Best Practices for CDO's & Federal Agency Heads to Comply with the Evidence-based Policy Mak

We are living in the "Age of Data". The Fourth Industrial Revolution also known as the digital revolution is unleashing a torrent of data. Most federal agencies are seeing their data volumes rise by 30 to 50% each year. This data has to be secured, managed, and analyzed to gain deep insights - that can be used for managing risk, developing policies, making tactical and strategic decisions, improving customer service and innovating new products. Federal Chief Data Officers (CDO) are the change agents who must involve people throughout their organization to build a data culture for mission success.

Federal Chief Data Officers (CDO) are being placed in the c-suite to mature defensive (Governance, Risk and Compliance) and offensive (Analytics and Insights) capabilities to support their agency's mission. While most federal agencies are making investments in people, process, tooling, and technology related to data management, data governance, and analytics to extract tangible value from their data, our experience indicates that many don't have a credible data strategy to achieve these goals and the skilled resources to execute on the strategy.

To recognize that data is a strategic asset that enables policy making and evidence-based decision making, Congress passed the Foundation for Evidence-based Policy Making Act. It includes the OPEN Data Government Act (Title II) and is focused on strengthening privacy protections, improving secure data access, and enhancing government evidence capacity across federal agencies.

The new regulation mandates that the 24 CFO agencies designate a Chief Data Officer, an "evaluation officer" to lead the agency's learning agenda, and a "statistical official" to advise on statistical policy, techniques, and procedures. In addition to this, the agency head should setup a data governance body by September 30. Agency Heads and CDOs will require some guidance in ensuring that they are setup for success. AlyData launched the CDO Advisory service in 2016 to advise and guide CDOs and their leadership chain, in their data journey.

Best Practices for Agency Heads

The Office and Management and Budget recently published a memo that provides guidance on choosing a CDO which highlights that the Chief Data Officer (CDO) shall have authority and responsibility for, among other things, data governance and lifecycle data management. The CDO should be in a leadership position and regularly engage with other agency leaders, including the head of the agency. It also suggest that the CDO should be a good communicator and strategic thinker with strong business acumen.

The memo also officially establishes an interagency CDO Council, similar to the CIO Council, where agency data leaders will gather and “establish government-wide best practices for the use, protection, dissemination, and generation of data,” among other things. It establishes a corresponding statistical policy council and evaluation officer council as well.

The five areas that Agency Heads should focus on to ensure a CDO's success are -

  1. Skills and Expertise: The CDO is the data evangelist, is business savvy, is a change agent, can communicate effectively, and is someone that can use his or her leadership and relationship skills to influence staff to become data-driven and evidence-based.

  2. Role and Responsibilities: Some organizations prefer to have the CDO focus on the building out the defensive capability to lay down the governance and data management foundation, followed by the offensive - to derive insights from data. The role and responsibilities should be defined accordingly and adjusted over time as the organization's data capabilities mature.

  3. Reporting Line: To be effective, federal CDOs should be peers of the CIOs. The two roles are complementary and hence a strong CDO and CIO relationship is key to success. If the organization decides to take a defensive approach to this role, then the CDOs may report into the head of operations, head of risk, or the agency head. This will give them the ability to influence change and get top cover to execute on the data strategy in support of the mission.

  4. Authority: A title without authority to make decisions and implement change sets the CDO up for failure. Hence, it is important that with the title comes real authority.

  5. Budget: Maturing an organization's data management, governance, and analytics capabilities is a multi-year journey and requires investment in people, process, technology, and tools. The CDO must be given the necessary budget to deliver against the organization's data strategy.

Best Practices For CDOs

CDOs are going to play a critical role within their agencies to enable evidence-based and data-driven policy making and decisions. These executives must focus on assessing their agencies' data management maturity and culture - to inform the data strategy and execution roadmap. There are six areas that they should consider building out over time:

  1. Data Management Maturity Assessment: Most organizations have invested in data management capabilities, so it is beneficial to benchmark their current maturity, identify gaps, and build a roadmap to get to the target maturity level (DMM Knowledge Areas).

  2. Agency Data Strategy: The agency data strategy lays out how data will enable specific mission goals, clarifies how the organization will execute desired data activities, how the organization needs to change to maximize value from the desired data activities, sequence of steps that the organization will follow to move forward and it contains a roadmap with milestones and priorities. It should also account for complying with data-privacy regulations. The DMM assessment is a key input into the agency data strategy.

  3. Data Literacy Plan: To raise data literacy within the agency, a data literacy plan should be drafted. It should provide targeted training and awareness building across the senior leaders, line managers, and operational staff. CDO Executive Leadership training is also available via GMU's CDO Executive Leadership Program.

  4. Change Management Plan: As a change agent, the CDO organization needs a change management plan that articulates the need for change and the steps that will be taken to influence change within the agency.

  5. Communication Strategy: Since data is typically managed in departmental silos, it is important that the CDO has a very effective communication strategy to communicate the data strategy, highlight the value of good data management and governance, and to showcase specific projects that are delivering value to the agency (7 Must Have Items on a CDOs Agenda).

  6. Data Governance Structure and Operating Model: The new law mandates the creation of a data governance body to oversee and manage data assets. CDOs have to define the structure of the governance body, its operating model, the supporting processes, and the operating metrics that will be monitored.


Federal agencies play a critical role as custodians of data related to US citizens and the transactions they conduct. They also influence policy making within the government and deliver services that are critical to the smooth operation of the government. Data plays a central role in the functioning of the government and the new Foundation for Evidence-based Policy Making Act ensures that it is managed and governed as a strategic asset. The law mandates the creation of the Chief Data Officer, "evaluation officer", and "statistical official" roles to drive data management, governance, and analytics maturity and data literacy within the agencies.

The Agency Heads are being asked to designate leaders into these roles, so that their agencies can comply with the new law. The new CDOs will be change agents that will have to use their domain expertise, leadership and communication skills, and relationships to further the data agenda to deliver mission success.

Reference Material:

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