

Congressional leaders and the Trump administration should be applauded for clarifying that in order to use data as a strategic asset, our government needs more effective data management. Chief data officers will be the linchpin for effectively implementing this vision within their own agencies and for sharing their successes across the government. To be successful, they will require support from senior political appointees, sufficient resources, and staff with expertise and enthusiasm for working across agency silos.

When the Trump administration releases its plans for implementing the new data law as part of the Federal Data Strategy in the coming weeks, the new C-suite position in agencies will be faced with a tough but important role – managing our country’s data more efficiently and effectively and making sure it is put to good use.

Nick Hart, Ph.D., is the Chief Executive Officer of the Data Coalition and a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He was previously the policy and research director for the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. Robert Shea is a principal at Grant Thornton. He previously served as a member of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.