The Changing Role of the Government CDO

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Richard Cahan

The title of “Chief Data Officer” – once an uncommon one in state and municipal governments – is becoming less uncommon. And that’s a very good thing for public sector innovation.

As recently as a few years ago, Chief Data Officers were found almost exclusively in big city governments like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Municipal governments provide services that touch citizens’ lives in more intimate ways than states or the federal government, and big cities have a critical mass of data that is attractive to the growing community of users with powerful tools for mapping and analyzing data. So it’s no surprise that cities have led the way in creating new, data-focused positions like CDOs, and in releasing open data to the public.

But increasingly, state governments and small to midsized cities are appointing Chief Data Officers, and creating new positions that focus almost exclusively on data. For example, earlier this year the City of Syracuse (a city of approximately 145,000 in Central New York) appointed it’s very first Chief Data Officer. It’s worth noting that this is not a stand alone position as in some other cities. The CDO position in Syracuse was deliberately made part of the city’s internal innovation team (which is funded through the Bloomberg Philanthropies iTeam program) and plays an integral part in the city’s efforts to use data internally to provide services more efficiently.

In many ways, the newest cohort of Chief Data Officers being appointed in states and smaller cities highlights an important change in priorities for the CDO position, and for how governments view data as a part of their innovation efforts.

The open data movement – coordinated efforts to advocate for the release of data by governments in “open” formats – is an outgrowth of many earlier good government initiatives. The focus on transparency that was the hallmark of these early open data efforts largely informed the first cohort of Chief Data Officers in big cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. The first order of business for these newly appointed CDOs was the creation of public-facing web portals that would allow external users to find and access government data. And while transparency remains a top priority of the open data movement, and building and expanding open data portals is still an important part a CDO’s work, the role of Chief Data Officer has started to evolve.

Increasingly, the focus of Chief Data Officers is on the internal use of data for more efficient resource allocation and improved operations. In other words, Chief Data Officers – once focused almost exclusively on making governments better producers of data – are increasingly focused on making governments better consumers of data.

To some extent, this change in focus is born out of necessity. Governments at every level are under pressure to provide better service with limited resources. Data is a key element to streamlining operations and allocating scarce resources more efficiently, and the tools and expertise for using data are becoming more attainable, even for smaller governments. But the more recent imperative for CDOs to enhance government operations using data and the original focus on government transparency are not mutually exclusive. In fact, these two areas of focus can complement each other, and help drive (and sustain) government innovation into the future.

Here’s how.

Bureaucratic or organizational barriers often prevent the free flow of information inside government – it’s not uncommon for one department to have difficulty obtaining data or information from another. Open data portals make data more discoverable – they obviate the need for special relationships, access or political clout to obtain data. Anyone and everyone can see what data is available for use (including other government agencies), so fewer resources are spent hunting around for data and connecting with data owners.

When governments release data openly there are a number of very healthy incentives created by external data users. These users expect data to be complete, well documented and regularly updated – when this does not happen governments typically get quick feedback from unhappy users. Data that is regularly updated, well documented and otherwise easier to use has more value for every potential data user – including governments themselves.

So while the role of government Chief Data Officers is evolving, the traditional focus on transparency and sharing data with external users is still critical for governments to achieve their innovation goals.

A commitment to openness makes governments better producers of data, and better consumers of data.

[Note – this post first also appeared on Bloomberg Government blog]

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