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A Road Map for Chief Data Officers

As the number of state and local CDOs grows, a newly released white paper identifies some common best practices for the position.

The title of Chief Data Officer (CDO) is relatively new in city and state government, but one sign that the position is starting to mature and evolve is the formation of the Civic Analytics Network (CAN), a peer group of chief data officers from across the country. And a newly released white paper (PDF) from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s Kennedy School — one of the first efforts to come out of CAN — identifies some common best practices the network identified as its members work to improve social outcomes through data-driven government.

Just over a dozen cities and a handful of states have created CDO positions. “One thing I found is that this job is both art and science,” said Jane Wiseman, Innovations in American Government Fellow and author of the white paper, titled Lessons from Leading CDOs: A Framework for Better Civic Analytics. “The people who are effective in the position are not just technically good; they are good at reading people, at knowing when to push and when to back off. They are such dedicated public servants and they focus on things that matter to the public.”

The CDOs in several cities created an informal network for peer support and sharing of best practices in 2014. In 2016 the group formalized as the Civic Analytics Network, supported by Harvard Kennedy School.

Wiseman notes that there is great diversity among the CAN participants. Some focus on GIS, some on performance management. Almost all are involved in open data. But only about 60 percent have an official title of CDO.

“There are all kinds of titles that encapsulate the vast diversity of roles, and that is the richness of it. That is exciting,” she said. “Oliver Wise in New Orleans is one of the great ones and his title is director of performance and accountability.”

Wiseman’s paper provides an initial roadmap for how a CDO can operate successfully. The lessons include how to develop relationships with executive leadership and build rapport with city departments. 

One basic question is where the CDO’s office should reside. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, the CDO is in the mayor’s office. Wiseman said she is amazed at how well they execute under the microscope of being in the mayor’s office. “But if I were the chief data officer, I wouldn’t want to work for the mayor,” she said. “Mayors want everything yesterday.”

Instead, she said, CDOs might be better off reporting to chief information officers. “Working for the CIO means somebody else gets the phone calls from the mayor," she added. "Those political things can be demanding and distracting."

In Boston, the city’s first chief data officer, Andrew Therriault, reports to CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge.

“Jascha is a great thought leader and he set Andrew up perfectly for success,” Wiseman said, adding that CIOs run big shops, overseeing huge IT projects that might have extra resources a CDO could take advantage of. “It is different when you are a standalone CDO and have to come up with every resource on your own nickel. If you work for a CIO, you might be able to piggyback on other projects and get access to bright people in the same way that being at a university is better than being all by yourself.”

One common concern CDOs express involves finding and retaining the right mix of people to staff their offices. There are 20 CDOs in the network and they have very different requirements, Wiseman said. They need business analysts, data scientists, project managers and GIS experts.

“One of the challenges of staffing is to decide what the organization is going to look like and what roles you want to fill. If you are in a region where you are competing hard with the private sector for those skills, it’s tough,” she said, “and if you are not in a city where those skills are in high demand, people are scarce.” 

How can CDOs develop meaningful relationships and build trust with city departmental leaders?

“One word: Listen, listen and then listen some more,” said Wiseman, whose paper gave an example of the Boston Fire Department's reliance on the Citywide Analytics Team for help implementing a process to monitor how firefighters swap shifts — something that came under scrutiny after a series of negative reports in the press. At the time, the department didn’t have a tracking system or analytic capability to make sure it was following the rules.

“The centralized analytics team stepped in and helped with this concrete task, which met an immediate need," according to the white paper. "This built their credibility and created a spirit of partnership, which has carried over to other analytics projects, such as the recent project that alerts firefighters to building hazards when they are en route to a call, bringing together seven separate data sets from across the city into a single visualization."

On the whole, Wiseman said, the best CDOs tend to be creative, curious and willing to take risks. “The difference between a CDO and a more traditional IT person is that the IT person is responsible for diagnosing a problem and fixing it, but the job of a CDO or analytics person is to be curious,” she said. “They ask why there are certain patterns in the data. They have the curiosity and people skills to ask questions, to probe and understand business processes and bottlenecks so they can help agencies solve those problems.”

Just being open to new ideas makes a difference in this world, she said. “They are all pioneers, all in startup situations, and making it up as they go along, in a good way, because there is no handbook. The goal of the paper was to help formalize the role and advance this as a field.”