Leadership

Why OMB gave agencies freedom on chief data officers

When federal agencies were told by the Office of Management and Budget in July to name a chief data officer, some named an official to serve exclusively as CDO, while others named an official also serving in another role, like a chief information officer.

OMB has taken a hands-off approach to the issue, allowing agencies autonomy in naming a CDO as it sees fit.

“I .... think that the reason that we let agencies make their decision there, too, is that — based on the mission of the agency — there’s a different volume of work effort," said Federal CIO Suzette Kent in a media roundtable Jan. 31. “They’re at very different places and points of maturity.”

Meanwhile, several people in industry have said that the CDO needs to be singularly focused on the data work.

“Generally speaking, the roles that are envisioned for the chief data officer and chief information officer are distinctly different," said Nick Hart, CEO of the Data Coalition, in an interview. "They are both incredibly high priorities that if done well, probably require separate people to fulfill those priorities.”

In a media roundtable before the CDO council’s kick-off meeting at the end of January, Kent and OMB Deputy Director for Management Margaret Weichert both said that they didn’t take any issue with how agencies approached the CDO role.

Part of the reason agencies were allowed to name the CDO as they pleased was because of how the law was written, Kent said. The role of the CDO stems from the “Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018,” which is supposed to push agencies to use the data it collects for policymaking. That legislation designates 14 functions for the CDO, which Kent cited as part of the reason that OMB left it up to agencies: because some CIOs, or other agency officials, were already doing the work of a CDO.

That’s essentially what happened at the Department of Justice, where CIO Joe Klimavicz is also the CDO. As CIO, Klimavicz has worked on an internal data strategy and created an internal data governance board at the Justice Dept.

“Where we are with our focus on the basics of information and data management, and these topics are in my core focus areas as CIO,” he told Federal News Network in September.

As part of their work on the CDO council, CDOs will work with other department CDOs to develop best practices for data security and use. The agency’s CDO is “the person that we’re looking to for some of the governance activities and is the point person,” Kent said.

“Their responsibility is to represent what’s going on at the agency — it is not necessarily to do all the things that are going on at the agency,” Kent said.

Other CIOs, like the National Science Foundation’s Dorothy Aronson and Health and Human Services’ Jose Arrieta, have said that the two roles should be separate. Like Klimavicz, Aronson was already doing a lot of data-related work in her role as CIO. But NSF also added her because NSF didn’t have the resources to bring on another C-suite employee, she told Federal Times in October.

Weichert and Kent both said that a dual-hatted CDO brought a helpful “diversity of perspective,” while also maintaining the high-level overview of the agency.

“The more diversity we actually have and the more people [that] have day jobs, I actually think we’re going to a get a better representation of use cases to inform our strategy,” Weichert said. “Being a CDO, to me, is largely about a governance role, not an operational role.”

The federal data strategy is a decade-long project for the federal government, with new action plans coming out annually. Part of that project will include evaluating where the CDOs fit within the organization to be most effective, specifically who the CDO reports to and what office the position is under, said Michael Anderson, chief federal strategist at Informatica.

That’s a process that top OMB officials recognize will happen.

“It will be an evolution,” Kent told reporters.

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