Data Strategy Feedback Hits Common Theme of Culture Change

While comments from stakeholders in academia and industry on the Federal Data Strategy hit a wide range of topics, an overriding theme emerged about the need for culture change around the use of data in government.

Speakers at the Data Coalition’s Federal Data Strategy Forum on July 8 shared their opinions on the Federal Data Strategy’s draft Year 1 Action Plan, offering suggestions on what could be added or modified. However, the challenge of changing the culture around data usage in the Federal government emerged as a concern for many speakers.

“Perhaps the largest challenge of implementing big data and analytics in government, just as it has been in industry, is the culture. There were not many callouts [in the strategy] for things to do that were related to that,” said Alan Jacobson, chief data and analytics officer at Alteryx, a data analytics company.

The need to create an improved culture around data also speaks to the challenge of implementing the action plan, given funding and other concerns.

“Kudos to a really well-done job on creating the strategy – it’s excellent. But the hard work now is in the implementation. You can create a strategy, but it’s only as effective as it is implemented,” said Heather Gittings, senior director of global industry solutions for public sector and healthcare at data visualization firm Qlik.

To make that implementation more effective and support a change in culture, speakers presented some policy proposals and suggested additions to the strategy.

“[The strategy] mentions that … action steps are expected to be completed with current agency funding resources. That was an alarm bell for me,” said Michael Anderson, chief Federal strategist at Informatica. “I’m not sure if it’s been considered, but leveraging the Federal Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) to resource some of these actions would seem a reasonable use of that source, and may add to the justification for Congress to fully fund for the [TMF]” he suggested.

Other suggestions targeted those outside the normal realm of data work, with an aim to spread data-driven culture.

“My recommendation is that above a certain GS level, any manager must have training on how to understand data and how to act on it. It could be a wide range [of training] … but we can’t expect managers to make decisions based on data, unless we train them,” said Jane Wiseman, CEO at the Institute for Excellence in Government.

Speed also emerged as a concern on the Federal Data Strategy – both the fear of moving too fast, and slowing down front-runner agencies.

“I was just with the heads of data science for the Departments of Defense, [the General Services Administration], and Health and Human Services, and one of the things I think we all share is the worry that as we implement standards to help agencies that are not as far along, that we don’t add a bureaucratic drag. At the end of the day, I think it’s important to recognize that not all of the agencies are in the same place,” said Jacobson.

Members of the Federal Data Strategy team noted that Federal personnel shared their concerns of an ambitious implementation timeline. However, most speakers at the forum offered their support for an aggressive timeline.

“It’s about damn time we get aggressive on this,” said Charles Rothwell, former director of the National Center for Health Statistics. “It can be done. Let’s get on with it.”

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