Avoiding the Toothless Tiger Syndrome with the Federal Data Strategy

While engaging with multiple US Government agencies at our recent Informatica World Tour in Washington, DC, two things were made abundantly clear; data leaders have come a long way in beginning to leverage data as a strategic asset, but many also have a long way to go and face several strategic barriers which I’ll discuss.

Federal Data Strategy Progress

As mentioned in my previous blog, leveraging data as a strategic asset is a key tenant of the current Administration’s Presidential Management Agenda and that vision is further articulated in the June, 2019    Federal Data Strategy which is reinforced by the 2019 OPEN Government Data Act, enacted as part of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policy Making law.  Further, the Office of Management and Budget reportedly will release the strategy’s Action Plan in November 2019 to drive individual and cross-agency activities with established milestones and metrics.  In response to the law’s requirement to appoint non-political Chief Data Officers (CDO) by July 13th, almost all agencies now have a CDO as of this writing.

Many agencies also have positive stories to tell with regards to their enterprise data management efforts.  While most of these had established CDOs and standing data programs pre-dating 2019, they serve as models to those less mature agencies just getting started.  Agencies such as Health and Human Services, the Small Business Administration, the Defense Logistics Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the US Air Force are a sample of organizations demonstrating mission and business value through strong data practices.

Avoid Becoming a Toothless Tiger

Progress is good.  But there’s a danger of the mandates and strategy of becoming a ‘toothless tiger’ if the momentum is not maintained by addressing several strategic barriers to achieving long-term success.  These critical issues include CDO budgets, their roles, responsibilities and authorities, and agency senior leader support and buy-in of the intent of the law, strategy and action plan.

  1. CDO Budgets:  Neither the law, strategy or action plan provide agencies additional funding for CDOs, their staff or for their projects to demonstrate value.  Thus, resolving this will require immediate agency gap analyses to develop budget requirements for submission in the next available cycle.  Delays of several years will adversely impact the momentum created in 2019 and could even result in failure to launch at all.  Agencies must start the planning and budget submissions now, while in the interim doing what they can with discretionary funds to begin leveraging data for greater internal effectiveness and efficiency while also making the data available to the public in machine-readable format, per the law.  Agencies should also consider utilizing the Congressionally funded Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) as a source of interim resourcing.  The TMF was authorized by the 2017 Modernizing Government Technology Act and provides agencies additional ways to deliver services to the American taxpayer more quickly and efficiently outside of the annual budgeting process.
  2. CDO roles, responsibilities and authorities: While no two agencies are the same, a basic tenant of being able to get things done is an individual’s propinquity to the top leadership.  CDOs buried in the bureaucracy and without direct reporting status to the highest levels of executive management will undoubtedly struggle with both enacting data policies and executing plans to initiate change.  Success with creating data-based agencies and developing data cultures must have empowered CDOs with the requisite authority and responsibility to bridge the gap between the IT and mission/business communities and to serve as an organizational change manager.
  3. Senior Leader Support: Regardless of where a CDO sits in an organizational hierarchy, an early task must be to ensure they have support at the very highest level. Tying data management efforts to mission strategy and the executive’s priorities – and showing how data outcomes positively impact those priorities – will jump start an organization’s data culture and put the CDO in the driver’s seat to get things done.

In a perfect world, the agency CDO will have an environment described above – budget, authority and senior leader support.  Since perfect worlds are a rarity however, what can the CDO do under their current situation to make progress on implementing the Federal Data Strategy and meeting the OPEN Government Data Act – and avoid becoming a toothless tiger? Doing nothing or waiting to be given appropriate resources is not conducive to getting things done.  As Theodore Roosevelt once famously said: “Do what you can with what you’ve got, where you are.”  So, what can the CDO do?

CDO Quick Start Best Practice  – Gap analysis

In my last blog I advised to ‘Think Big. Start Small,’ once your agency data strategy is in place.  In other words, have a long-term vision for a data driven organization but start small to garner quick wins and gain support before diving into any dramatic change. Pilot projects can be a CIO and CDO’s best friend when it comes to trying out data strategies and winning stakeholder support.

Once you’ve outlined your initial data projects, you need to determine whether you have the information and skills needed to answer those key questions and to solve those business-critical problems. You need to do some gap analysis work. This is where you compare actual performance with potential or desired performance for your agency.  I leave you until the next blog with the following to consider and to avoid becoming the toothless tiger:

Data Access gaps: How accessible is your mission-critical data? How ready to use is it? How can you improve the availability and fitness of your data-not just for this project but for all projects? Is there data outside the agency that might help drive better decisions?
Data quality, data governance and data privacy gaps: How consistently trustworthy and protected is your data for the intended business objectives? How is it governed? Who are the stewards and data owners? How do they administer data stores? How can you improve the data quality for all users and applications? Do you know where your sensitive information resides?
Skills gap: Are analytical skills and capabilities in the right places? How will you generate and use insights? Are data stewards up to speed on best practices for data management and governance? Are data generators aware of data policies and processes?

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.”