The U.S. Federal Government is mobilizing in a unified effort to undertake one of the largest Federal transformation initiatives in decades. No, we are not talking about the federal infrastructure bill to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges. This is the story of the federal government initiative to transform all Federal agencies to enable data-driven decision making in a fast-paced, changing, and competitive world and national economy. This is a story that you may not read about on the front pages of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal but may be even more consequential and far-reaching in terms of its economic and global competitive impact.
Ted Kaouk is the Chair of the Federal Chief Data Officers (CDO) Council, which was launched in 2020. The Federal CDO Council was established by the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (Public Law No. 115-435) and enacted with strong bipartisan congressional support. Among other things, the Act requires all agencies of the federal government to appoint a Chief Data Officer, and to undertake actions to modernize their data capabilities with the expectation of achieving data—driven decision making across the federal government. According to the December 2020 Federal Data Council Report to Congress and the Office of Management and Budget, “The Federal Chief Data Officer Council’s vision is to lead transformational change that improves the nation’s ability to leverage data as a strategic asset.” The report continues, “By delivering data and analytics solutions to our leaders and field employees, we can have a major impact on how federal agencies more efficiently and effectively serve the public.”
While the formal mandate of the Federal CDO Council may sound daunting, the size, scope, and reach of the federal data initiatives is extensive. As an example, the Federal CDO Council has been helping the government solve challenges related to sharing decision support tools across multiple agencies — on topics ranging from COVID-19 to strengthening and empowering the Federal workforce. The Council was at the forefront of aggregating, organizing, and analyzing data in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, an event which coincided with the council’s inception. This data was used to create dashboards that helped agency leaders make decisions about when and where it was safe for employees to return to serving the public in person. According to Janice DeGarmo, Director of the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions at the State Department, and who was acting CDO at State, led these activities for the Council: “The efforts of the COVID-19 working group led to sharing important data sets and creating data standards on issues such as community transmission that paved the way for risk indicators across the federal government.”
Perhaps the most important Federal data initiative relates to Federal data ethics standards and policies. According to Dan Morgan, CDO at the Department of Transportation, and Vice Chair of the Federal CDO Council, “The CDO council has been entrusted to partner with other government data professionals in developing and stewarding the first Federal Data Ethics Framework – a principles-based approach to guiding decisions around data.” The framework was initially developed in 2020 and is designed to endure as technology evolves and data volumes continue to grow. An emerging initiative is the “zero-trust policy”, that ensures that trusted data is made available to only those who have a need to see it. Morgan comments, “Data Ethics are foundational to maintaining public trust and must be grounded in the democratic values that guide our nation and our society.”
Now in its 3rd full year of existence, the Federal CDO Council comprises roughly 90 Chief Data Officers representing a comprehensive swath of government agencies. CDO chair Kaouk describes the council as a “vibrant learning community” that assists agencies in implementing the Federal data strategy, develop a common roadmap that provides Federal agencies with foundational steps designed to drive change and build capabilities that leverage the power of data and the Federal workforce. To date, nearly a quarter of Federal agencies have developed their own data strategies that align to the Federal-wide framework. One of these agencies is the U.S. Department of Defense, whose data initiatives were written about in a 2021 Forbes article. Agency efforts continue to grow and evolve, as does coordination with state, local, tribal, and territorial government data agencies and initiatives. This growth in the scope of data efforts is evidenced in part by the Data.gov website which currently lists 347,169 public datasets under its administration.
One of the opportunities of the federal data mandate, according to Kaouk, is helping agencies use data to ensure that critical services which benefit the public are increasingly “equitable, efficient, and impactful”. As an example, Kaouk cites work from his time as CDO at the Department of Agriculture (USDA), where he worked to establish enterprise analytics capabilities that integrated data and informed decision making around key issues that impact every American, from stewardship of natural resources to food safety to nutrition to climate – activities he describes as “big, strategic challenges.” After taking on a new role as Chief Data Officer for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in October, Kaouk looks ahead to similar opportunities: “With data on the largest workforce in the country, from recruitment to employment to retirement, we have a vision to become a leader in human capital data analytics and digital solutions that will help position the Federal government as a model employer.”
Within the State Department, under the leadership of CDO Matthew Graviss, the department is employing advanced analytics and data management that enable U.S. diplomats to make data-informed decisions intended to advance U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. Some of the key examples include strengthening cybersecurity and propelling global foreign policy initiatives ranging from China to Ukraine. The Center for Analytics (CfA) within the State Department has been at the forefront of creating data and analytics training. With the help of the CDO Council, they have partnered on data scientist recruitment and recently launched an effort to onboard 50 new data scientists into the State Department. With over 400 applicants in less than 48 hours, Janice deGarmo calls this a “great sign of success in empowering a data-driven culture.”
As CDO for the Office of Personnel Management, it should come as little surprise that Council Chair Kaouk is passionate about the Federal government data initiatives and the opportunities that this work provides for recruiting and improving the Federal government’s data skills. Citing recent government-wide hiring initiatives with the CDO Council, and development of a federal job classification for data scientists, Kaouk points to the strong demand for data professionals in the Federal government, noting, “Data work in government is now cool. Nowhere can contributions have a greater impact, and nowhere can data skills be put to better use.” Kaouk concludes with an impassioned call to action — “We know that our competitive advantage for recruiting data talent into the Federal government resides in the meaningful difference people can make in the lives of others through public service. There has been no better time for data scientists, engineers, analysts, and evangelists to join the Federal team.”