The Evidence Act of 2018, which initiated a large push for federal agencies to modernize their data systems, required all agencies to appoint a Chief Data Officer (CDO). The federal CDO role is key to advancing data modernization initiatives and routinely reporting on progress to the Office of Management and Budget. However, in the private sector, the role of the CDO has faced uncertainty – does this set a precedent for the future of the federal CDO?
A survey by Gartner Group showed that private-sector CDOs have an average tenure of fewer than three years. This high turnover rate is attributed to an often-unmet expectation that CDOs will bring transformative change in short amounts of time. Federal data transformation is a lengthy process, with many large agencies that are deeply rooted in their legacy systems. To ensure that federal CDOs don’t meet the same fate as private sector CDOs, the federal government must see that its CDOs are adequately resourced to meet expectations for data modernization.
Since the enactment of the Evidence Act, the role of the federal CDO has developed quickly. In a recent report from the Data Foundation, the number of full-time staff supporting CDO offices has grown, and 75 percent of CDOs reported making significant headway in the Federal Data Strategy 2020 Action Plan. However, 95 percent of respondents identified the same primary challenge – they lacked clarity in how to continually increase staff data skills. Furthermore, in a survey conducted earlier this year by the federal Chief Data Officers Council, over 50 percent of respondents cited personnel issues as the greatest obstacle facing CDOs.
A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the career path for digitally-skilled staff in the federal government is not well defined. The report said that the range of digital services’ positions needed in the federal government wasn’t represented in the Office of Personnel Management’s official occupational categorizations. With many digital positions yet to be formally defined, recruitment efforts are limited. The GAO report also elaborated on challenges in reskilling and upskilling efforts – “Once staff are hired, the opportunities for training, development, and advancement may be limited because of bureaucratic obstacles,” the report stated.
Selecting an internal candidate has been a successful strategy for the federal government. As of 2021, every CDO position was held by a professional that had been in the federal workforce for over five years. However, as the nationwide digital talent shortage persists, agencies must ensure that digital talent is available to sustain current CDO objectives, as well as continually develop a talent pool to draw from for future CDO positions. One thing Congress has pursued is the creation of a direct digital training pipeline into government, following the model of military academies. Leaders have proposed creating a digital skills academy with learning programs focused on AI, cybersecurity, and data science in the federal government, in return for five years of full-time federal service.
As Joe DosSantos, Chief Data Officer at Qlik, said, “In today’s environment, the CDO still has a key role in making sure agencies have superior data management and analytics skills.” In order to meet federal data initiatives, agencies must ensure that CDOs are sufficiently staffed. As the federal government looks to expand its data modernization initiatives, agencies must prioritize plans of action for recruiting, maintaining, and developing long-term staff.