Lessons from Leading CDOs

By Jane Wiseman • January 25, 2017

This paper is part of the Civic Analytics Network initiative at Harvard's Ash Center. To download this paper as a PDF, please click here.

Executive Summary

A Chief Data Officer (CDO) can lead a city or state toward greater data-driven government. Leveraging data enables more responsive and rational allocation of government resources to address priority public needs. Data-driven executive leadership in government is relatively new, with just over a dozen cities and a handful of states having named a CDO as of late 2016. There is growing momentum and increasingly frequent news of the next government CDO appointment. While there is a growing proliferation of CDOs in government, there are few resources that describe the landscape, either for the benefit of the chief executive appointing a CDO or the new CDO taking office. This paper intends to help new entrants by documenting selected current practices, including advice shared by existing government CDOs, observations by the author, and analysis from government technology and analytics experts. A few key points for a new CDO to consider include:

  • Support from the chief executive sets the CDO up for success. Whether a CDO reports to the chief executive (mayor, governor, or county commissioner) or not, it is important to have the support of that chief executive and have the resources, credibility, and authority that go along with executive sponsorship.
  • Basic management skills can accelerate progress. Strong basic management and leadership skills, the ability to clearly articulate the mission and roadmap to achieving it, and the ability to hold staff accountable for results will accelerate success for a CDO. Standardizing tools and processes, including project management tools, will make the work more efficient. Balancing the demand for results with the need for foundational data stewardship demands leadership from a CDO and a delicate balance of people and technology skills.
  • Data stewardship can create the conditions for solid analytics. Data stewardship – comprising data governance and data infrastructure – lays the foundation on which analytics is built, and whether these activities are part of the CDO operation or not, they are essential to the success of any analytics program.
  • Setting priorities becomes an increasingly important and challenging task for a successful CDO. As the profile of the CDO grows and demand for services increases, it can be difficult to manage priorities and stay true to the mission. As one expert advised, CDOs should stay focused on important policy issues and operational improvements in government, and avoid “data qua data” analytics.

This paper describes an operational framework for the role of a CDO office, and provides observations on fostering a data culture in government.

About the Author

Jane Wiseman

Jane Wiseman is an Innovations in American Government Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. She leads the Institute for Excellence in Government, a non-profit consulting firm dedicated to improving government performance.  She has served as an appointed official in government and as a financial advisor and consultant to government.  Her current consulting, research, and writing focus on government innovation and data-driven decision-making.  She supports an effort to create a national network of urban Chief Data Officers to accelerate the use of analytics in local government.  She has advised the US cities funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies in their Mayors Challenge competition.  She has written on customer-centric government, data-driven decision-making in government, pretrial justice, and 311 for a variety of audiences. 

Her prior consulting work has included organizational strategy, performance management and eGovernment strategy work for Accenture and Price Waterhouse.  Selected clients include the National Governor’s Association, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Criminal Justice Association, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United States Postal Service, the State of Michigan, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the United States Department of Commerce. 

Ms. Wiseman has served as Assistant Secretary, Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and as Assistant to the Director for Strategic Planning, National Institute of Justice, United States Department of Justice.  Ms. Wiseman represented the Justice Department on detail as a Staff Assistant for the US House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.  Ms. Wiseman holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from Smith College and a Master of Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.