Federal and state government chief data officers (CDO) discussed agency strategies and best practices for data governance at a FedInsider digital roundtable event on June 9 against the backdrop of Federal Chief Data Officer Council efforts to establish government-wide best practices for the management, use, protection, and generation of data.

Building a Data Governance Strategy

Data governance is a critically important topic. As the government continues to organize and use its data to drive new efficiencies and advanced technologies for the government, it will become even more critical.

In December 2020, the Department of Education published its first data governance strategy with the mindset that effectively leveraging data informs decisions in service of the nation’s learners, be it for daily agency operations or national policymaking. According to Greg Fortelny, CDO at the Department of Education, the agency aims to realize the full potential of data to improve education outcomes and lead the nation in a new era of evidence-based policy insights and data-driven operations.

The Education Department’s data strategy goals are highly interdependent, he said, with cross-cutting objectives requiring a highly collaborative effort across its principal offices. It calls for strengthening data governance to administer the data it uses for operations, answering essential questions, and meeting legal requirements.

“There’s a lot of foundational details around capital planning and governance models that we’re trying to make progress on in addition to some smaller, quicker wins to help staff improve their data skills background,” said Fortelny.  

Data Governance in Policy and Decision Making 

 Proper governance practices offer many benefits, including increased awareness of data holdings, improved organizational efficiency and productivity, more citizen-centered services, and better-informed decision-making and evidence-based policymaking resulting in actionable intelligence.

In January 2020, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed Executive Order 48, establishing a data governance framework that makes Virginia a leader in data-driven policy, evidence-based decision-making, and outcome-based performance management.

“For us, data governance is just getting the right people to have the right conversations at the right time and make the right decisions,” said Carlos Rivero, CDO of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The primary goal of the framework is to help the commonwealth be more responsive and make better, evidence-based decisions grounded in the data it collects and manages, he explained. The data governance framework includes the Virginia Data Commission, Executive Data Board, and a Data Governance Council.

“Within the Commonwealth of Virginia, we have a multi-tiered data governance framework which allows data stewards to voice their concerns and then get together and discuss some of the issues that they’re having at that level,” said Rivero.

Virginia’s Data Governance Council consists of data owners and program managers across multiple agencies involved in governing who gets access to data assets and how to improve its quality, as well as building out proposed policies and recommendations of best practices that can move data strategies forward. They also have the executive data board, which consists of agency executives or their designees to speak to adopting those policies and best practices.

“While those data owners can make recommendations about what we should do, it is really up to each executive branch agency head to determine how much they are going to do. Facilitating that engagement, conversation, and negotiation with different executives allows us to determine where policies and best practice may or may not be beneficial and implementable for a particular agency,” said Rivero.

Data Infrastructure

While the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is not an active participant in the CDO Council, GAO Chief Data Scientist Taka Ariga said the organization stands in the CDO Council 2.0 domain. When many agencies were establishing their CDOs, there was a lot of emphasis on cataloging data assets and making those state assets available. But there’s a lot more focus on answering the questions of the quality and completeness of that information, and relative to that is data as infrastructure.

“Treating data as another form of infrastructure means the data transfer process is seamlessly secure and transparent. And with the advanced technology of today, that certainly is technologically feasible,” said Ariga.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk State and Local Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.