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The Growing Role of the City-Level Chief Data Officer

Just a few years ago, only a handful of cities had chief data officers. Now that the position is more prevalent, experts take stock of what it takes to build an effective, data-driven local government.

silhouettes of people walking with a cityscape in the background and overlaying data lines
Recently our team at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard joined our colleagues at the Bloomberg Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins to recognize the 10th anniversary of the DATA Act, followed by a convening of city chief data officers (CDOs). These CDOs came together to look at the opportunities and challenges associated with their work, reflect on their history, and consider the future of the profession.

In 2016, we received a call from Tom Schenk, who was then CDO for Chicago. He and six of his counterparts in other cities constituted the entire cohort of local government CDOs at the time, and they thought a working group could help develop the job into a profession and provide the support necessary for cities to use data more fully. That early group, the Civic Analytics Network (CAN), was hosted at Harvard and supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Arnold Foundation (now called Arnold Ventures). We concentrated on issues around open data, managing vendors and consolidating best practices, as well as how to advocate for the newly formed role.

Shortly before that call, I had begun an effort to broaden the use of analytics at the local government level as deputy for New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. We sought to create a data analytics center inside city government, but as a new, untested initiative, the effort was accompanied by discussions around funding, utility and disruption. When Bloomberg Philanthropies supported our early Data-Smart City Solutions program, the goal was to catalyze the use of data and analytics in local government. The start of CAN helped us toward that goal because it served as a foundation to help manage an ever-growing network of local government data leaders.

CAN members gradually expanded their work from open data to discuss-ions and research that revealed the return on investment for a data officer and shepherded in a new era of public-private data sharing. This year’s anniversary meeting was an opportunity to reconsider the job of CDO itself. The early CDOs spent much of their time simply trying to uncover and open up usable data; the core of the profession still revolves around data governance, analytics and strategy. But how has it evolved and where should it be going?

We asked Sari Ladin-Sienne, CDO in Los Angeles until January 2020 and now program director at the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative who specializes in training mayors on the use of data, how she sees the evolution of the job. She noted that even while serving in L.A., the role transitioned from concentrating on internally used data to more attention on external users, such as other governmental units and community members.

The current role of the CDO, she believes, should include encouraging insightful questions around data literacy and ownership. All cities need an advocate whose job it is to create an appetite and infrastructure for data-driven decision-making — for the understanding of data as a strategic asset. And that role has become even more important as generative AI progresses rapidly through massive consumption of data. “Over this last year we have seen more cities running their own AI training programs, building up AI guidelines, and yet still many localities do not have a chief data officer or someone to whom data responsibilities have been clearly assigned,” she said. Without an explicit owner of data who understands the opportunities — and challenges — of AI, cities will have a difficult time safely and effectively taking advantage of it.

Ladin-Sienne also pointed out that such a role entails working with procurement officers, training staff, negotiating data-sharing agreements and acting as a champion for the use of evidence. This cross-cutting work can be neither siloed nor sequestered; the CDO can only be effective inside a larger culture of data-driven government.

Fundamental to this is the most central prerequisite to effective data use: good questions. Visualized data and community engagement should trigger a constant cycle of challenging and imaginative questions. When better and more constant questions are asked of data and as literacy grows, the eventual measurement of CDO success will be their obsolescence driven by the fact that every act of government is founded on a strategy based on data.

This article was co-written by Betsy Gardner, editor of Data-Smart City Solutions. This story originally appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.