Building Your Federal Data Strategy

So, it’s here! The US Office of Management and Budget published the Federal Data Strategy on June 4, 2019 and simultaneously issued a draft implementation plan for public comment and feedback. That followed the January 14, 2019 OPEN Government Data Act, enacted as part of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policy Making law. Arguably, key portions of the law support execution of the strategy and most importantly provide a basis for resource allocation, especially for budgeting purposes. The law’s mandate to appoint non-political Chief Data Officers (CDO) in each agency and to “… develop and maintain a comprehensive data inventory that accounts for all data assets created by, collected by, under the control or direction of, or maintained by the agency,” directly support components of the strategy. Specifically, formally established CDOs and staff now have the backing to focus on developing and implementing their own data strategy while iteratively discovering where their data lives, sharing that data, standardizing it and cataloging it for internal use and for public consumption.

I applaud and support both the new strategy and law to ultimately leverage data as a strategic asset for the benefit of the American people, academia, research and development, and business. But the endeavor can be daunting.

What now for federal agencies?

The variety of federal agency missions, resourcing and data maturity levels vary greatly and thus each will have a unique perspective on the Federal Data Strategy and how they can leverage it. Regardless of an agency’s start point however, building an agency strategy and implementation plan based on the Federal Data Strategy’s three guiding data principles (i.e., Ethical governance; Conscious Design; Learning Culture) and three best practices (i.e., Building a culture that values data and promotes public use; Governing, managing and protecting data; Promoting efficient and appropriate data use) is imperative.

Most of these principles and strategies will likely be driven initially by new policies, reporting requirements, budget planning, and associated activities. Given the necessary policy staffing and approval processes however, it will take some time to get these in place. A sequential, policy-only approach to the strategy is apt to result in extended timelines hindering rapid progress. And slow progress achieving strategy objectives also means delaying achievement of the complimentary law’s mandates.

Meeting the law’s requirements and getting a head start on a data strategy is best achieved iteratively. For example, while the Federal Data Strategy’s principles of establishing ethical governance and a learning culture are important for success, the principle of conscious design can also satisfy progress on portions of the law at the same time. Conscious design includes ensuring data relevance – protecting the quality and integrity of the data; harnessing existing data – identifying, discovering data needs and accessibility; anticipating future data uses – with an appropriate data framework and built-in interoperability; and finally demonstrating responsiveness – data collection, analysis and dissemination.

Little of this can be accomplished without ‘knowing thyself first!’ Agency’s getting a head-start on achieving situational awareness of their data environment will achieve faster and more efficient progress than those with an exclusive policy-first approach. Organizations achieve data situational awareness by knowing where all their data is created, collected and stored, regardless of source, format or geographic location. Situational awareness is also accomplished by fully understanding the flow of that data, who’s using it, and what it’s being used for. Applying meta-tags to the data – and creating a data catalog for further analysis – is an essential first step to making that data available for the public good, as the Federal Data Strategy calls for. It also meets the law’s data inventory and catalog mandate.

Think Big. Start Small.

Given the amount of data federal agencies create, collect, and store from the plethora of data sources available, developing data situational awareness can be challenging work. I recommend you start by thinking big and starting small.

In government, starting small is crucial to garnering quick wins and gaining support before diving all into any dramatic change. Thus, pilot projects are a CIO and CDO’s best friend when it comes to trying out data strategies and winning support.

1. Don’t try to sell a big, holistic data strategy from the start. While an enterprise-wide data strategy is an important part of the endgame, you can’t start there. It’s too big a task because it’s much harder to get stakeholders to engage with you, especially if you haven’t yet built confidence in your agency’s ability to deliver value through a data strategy.

2. Focus on critical opportunities or risks. Start with the most important mission challenges that can be addressed through more effective use of data. By definition, these will be best aligned with the strategic goals of the agency. But some of these challenges are better starting places than others.

3. Look for quick wins with pilot projects. Nothing gets people on board faster than some quick, clear data strategy wins. It could be as simple as better predicting citizen request volume, reducing IT duplication, improving regulatory compliance or reducing manual data processing time. These are the types of manageable quick wins that are low risk and low cost, get attention and earn support for more investment in data strategies. However, starting small doesn’t mean forgetting your bigger vision. Ideally, you want to find quick wins that move you toward your overarching enterprise data strategy. Consciously use these important early projects as building blocks for your bigger play.

4. Ensure everyone’s focus remains on mission outcomes. Data-driven digital transformation is difficult. You’re asking people to change the way they work and the processes they understand. To make it through, you need to evangelize a clear vision of the end goal. Your stakeholders and teams should understand your long-term roadmap. But that roadmap can’t just be phases of a big, vague project. To succeed, your roadmap needs to be a series of incremental business/mission-value successes, each building on the one before. Lay out your vision as “wins,” not just “steps.”

Federal agencies have a unique opportunity now to establish and advance their data management goals. Acting iteratively to establish agency level strategies and plans, along with achieving the new law’s requirement to ‘know thyself first’ and build data situational awareness through discovery, inventorying and cataloging of your data is within your grasp.

Think big, start small. I close with the following to provide a framework for your journey:

Additional guidance on agency strategy development can be found in Informatica’s publication “Your Federal Data Strategy Playbook, A CIO’s Practical Guide to Implementation.”