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The Job of Data: The Chiefs in Charge of Data in the C Suite

Here’s a look at all the ambassadors for the new culture of evidence-based decision-making.

Monitoring snowplows in real time to keep residents moving, streamlining park maintenance and working to improve highway safety are all ways state and local agencies leverage data to generate results for taxpayers.

But each agency has a slightly different approach to data, based on its organization and where it is on the journey from warehousing, an early collection step, to visualization and analysis.

Similarly, officials at different agencies who interact with data may hold the same title but have varying responsibilities; and as agencies’ data operations mature from collecting to analyzing, those same officials may see their positions and duties evolve to meet new demands.

Three positions in government tend to work most closely with data.

The chief data officer (CDO) is the gatekeeper for big data — managing it, keeping it secure, assessing it for privacy risks, but also overseeing raw data creation, collection and analysis.

Chief Data Officers

For information on which state and local governments have a chief data officer, check out our interactive map.

Gartner predicted in January 2014 that by 2015, 25 percent of large global organizations would appoint CDOs. In that time period, nearly a half-dozen federal agencies did so. The upward trajectory was noted by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, which proclaimed 2015 the Year of the CDO.

The chief performance officer (CPO) focuses less on data for data’s sake. The CPO is charged with analyzing business practices to determine how an organization is performing, and data is increasingly the shiniest tool to use.

CPOs, like some CDOs, may not be completely hands-on. They may take something of a consultant or advisory role, letting agency departments actually crunch the numbers and create the data streams, then stepping in to help them understand what the results mean. But don’t let that fool you.

Since the CPO role began to be distinguished from that of a CFO more than 15 years ago and the fed minted its first CPO in 2009 in the Office of Management and Budget, the position has become increasingly high profile.

The chief accountability officer (CAO) is a position more common to education, but not unknown to municipal, county and state agencies.

Direction from the Top

Officials in El Paso, Texas, recognize data’s worth.

“Data drives my decisions. Trust God. Everybody else has to bring data,” City Manager Tomas “Tommy” Gonzalez told newspaper El Paso Inc., shortly after being hired in summer 2014.

That December, he brought in Nancy Bartlett, with whom he’d worked in Irving, Texas, where she was managing director; and in February 2015, Gonzalez announced a restructuring of city government that eliminated several positions including two deputy city managers.

As El Paso’s CPO, Bartlett reports directly to Gonzalez. The police, fire, IT and human resources departments as well as the offices of performance, and management and budget report to her.

Since her arrival, El Paso has improved parks special events permitting times, which originally required an average of 14 staff-customer contacts and three weeks. El Paso first cut the process to one staff contact that typically took around five minutes before migrating it completely online.

In another series of cuts, El Paso saved more than $500,000 a year by eliminating unused city landlines.

Bartlett agreed that depending on size, not every city may need a CPO, but she said every city needs to keep its structure and practices current.

“Every organization can improve. Every organization has redundancies and every organization has people who say, ‘We’ve done it that way the past 30 years, I don’t know why we can’t keep doing that,’” Bartlett said. “Every organization needs people who can pay attention to that, somebody who can stay on top of it at that level.”

In academics, however, as officials at the Texas Education Agency (TEA) point out, titles can differ. At TEA, its CAO is the deputy commissioner of academics and its CDO is the deputy commissioner of technology.

In education, the CAO is charged with deploying data-driven decision-making to improve student and school district performance. In practice, this means gauging how pupils and employees are doing using various metrics including, yes, student testing.

At TEA, the CAO leads student assessment activities, ensures districts and charter schools comply with state and federal accountability requirements, and analyzes and interprets data to help districts develop strategic plans.

Agencies have tended to create positions to handle data as they are needed, endowing each with duties that reflect their current missions and sometimes a sense of how the roles may evolve.

Gartner Research Director Alan Duncan said he rarely encounters the CAO role, and sees the CDO position as by far the most ascendant of the three as agencies move into data and analytics. Duncan sees CDOs as ambassadors for the new culture of evidence-based decision-making, and he noted that only 9 percent of CDOs across the industry come from traditional IT backgrounds.

Gartner is projecting growth of 1,600 percent in CDOs across all industry sectors over the next two years — not just government agencies — and expects by 2019 that 90 percent of large organizations will have one.

On the Rise

Tom Schenk, chief data officer of Chicago, characterized his work as largely traditional IT, building and managing databases and managing data itself from birth to visualization. While Chicago is ahead of many cities when it comes to data, city leadership is increasingly aware of what’s possible.

“As other cities are doing more interesting things … more mayors are starting to ask, ‘Why are we not engaging with data-driven decision-making?’” Schenk said. And data’s rise on the municipal level means mayors with CDOs in place are increasingly empowering them with a broader sense of responsibility.

The Seattle Story

In the northwest, Jim Loter, Seattle’s director of digital engagement, reports to the city’s chief technology officer, Michael Mattmiller. Loter’s office oversees Seattle’s open data and website teams, city digital communications, and civic technology like the recent Let It Snow hackathon aimed at improving communications during weather emergencies.

He said having a director of digital engagement shows Seattle is serious about engaging the public on things that elsewhere might be considered infrastructure or behind the scenes — and he cautioned against equating his work to that of a CDO, though some of his duties overlap with that role’s. An appropriate term for the work his office does is “advocate,” Loter said.

“I think we recognize people want to connect with the government in different ways and in ways that we perhaps haven’t been completely supportive of,” Loter said. “I think part of the evolution of my job over the next few years is going to be realigning the city’s traditional forms of communication around the tools and the platforms the public is actually using and to provide their feedback.”


Elsewhere, Schenk said size can be a key factor in shaping a jurisdiction’s approach to data-driven government.

“It seems most of the time that mid- and smaller-sized cities focus on a CPO as opposed to a CDO. The CPO is focused on outcomes, whereas a small or midsize city does not have as many data sets,” he said.

By contrast, the CAO role can sometimes have a warning flag built right into its title. “Sometimes chief accountability officers and chief data officers have to battle with the notion that ‘I’m here to judge you,’ versus ‘I’m here to help,’” Schenk said.

Mark Greninger, Los Angeles County’s CDO, was hired in mid-2016 and is the agency’s second CDO since it created the position about three years ago. He reports to the county’s CIO, whose post has been realigned to be part of the chief executive office. Greninger is charged with managing open data streams, cross-departmental data sharing and compiling countywide statistics, as well as leveraging the information to support data-driven decision-making.

“The goal is to change outcomes rather than to affect programs,” he said. Data-wise, L.A. County is moving toward predictive analytics and would ultimately like to embrace prescriptive analytics as well, but this is likely a few years away.

“First, you have to be able to predict things. The first thing that we’re trying to do is link our systems together,” Greninger said, pointing out that privacy and security are key concerns at the outset.

Ultimately he’d like county data to paint a fuller picture of why the agency operates the way it does. “Right now, an expenditures portal just tells you what we spend money on but not what why we do,” he said.


In San Diego, Maksim Pecherskiy is the city’s first CDO, hired shortly before the city’s open data policy was enacted in December 2014. He reports to the city’s director of performance and analytics, which is a couple of reporting degrees removed from the mayor. The open data policy, Pecherskiy said, expressed the mayor and City Council’s desire to push the values of transparency and innovation.

So far, San Diego has hit all the policy’s timelines, but by December 2019 the city will be expected to make open all data that is considered releasable.

Pecherskiy’s colleagues in San Diego’s Performance and Analytics Department include a data expert and a data scientist. Others in his department are focused on performance and the implementation of programs like Lean Six Sigma.

“Our one-line motto is ‘to help people get and use data.’ And so, a lot of data we have is complex and it needs to be described well enough to somebody who’s not going to open up a Python notebook and write a bunch of code,” he said.

Eye on Performance

Leigh Tami is Cincinnati’s CPO. She joined the city in April 2015 as a data analyst and in July 2016 became its second-ever CPO. The city’s CDO reports to and works closely with her, and she reports to City Manager Harry Black.

Tami sees data as a means to an end, and she thinks its significance will only grow.

“What I tell departments all the time is that the world is changing and really the only thing we know is, big data isn’t going anywhere, that IT isn’t going anywhere,” said Tami, originally a lawyer by trade.

Like Nancy Bartlett, CPO for El Paso, Texas, Tami is focused on performance — working with Black to write data-based performance agreements with department heads — but also on making sure residents know how their city is doing.

Cincinnati, which has been warehousing data in earnest for more than six months, went live in December with CincyInsights, a new portal that reimagines 15 key data streams into visual dashboards. One tracks snowplows, another plots trash pickups every 10 minutes, while a heat map shows emergency medical responses citywide.

By late 2017, Tami said she wants the city to be fairly immersed in predictive analytics and widening its grasp of data. “I’m really interested in looking at traffic data,” she said. “I think the conversation in all cities is becoming around transportation and traffic and what the future of transportation and infrastructure is.”


Leigh Tami
In Vermont, Susan Zeller is the state’s first CPO, a position she’s held for three years. She reports to the secretary of administration, whom she described as the governor’s right hand. Zeller trains employees on producing data to inform the budgeting process, as well as the annual report, but her primary responsibility is performance-based budgeting.

“You can’t improve what you can’t measure, and you can’t measure if you don’t have any data,” Zeller said.

Zeller and Casey Cleary, a state enterprise architect in its Chief Technology Office, said the state is somewhat hamstrung by its size — a population comparable to the city of Boston — and has a long way to go to be considered a complete data user or pioneer.

Vermont has a strategic plan that will likely be redone by the new administration, and is working on a statewide data governance program. It has also rolled out two data governance programs.

But a statewide data portal remains in the testing phase, and Zeller said she and Cleary still find resistance to releasing data from state departments unconvinced of its value and worried about a breach.

“I’m so tired of asking for data and getting a PDF that I can’t do anything with. We’re so afraid that we’ll let something out that shouldn’t get out that we let nothing out,” Zeller said. “It’s not bleeding edge, it’s not even leading edge. We’re behind the leading edge; we’re in the middle of the pack. If we’re going to stay in the pack, we need to keep moving forward.”

“It’s a struggle, to say the least,” said Cleary, who described much of his work as marketing, education and outreach, informing state staffers of the value of information management.

“It’s starting to form. We’re getting there. Now it’s the molding and the governance. How does information get uploaded, what format should it be in, how can it get shared?” he added. “Right now, we’re ironing out those details from a statewide strategic level to say, ‘This is how Vermont as a state handles its data.’” 

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.