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Chief Data Officers: Shaping One of the Newest Positions in Government

Four prominent CDOs discuss the work they do and the meaning of their jobs in the overall structure of civic governance.

Data is the watchword, the new tool by which governance can be managed. Crunch enough numbers hard enough, the logic goes, and you’ll get something meaningful, something that can guide civic efforts in diverse arenas.

Who will gather, sort and crunch those numbers? Increasingly it is the chief data officer (CDO), a rising class of officials with an often broad mandate to convert data into actionable intelligence. Such a position has its advocates.

“To achieve maximum benefit, all enterprise-class activities — including data warehousing, business intelligence, master data management, customer relationship management, data governance, data quality improvement initiatives, enterprise architecture and so on — should be led by a new chief officer whose primary responsibility is the standardization and management of data assets in the organization,” said Larissa T. Moss, senior consultant at the IT consultancy Cutter Consortium. “This new position is the chief data officer.”

That’s a mouthful — one that the corporate world at least seems ready to swallow. Gartner predicted that by this year, 25 percent of large global organizations will have appointed CDOs. Research Vice President Debra Logan said there are more than 100 CDOs serving in large organizations today, more than double the 2012 number.

The public sector is following close behind. In 2010, Colorado became the first state to appoint a chief data officer. A year later, New York City established the position in local government. The U.S. Army has a CDO as do such major cities as San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore. With the CDO’s role poised to become the new norm in U.S. government, this is an appropriate time to step back and ask some basic questions: Who will fill that role? What will he or she do? What challenges will he or she meet? Should there even be a CDO at all?

Some think not.

Take, for instance, Forrester Research Principal Analyst Jennifer Belissent, who blogs that the CDO may be redundant in the shadow of a good CIO. “The role of the CIO is not just about keeping the proverbial ‘lights on.’ It’s about achieving business outcomes — achieving those goals of engagement and access, of improving operational efficiency and policymaking, and of enabling innovation and facilitating economic growth,” she said. “If a CIO is truly empowered to guide the use of technology and not just its maintenance, the organization likely doesn’t need another chief.”

Against a backdrop characterized by urgency on the one hand and uncertainty on the other, we talked to four prominent CDOs about the work they do and the meaning of their jobs in the overall structure of civic governance.

Before taking on her present role as New York state CDO in 2012, Barbara Cohn earned her chops in Michael Bloomberg’s administration in New York City. Working in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, she pushed for intergovernmental data sharing and learned an important lesson that serves her well today.

“One of the most important things I learned is that it can be done,” she said. In the world of HHS, “it” meant pulling together case information from across government, giving a caseworker the ability to see into a family’s history anywhere it had touched the system. How to bash down those long-standing walls? Solid systems.

“We have a very strong governance process. There was an executive order from the mayor, there was strong leadership, there was structure, there were processes in place and standards that had to be met, and there were very clear objectives,” she said. “It was all done in a very methodical way. It wasn’t arbitrary or capricious.”

Cohn brings that same sensibility to her present role, where it is her job to foster exchange and interoperability across government. She works to harmonize core data elements, create standards, enhance data quality and facilitate the governance structure that makes sharing possible.

For the past year, her office has been engaged in a successful open data initiative: There has been a fourfold increase in data catalog items from 54 participating state agencies. In addition to data points, the team has crafted diverse charts and graphs to make all this information more easily digestible. “We are very cognizant of the end users and want to provide maximum understanding,” Cohn said.

To formalize the process, in November 2013 Cohn oversaw publication of an open data handbook, a set of guidelines to help all agencies identify meaningful information and prioritize data sets. “Data is new to agencies,” she said. “With the explosion of data, people are just awash in it and this is a pointer, a road map. It has really gotten the agencies excited and enthusiastic.”

Cohn reports directly to the CIO, putting her at a high level in the organizational chart — high enough that she needs to have at least a passing familiarity with the workings of every agency. But she doesn’t need to know it all.

In order to make the data move, “you don’t need to be an expert in everyone’s field. You do need to know what their business objectives are, and once you are clear on those business objectives, it becomes clearer what the value proposition is here,” Cohn said. “It comes from being constantly in communication with all the different agencies. I have spoken to countless agencies through the open data initiative and we have created many strong relationships.”

There are many ways of looking at data and its function in government. With hard numbers in hand, government can make sound policy decisions. Data can help officials to target resources. Ali Farahani, Los Angeles County's CDO, is thinking about how data gets used, but he’s starting the journey by asking how it will be accessed.

In the past, data has been collected and disseminated on a “specific transaction model,” with various government functions holding their information close to home: Hospital data went to hospitals, HR to HR and so on. “I want to change that dynamic,” Farahani said.

“I want to promote a model where we look at data as a service. The purpose would be to make it available to all consumers of data, to make it more readable, in a standard format, almost as a plug-in so that any consumer of data in the county can access data without worrying about what platform it is in, without worrying about building bridges to access that data.”

The county is a long way from that today, with information still in silos across the enterprise. Farahani’s current mission is to put in place an enterprise information management working group, a cross-cultural body that can lay down rules for moving data across divisional lines. “You can’t just knock on someone’s door and ask for data,” he said. “You need a governing process so that the sharing of data is accepted as part of the enterprise management process.”

At the same time, Farahani is running a parallel offensive: That is, the effort to build a data culture in government, a mindset wherein the information that percolates up across agencies ultimately drives smart choices. “I am trying to promote a culture of data-driven decision-making in our county government, to actually have programs and policies that use data as a driver of good public policy,” he said.

To do this, he is talking to department CIOs, encouraging them to connect with their business executives in order to begin seeing the link between policy goals and available data. “There is a lot of value in reaching out to the CIOs,” Farahani said. “Once you start talking to them about the tangible value of analytics, then they want to have data, they want to have a dashboard.”

What about Forrester’s Belissent and her assertion that the CDO may be redundant to the CIO?

Farahani sees a clear necessity. “The CIO’s job is nowadays so big and comprehensive, it becomes a matter of having someone who can focus on just this particular area,” he said. While the CIO must tackle the technology needs of a county with a $26 billion budget, the CDO looks at a much narrower band. “We rely so much on data, we have become so dependent on our data in the last 20 years; it has become the centerpiece of all business processes. So now we need to focus on that asset.”

Tyler Kleykamp came to his job in February 2014 after a stint as GIS coordinator in Connecticut's Office of Policy and Management. His technology skills are largely self-taught, picked up along the way as he worked on GIS databases. Nonetheless, data seemed a natural transition.

“It was part of the work that I had always done,” he said. “Working with GIS, I was doing all sorts of analysis: weather, land use, conservation and development. So I was already a data chaser, someone who went agency to agency looking for data in order to do some type of analytical work.”

As an office of one, Kleykamp still reaches out to multiple partners, culling data from throughout state government and pulling it into the Office of Policy and Management. The job grew out of a gubernatorial call for an open data portal, and that has been Kleykamp’s top priority, to convene multiple agencies and see what they could do to make their data more publicly accessible.

That executive order has been a boon to his efforts. Agencies are required to provide a management-level liaison who will be ready and able to work with the CDO on matters related to data sharing. “That means we have someone in that agency we can go to when we are looking for something, when we are trying to open something up,” Kleykamp said. “So it is not just a shot in the dark at the agency.”

As Kleykamp reaches out from the state level to the civic strata, things get a little more complicated. The state has no counties, just 169 municipalities, each keeping its own records. There are regional councils to help pull it all together, “but it’s still a learning process for me to understand where some of this stuff is, how it looks, who can access it,” he said. “Those are the big challenges we are working through now.”

As he feels his way along, in much the same way as other CDOs, Kleykamp is careful to set realistic expectations. People often liken data sharing to the watershed moment when the federal government opened up GPS data to the public: Everything changes. But he doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t think that is what we are looking at, at the state level,” Kleykamp said. “We have an opportunity to leverage this data to make better decisions. That may save us money down the road or we may have better outcomes. This will have a positive impact on the way we do business as a government, but it is going to be a period of slow, incremental change.”

It took a civic hackathon to help Tim Wisniewski see the possibility for combining his IT hobby with the city’s interests, launching him to become Philadelphia’s director of civic technology, where he managed projects that connect citizens to government, like the Philly311 mobile app and

When he took on the CDO role last summer, it seemed like a natural evolution. “I was hooked on building applications that would connect citizens to government, but I kept finding myself looking for data,” said Wisniewski.

He has since found more than he bargained for. “We have a lot of systems that have developed over the decades, but they are not necessarily compatible or in the same format. We have things on the mainframe, on Oracle databases, on SQL Server databases. There is not one tool that gives us access to all this data.”

A simple example: When the city wants to contract for a commodity, the contracts reside in one system and the product descriptions in another. Try to merge that data, “and it is all a huge ordeal.”

The remedy begins with knowing what is out there. Wisniewski has asked for data inventories in various departments. An open data team will then measure demand for that information internally and externally, based on input from an advisory group made up of community members, the media and academia, among others. “Then we can tell a department, here’s exactly what the public wants,” Wisniewski said. “We want to be less anecdotal about it and more deliberate, more methodical.”

Wisniewski answers directly to the CIO and oversees a range of teams covering open data, civic technology, creative services and application services — a total of 16 people. So far, these teams have been met with positive energy from throughout government. “I have had conversations with folks at various levels and people generally get it,” Wisniewski said. “They do understand the value of these kinds of things.”

Wisniewski is measuring success by his own ability to prioritize on behalf of city departments. He wants to create a 1-to-5 scale to show managers just which aspects of their data are most in demand. First he needs that inventory, though, and that is no small trick when a full picture requires input from 57 different departments. “You can’t just walk up and ask somebody: What data sets do you have?” he said.

As for the suggestion that the CDO may be little more than CIO Lite, Wisniewski said the difference in emphasis creates a fundamental distinction between the roles. “There is a new recognition of the value of data as an asset,” he said. In creating a chief role solely to exploit the value of data, cities and states make a stand about their readiness to open themselves to citizens. “There is a real desire to use data to increase civic engagement. That requires some degree of creativity, it requires engaging with the user and that requires a special degree to focus.” 

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.