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Government Executive Leadership Needs CDOs

Changing the culture of your government to more effectively use data requires several champions, including a Chief Data Officer (CDO). CDOs lead the work to manage data as a strategic government asset – knowing where information is, how it moves through the organization, and (critically) helping leverage it to achieve goals. They are most effective at this work when they have support from executives because they are an executive themselves (or have direct access to one). However, many CDOs are not as empowered as they should be. It’s challenging to provide exact numbers because of so much variation in the responsibilities and titles that CDO-equivalents have, but I estimate that at least one-third of municipal CDOs report to the Chief Information Officer (CIO), and of those with statewide purview, at least two-thirds do.

It’s easy to understand some of the reasons for a CDO to be part of the Information Technology (IT) organization. Data is seen as a product of information systems, and those are the realm of IT professionals. A CDO role is a growth opportunity, expanding career mobility for database administrators, geographic information systems (GIS) professionals, and other emerging IT leaders. There’s also the question of access: “There’s nobody else who can touch all of [the data] except for us.” says Asheville, NC’s CIO, Jonathan Feldman.

However, it is a false perception that data is a product of IT systems. Data is a product of business units who need it to track and manage work. It existed in file cabinets long before the digital revolution. Modern filing cabinets plug into walls and have bright screens. The records they hold can conveniently be shared with other teams at the click of a mouse and analyzed in seconds instead of weeks.

More importantly, when a CDO reports to a CIO, it means that a government’s strategic asset must compete for attention alongside a whole range of other functions that a typical CIO is responsible for: cybersecurity, cloud, operations & infrastructure, tech procurement, staffing, and so on. According to NASCIO, the work of a CDO is eighth on the list of state CIO priorities.

A clipping of a top ten list showing number 8: Data Management and Analytics, includes data governance, data architecture, strategy, business intelligence, predictive analytics, big data, roles and responsibilities
Data Management and Analytics is 8th on the list of state CIO priorities.

Repeat after me: Chief Data Officers should not report to Chief Information Officers

If a CDO shouldn’t be a part of the technology team, where should they be? It’s quite common for CDOs to be a part of performance, analytics, or innovation teams. In Los Angeles, Sari Ladin-Sienne is part of the Mayor’s Office of Budget & Innovation. In Cincinnati, Brandon Crowley is part of the Office of Performance & Data Analytics. In Louisville, Michael Schnuerle is part of the Office of Performance Improvement & Innovation. These teams are invariably focused on helping leaders reach their visionary goals and measure progress along the way.

If you are going to build a culture of data-informed decision-making in governments, that work starts with executives. Leaders need to represent and model the culture they wish to create in their organizations. Making a CDO part of the executive team sends a clear signal that data is a strategic asset to the organization. It also positions them well to support and influence the priorities of the leadership team through data.

Perhaps the desire for culture change is strongest in Connecticut and Virginia, where both state CDOs are one step away from their respective Governors. Tyler Kleykamp reports to Connecticut’s Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management. Carlos Rivero reports directly to Virginia’s Secretary for Administration.


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