The federal government is embarking on a journey to harness the power of data. To do so, the Office of Management and Budget in summer 2019 released what it calls the “Federal Data Strategy,” a campaign with the potential to transform how the government operates.

Success rides, however, on employees going along with it.

The Federal Data Strategy originally stems from the Trump administration’s President’s Management Agenda — a document that lays out modernization steps the government needs to take. The data strategy hopes to do four things: set priorities for enterprise data governance; make data easier to access; improve the use of data in the federal government’s decision making and accountability; and increase use of federal government data by external stakeholders.

“It’s the first meaningful attempt by the government to bridge together a lot of the classic problems that have limited our ability to use data meaningfully, to learn about and hopefully improve how government policies and programs are actually implemented,” said Nick Hart, CEO of the Data Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for government data.

But the federal data strategy, released in June, could also change the way federal employees do their work, increasing the amount of data that employees work with, using emerging technologies to increase job efficiencies or reduce repetitive tasks and freeing employees to work on higher-level problems.

According to Jane Wiseman, CEO of the Institute for Excellence in Government and an expert in government data: “This is really a golden age of opportunity.”

And the United States is not the first nation to embark on a governmentwide approach to data. Countries such as Estonia have had data-centric programs for years and provide lessons in how to effectively change the way that government operates in a data-centered world. Still, some U.S. federal agencies are ahead of the curve on the utilizing their data. How will agency practices change?

How will agency practices change?

The federal data strategy looks to use data as a “strategic asset” in decision-making. And to achieve that status, new positions are being created in federal government to govern data.

One of the initial steps in fulfilling that goal is detailed in new guidance from OMB, instructing agencies on how to implement the Evidence Act, a law governing government data. According to that law, all agencies were to have chief data officers in place as of mid-July.

But some agencies have been harnessing their data for a while and have had CDOs in place well before the mandate.

Teresa Smith is the first CDO of the Defense Logistics Agency, a position created in 2016. The DLA — which provides logistical and acquisition support for multiple Pentagon entities, as well as other federal agencies — collects data on how the agency buys, plans for, stores and transports items. The role of CDO has been critical for the agency’s initiatives.

“It has been important to have someone truly focused ... on how we as an agency need to have a strategic approach to managing our data as an enterprise asset,” Smith said.

Lessons come too from success stories to be found beyond U.S. borders. Estonia, for example, has been a global leader in digital transformation and harnessing of data. The government started its e-governance program in 1997, and now it provides access to 99 percent of public services online. According to the e-Estonia website, the e-governance program has saved the Estonian government 1,407 years of working time annually. For example, since 2000, Estonia has had an electronic tax filing system. Now, 95 percent of tax filings are filed electronically. Tobias Koch, business engagement manager at e-Estonia Briefing Centre, credited Estonia’s success with “determination” from leadership.

“The whole idea to implement so fast was, first of all, was born out of necessity,” said Koch. “Procedures needed to be created and we needed to implement them fast because we needed to make this work. In the long-run this will make us faster and will actually allow us to administer efficiency.”

The federal data strategy, released in June, could change how federal employees do their work, increasing the data that employees work with, using emerging technologies to increase job efficiencies or reduce repetitive tasks and freeing employees to work on higher-level problems. (Laurence Dutton/Getty Images)
The federal data strategy, released in June, could change how federal employees do their work, increasing the data that employees work with, using emerging technologies to increase job efficiencies or reduce repetitive tasks and freeing employees to work on higher-level problems. (Laurence Dutton/Getty Images)

Experts in the industry have said that more open data and better use of that data will allow agencies to change the way they approach their work, helping to move beyond a compliance and process mindset to one focused on outcomes.

The Small Business Administration, which essentially doles out loans and certifications for a myriad of small businesses, started a data community practice 18 months ago where employees who work with data meet and find commonalities in data they collect. It can be as simple as identifying overlap in names of businesses and addresses, said Maria Roat, CIO of the SBA.

“Where data has been very siloed across program offices, we’re trying to open up that aperture ... so that people can look across the agency and use data and access it from different parts of the organization,” Roat said.

The data strategy includes several standards for changing data use in federal agencies, such as governance through data councils and facilitating interagency data sharing. Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for The Business of Government, pointed to opportunities for agencies that collect similar data to standardize how they interact with data users.

“For example, Education and Labor and HHS and the VA all have education programs, and they could have agencies work on a data strategy by mission area. Or you can do something around natural resources with the EPA, or the Department of Interior, or Agriculture,” Chenok said.

Mona Siddiqui, the CDO at the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement that harnessing the agency’s data has “produced significant gains in operational efficiency and effectiveness already.”

“Decisionmakers across HHS are using tools and analyses created by data scientists and analysts to uncover new insights and access information that is more up to date, accurate and complete,” she said.

How will the day-to-day change?

In terms of how the data strategy will change federal employees’ day-to-day jobs, Wiseman said that it depends on the level of government in which employees work. At the leadership level, “it should make big change.” Similarly, mid-level managers’ jobs will shift, as well. But for employees that directly work with agency customers, their jobs won’t change drastically. In fact, their jobs should become easier with increased use of data.

“Data analytics might optimize the process by which I do my work, but I don’t have to be the one that runs the algorithm. I can just be told, ‘Oh, this is a better way for us to do the process based on this algorithm,’” she said. “So, there are a lot of jobs where the worker doesn’t have to be able to analyze data, but their work can be made easier through data.”

Park rangers, she noted, are an excellent example of how jobs could change.

“Would I need to know how to do big data analytics to be a park ranger? No,” she said. “But if I’m the head of the National Park Service, I should be able to use data analytics to optimally deploy my resources.”

Data about how often people show up at ranger talks can determine staffing, for example.

“But the ranger doesn’t have to be the one making that decision,” Wiseman said. “The manager in charge [does].”

“My implementation fear is that people will think, ‘Oh, this data thing, it’s just a fad. I’ll pay it lip service and if I wait long enough, it will go away.’” Jane Wiseman, CEO, Institute for Excellence in Government

Action three and action nine of the Federal Data Strategy’s draft one-year action plan call for development of government’s use of artificial intelligence. At the DLA, use of emerging technologies has allowed employees to better their use of data — to derive new insights, said Smith.

And the SBA has had a similar experience.

“We’re putting the tools in the hands of the users,” Roat said. “We’re teaching them how to fish.”

Emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, also have the potential to remove tedious, time-intensive analysis. AI, specifically, will allow employees to search databases less and do critical thinking more.

“Agencies can spend more time delivering services to constituents and less time figuring out who’s on the first part of a question,” Chenok said.

Returning to Estonia, the country stands again as an example of success, having deployed both AI and automation to increase its government’s efficiency. Koch said that technology can be a “liberation from rather dull, repetitive tasks.”

At HHS, staff use AI to optimize pairing of grant applicants with potential funding opportunities and identify experts in the scientific and professional communities, according to Siddiqui.

The challenges

The Estonians provide briefings to groups of foreigners, both in the private and public sector, about their digital transformation. And Estonia is a small country, so Koch said that it recognizes that the Estonian model isn’t a one-size-fits-all; however, it is scalable.

There needs to be a mandate or the will in the administration itself through an understanding that efforts can actually make lives easier, Koch said.

Emerging technology has helped improve government functions, but it hasn’t necessarily made jobs easier at DLA.

“It’s given us more insights and more capabilities, but a lot of these tools and advanced capabilities come with additional skillsets that we need to hone. So, I would be hesitant to say that it would make everybody’s job easier,” Smith said.

The draft data strategy action plan calls for agencies to identify critical data skills required to support high-quality analysis and evaluation, data management and privacy protection, while also emphasizing a workforce with adequate knowledge of data security practices and data skills.

But that can be easier said than done.

“Getting everyone across the organization comfortable using the data, is a critical piece of a successfully data strategy,” said Heather Gittings, senior director of public sector and health care at Qlik, a data visualization company.

At a forum on the data strategy last month, several industry leaders stressed the importance of training employees and culture change, and changing the culture in agencies in particular could be a significant challenge.

“Someone who’s in for 25 years, they’ve seen these things come and go,” Wiseman said. “And they just wait you out. So my implementation fear is that people will think, ‘Oh, this data thing, it’s just some fad. I’ll pay it lip service and if I wait long enough, it will go away.’”

So, what then is the best way to convince people that data can improve their jobs? Show them how it does, several people interviewed for this story said. You can walk around telling people data is good all day long, Wiseman said, ”but when you can show them real results … that is, I think, how you convince people.”

And “motivated leadership” will be a vital aspect of successfully overcoming the culture, Smith said, adding that the DLA is very fortunate that it has buy-in from its leadership on the importance of data.

“CDOs have a really central role to play in articulating the value proposition of what they’re trying to do — not just to federal employees, but also more broadly to the American public,” Hart said. “To the extent that we’re able to demonstrate the actual value of data and the benefit of better using data, the more likely we are to sustain the culture over time.”

This was one challenge that NYU professor Julia Lane said she ran into when she worked on the United Kingdom’s Administrative Data Research Network, which was an effort by the UK government to make administrative data more accessible for researchers working to tackle societal issues.

“It’s most important to have an engagement strategy,” Lane said. “Get agencies to figure out what the value is to being involved in an activity like this.

Another challenge that could hamper implementation of the data strategy will be agencies receiving proper resources for their work. The Evidence Act, which mandated numerous actions agencies must take regarding data, provided statutes built upon by the Federal Data Strategy. The bill was an authorization bill and did not provide any federal monies.

And the Trump administration hasn’t shied away from proposing stringent budget cuts, either. In the 2020 budget proposal, the administration wanted to cut budgets of 10 Cabinet agencies by over 10 percent, according to analysis from the Washington Post.

“Over the next year, without a doubt, some agencies are going to need additional financial resources to support the staff to get the work done,” Hart said.

During the next budget cycle, Hart said, there needs to be a “meaningful conversation” with Congress and the administration about making those resources available. To mitigate what Hart called “the greatest risk” to the whole plan, he said agency leaders need to be frank with OMB about the money they need, Congress needs to ask agencies what they need, and industry needs to recognize the gaps.

“If in year one, we don’t adequately support agencies with the resources to implement the guidance from OMB, the data strategy or the Evidence Act, changing the culture and ensuring that we’re meaningfully getting people to collaborate about the topic of data may not actually happen,” Hart said.

“This is going to take weeks, months, years to fully implement, but we have to start making improvements now.”