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State Exec Named California’s Next Chief Data Officer

Gov. Gavin Newsom has named Jason Lally, deputy director of Data Services and Engineering at the state Office of Data and Innovation, to the role. Joy Bonaguro, the previous state CDO, stepped down in June 2023.

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Jason Lally, an expert in data and its use in government, has been named California’s chief data officer, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday.

Lally’s role is in the Office of Data and Innovation (ODI), part of the Government Operations Agency. He reports to ODI Director Jeffery Marino.

Before his appointment, Lally had served since January 2023 as deputy director of Data Services and Engineering at ODI; before that, he had been deputy chief data officer since 2022.

ODI works with multiple state departments and agencies, including the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, the California Department of Technology (CDT), the Employment Development Department and the California Department of Public Health.

Before joining state government, Lally held several positions at DataSF in San Francisco from 2014 to 2020, including chief data officer, data services manager and Open Data Program manager. Lally was a Mayor’s Innovation Fellow at the San Francisco Mayor’s Office from 2013 to 2014, and before that he held several positions at PlaceMatters from 2008 to 2013.

In an interview Friday with Industry Insider California, Lally talked about his priorities, how his background has prepared him for this role, and how he views the importance of equity in government technology. (This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Industry Insider — California: What’s the best thing about your new role with ODI?

Lally: What’s great about this, and what gets me most excited, is that I have been doing a lot of this work already with my team and with ODI. And so it’s nice to just be able to step into it, really lean in. There’s so much happening at ODI, and I think we’re now at a point where we can start to really tell those stories, and I’m excited.

Jeffery Marino is really a big reason that I wanted to step into this role. Being able to work with a partner — a director who really gets it and is aligned — is really important to me. Based on prior experience, that’s what makes the difference — having a thought partner and somebody that you can really work together from different lenses and angles. Jeffrey’s just a really great partner and director, someone that I can really work with to help advance all the good work that we want to do.

IICA: How did your experience in San Francisco prepare you for this role?

Lally: Working at the local level and the state level, there are definitely differences. In San Francisco, we were able to really push forward and be a sort of small but mighty team. What’s nice at the state, and with ODI, is that even though we’re a smaller organization, there’s more wrapped around. And it’s great to be working with folks not just in the space of data, but also in human-centered design, user research. Being able to work in a place where we actually have colleagues who are doing that, and many more colleagues, it just feels a little bit more like there’s a really strong supportive network to really move this work forward. It’s not to say that San Francisco wasn’t supportive, just that it’s different at the local level. And we just had a smaller set of resources there at that time. Even though the scale is different, the fundamentals are ultimately the same.

IICA: In your current role, you work across a lot of large departments with some throw weight — CDT and others. Do you envision yourself as sort of a liaison with others? How does that relationship work? When collaborating with another department, what’s your first step?

Lally: It really starts with relationships, and luckily, I have really good relationships with the state. Here, my role isn’t to, like, govern all the data, but to help those data leaders across the state advance their goals and to collaborate and make sure that we are in partnership, and to really use the power of convening, to bring people together to connect dots across different initiatives. That’s where I can really play a role in being able to be in communication and direct connection with all those folks. It’s starting with that foundational relationship and really talking through: “What’s the problem? What are the things? What are the shared problems that we have? And how might we get there together?” That’s the first step.

When our Data Engineering Services team is working with a client department, they are actually embedded together, and our team is coaching them along the way. We are doing sprint cycles and continuous feedback, and they are part of it all the way through. After the most recent one we did, I had someone reach out to me and say, “That was the best training I’ve ever received,” and it was grounded in the fact that we were listening to the users. We were paying attention. So it’s less about it being like a focus group; it’s more cultural.

IICA: Will you be working directly with vendors?

Lally: I want to be very thoughtful about how we set the stage so that we aren’t necessarily [giving preference] or seeming to preference a vendor. We’ll focus on emphasizing what we need as a state … to do our work effectively. And ultimately, the vendor community can respond to that. There’s a lot of great, great tools, and in this space, they’re getting more interoperable. And so I find that it’s less engaging the vendors in direct ways or trying to talk to them, and really just expressing through our communication channels and through how we talk about the work, so that people understand where we’re headed and can respond to that.

IICA: Do you have two or three goals or priorities coming into your new role?

Lally: The primary and most principal goal for us going forward is really advancing equity. And not just doing that as a throwaway, or something as a buzzword or jargon, but really looking at our services, looking at the way we approach our work, so that everything is pushed through that lens. It’s not really much of a shift; it’s just emphasizing that that’s really where we want to focus. That’s going to be the thing that really drives us in terms of how we craft the strategy.

Underneath of that, we will continue to basically build on the data strategy that has already been laid out, making sure that we are really looking at access to data through an equity lens — governance to data, and how do we govern that data, and through an equity lens? How do we appropriately use that data? Those are going to continue to be the three goals that we really focus on.

IICA: Does the emergence of data as a driver — and the importance of clean data and the sharing of data in wraparound services — influence the future of governance in California?

Lally: I think there’s a real opportunity for California to innovate in the space of governance. I think that “governance” word can have a lot of different meanings to a lot of people. We want to be really thoughtful there about how we talk about that. Because it’s still important to secure our data, to think about privacy. All the fundamentals are important, and CDT is a strong partner in making sure that we secure our state’s data.

But where we can really start to move things in California is thinking about the end use of data, and how we appropriately use it. What does that mean? What’s the ethics lens? And how do we balance that? One of the things I want to be careful of is that a lot of these things are not checkboxes that you can just put in a form and say, “I did all the things.” There’s a lot of aspects of culture and making sure that we equip people with the means to use the data appropriately. In general, the real energy is around the responsible and ethical use of data. There’s a lot of different ways to go about that.

There’s an opportunity to innovate in that space — and not innovate just for the sake of innovation, but because it is actually very important. I think we have to figure that out, together with other state departments and agencies. It’s not something that ODI will do on its own.

IICA: Part of the data equation is the privacy element. Do you envision working with the California Privacy Protection Agency?

Lally: The Privacy Protection Agency is focused on sort of consumer protections of data, and there’s definitely a linkage. We do have a relationship with the agency. There’s going to be different aspects of what you have to think about in terms of privacy for government use of data versus business use of data. And that, that’s something that we’ll need to balance. … These spaces can blend a little bit: There’s third-party use of data for public-sector purposes. We’ve got to make sure we’re doing that appropriately.

IICA: Any general thoughts or perspectives about AI that you’d like to share?

Lally: Yeah, it goes a little bit to my earlier answer about the fundamentals: It cuts both ways. With the current interest in and around AI, it’s highlighting a lot of the fundamental issues around data quality and making sure we have the right data. My perspective on it is actually that AI is just lifting up more of that need for these fundamental structural things that we should be paying attention to. … As these things start to take off, there’s risks that … people are making decisions based on data that’s not sound. The state of California is definitely very, very aware of those risks. That’s something that we’re very, very mindful of. But out in the world, I think California has an opportunity to be a voice for that balancing act that needs to be done. Ultimately, the fundamentals are the same.


On the personal side, Lally said he’ll remain in San Francisco but will be visiting Sacramento frequently “to have face time and continue building relationships with other state leaders and ODI staff.”

“I’m a voracious consumer of knowledge wherever I can get it, like podcasts, books, blog posts, articles, and other people,” he said. “My interests in learning span a wide range, from spiritual thinkers and teachers to the latest on organizational development to nerdy data things and lots in between. I like to fiddle with new data tools and frameworks and do little side projects to keep my knowledge fresh; I learn a lot by doing. And I enjoy spending time with my partner, who is also named Jason, and our two cats, Ru and Paul.”

Lally earned his Bachelor of Science in information sciences and technology from Penn State University and his master’s degree in city and regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania.

This story first appeared in Industry Insider — California, part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.
Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C.