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Data Governance: The Public Sector’s Next Big Frontier

Managing and organizing data is the next phase of state and local government's hopeful metamorphosis.

by / April 29, 2014

Collect information and ask questions later has become the mantra of organizations everywhere. The National Security Agency records something like 3 billion phone calls every day, along with emails, text messages and who knows what else of the American public. But given how young the big data movement is, it’s unlikely the agency has found a way to make use of all its information — and smaller organizations, like cities and states, haven’t either. Managing and organizing data is the next phase of the public sector’s hopeful metamorphosis.

The National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) has been pushing the idea for years, in issue briefs and personal interactions with IT leaders across the country, said Doug Robinson, the association's executive director. But now that data collection tools are starting to mature, organizations are seeing how a lack of organization around information means missing out on some big benefits. Data governance, Robinson said, is the next big frontier for the public sector.

“There’s a lack of standards and a lack of consistency,” he explained. “There’s certain data quality issues: Some of the data is dirty and messy and it’s non-standardized. And that increasingly has made data sharing very difficult because you have language and syntax differences, the taxonomy on how information is represented. And there’s a lot of cultural and folk-law around the sharing of information. All that is problematic because there’s no overarching data governance model or discipline in most states. Data governance isn’t very mature in state government nor local governments today, and certainly not the federal government.”

Data has become the lifeblood of organizations, and to make the most of that information, organizations need a framework that addresses all of the issues of data quality, standards and management. Without good data governance, Robinson said, organizations are spending more to be less efficient and less effective, not to mention the degradation in transparency. Data governance is becoming critically important, and it’s the CIO who’s in the best position to be a champion for that cause.

Though still at an immature phase in government, there are organizations leading the way, Robinson said, and two of them are Colorado and New Jersey.

Dianna Anderson, chief data officer at the Colorado Governor’s Office of Information Technology, has been chipping away at a data governance strategy for about two years. It’s not going to happen all at once, but there are organizations where data sharing is natural and that’s a good place to start, she said. The problem is getting people to see it’s a worthwhile idea.

“It’s all good work, but the problem is no one wants to share information, so what good is advising?” Anderson said. “Everyone is very protective of their information.” The next step, to overcome this obstacle, is to get more business stakeholders involved with the state’s Government Data Advisory Board (GDAB), instead of just data people, she said.

“We had a lot of the IT directors and the previous CIOs of the different agencies at the table for the advisory board,” she said. “I recognized relatively quickly those weren’t the people we need at the table. We need the business people at the table, because they understand their business service that they’re providing. They understand the rules and regulations around data, they’re truly the custodians of their data and they understand how they need to use that information.”

The goal, by the end of the year, is to have executive leadership on board with the GDAB. In the meantime, Anderson’s building an infrastructure so when they have all the right buy-in, they’ll be ready to have agencies working together when they want to. For example, the departments of Human Services, Public Health and Environment, and Public Health Care Policy and Finance are three that share common interests and will be a natural starting point.

Data governance goes beyond sharing, said Daniel Paolini, deputy CTO of Enterprise Data Services at the New Jersey Office of Information Technology. “It isn’t that they don’t want to share,” he said. “It’s that they don’t want to suffer what they perceive to be a loss of control. If anything, the problem is that we’ve shared far too much data but we’ve not reused much data.”

The usual conversation when the issue of data governance comes up, Paolini said, goes something like, “Well, my agency looks at business this way, and you’re going to make me do it the way the other agency does it. I don’t want to do it that way.” That’s a common misunderstanding, Paolini said, because the whole idea of data governance is to work out a framework so information can be reused in a way that works for all parties involved. In addition, there are added benefits by not having multiple copies of the same information across an organization.

The trouble with getting so many agencies aligned smartly with data is that when they all sit down together, some people get caught up in the technical details of how the information will be shared. But data governance isn’t a technology issue, he said, it’s a business issue.

“Trying to get people out of that thinking is very difficult,” Paolini said. “The ultimate benefits of an enterprise architecture, a way of managing data as an asset, are all about efficiency, effectiveness, equality, making good investments and having more timely information. The architecture is almost the gospel that we have to preach, over and over and over again, in order to break through some of the natural barriers, some of them are artificial, that people have around the concepts of what they think good IT management is.”

When the word "data" comes up, he said, the usual reaction is to call for a data analyst, but in this case, they need business analysts who can get agencies culturally invested in data governance to “own their half of the information architecture, the business definitions, the business rules, the governance over master data and domains that they share.”

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Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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