Two agency officials involved in the thick of efforts to prepare the government to execute the Federal Data Strategy laid out on Dec. 10 an extensive practical roadmap for embracing the policy’s data innovation mandates.

Speaking at the Veritas Public Sector Vision Day event, Tom Beach, Chief Data Strategist at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and Tiffany Julian – Data Scientist at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and also staff at the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), an independent federal statistical agency within NSF – talked about a number of practical steps and opportunities that the Chief Data Officer (CDO) communities will be tackling to implement the data strategy.

Very broadly, the strategy issued in June tells Federal agencies to treat data as a “strategic asset,” and sets forth a series of practical steps for them to take over the next year to help turn the policy’s aims into reality. Expected on an any-day basis from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is the final version of year-one action plan that will set agencies in motion on a series of specific tasks to implement the strategy.

At USPTO the data strategy effort aims at two goals – clarity, which defines objectives and data that the organization possesses – and gaining control of that data, “so we can share it in a meaningful way,” Beach said. The data strategy focus at the Department of Commerce – of which USPTO is a part – may be even more pronounced as Commerce has a reputation of being “the government’s data company,” and accounts for 30 percent of the Federal government’s public data sources, Beach said.

While preparations over the past several months for execution of the Federal Data Strategy have been occurring all through the government, Beach said that “not every agency has caught up” on their end of the work. As a result, he said there is “a lot of opportunity for the private sector to help.”

CDOs, said Julian, “can be the right lubricant” at agencies to get data scientists, data users, and business people working in the same direction to execute the strategy. She held out the possibility that not all agencies will do a great job at it, but if 70-80 percent do, “that will move the whole government forward.”

On the security front, Beach and Julian agreed about the inherent tensions between using and sharing more data, while still keeping that data secure. “CIOs want to secure, and CDOs want to unlock” data, Beach said, “so there is a natural tension there.” As a result, he said, “data security is very important … It’s really important that trust be there.”

“It’s really important to see how your organization works with data,” and to discern who within agencies “really understands the data aspect,” he said.

Beach emphasized that executing the Federal Data Strategy can’t end up being just a compliance exercise. Rather, he said, the strategy needs to be rolled out with a wider understanding of the positive value of better data and governance policies. Agency staff that understand the potential of data become “diplomats” within the organization for creating more beneficial data policy, he said.

“I am starting now to hear the culture change,” on data policy, Beach said, while adding, “Pushing an agenda [on data policy] won’t work, but pushing a playbook of opportunities will work.”

The data strategy’s potential positive return on investment can also be a strong selling point, both officials said. Speaking of work that USPTO is doing with artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, Beach mentioned the potential to save millions of dollars that the organization now pays out to contractors.

“Once we have the numbers [on savings], then we have stories” to relate to top agency management about the data strategy’s benefits, Julian said.

There’s also plenty of opportunities for agencies to help each other in executing the data strategy, both officials said.

Julian said that no official “community of interest” exists yet among agency CDOs, but that the greater government CDO and data scientist community appears to want one. “There are a lot of opportunities to cross-pollinate ideas” between agency CDOs, Beach said, adding, “there are techniques we can easily be sharing across organizations.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.