Unlocking the Public Sector Potential: The Crucial Role of Government Chief Data Officers

As governments handle greater volumes of data and respond to increasingly complex technological regulation and global development challenges, it becomes essential that governance structures are in place to help promote the responsible and efficient use of this information. Equally important, if not more so, is the existence of leadership figures capable of effectively managing these regulations for the use, reuse and sharing of data to deliver public services for the common good.

These leaders should also foster a data-driven culture within government while interacting with all sectors, such as private, academia and civil society, respecting human rights and ensuring that the data management practices are inclusive, transparent, and adhere to ethical norms. Such an approach will help to build trust, support cross-sectoral collaborations, and ultimately lead to more effective and accountable data governance.

The benefits of having Government Chief Data Officers (GCDO)

In the private sector, the Chief Data Officers (CDOs) balance long-term strategies with short-term business and operational needs, focusing on data governance, to ensure that data is exchanged and used within the company in accordance with ethics, privacy, and security regulations, to data life cycle management, information quality assurance, organization-wide data strategy, data analytics and business intelligence.

CDOs can play this role in the public sector as well as provide the strategic perspective needed to put data at the heart of countries' digital transformation. Ideally, Government Chief Data Officers (GCDO) must be able to balance technical, leadership and management skills, and oversee data regulations enforcement to operational, analytics, dissemination, data literacy, and innovation tasks.

The creation of the GCDO role can offer numerous benefits, including:

  • Assisting countries in adopting a more coordinated approach to establishing and implementing standards and protocols for reliable, secure, and ethical data sharing and use.
  • Improving data-driven decision making.
  • Increasing policy efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Enhancing government transparency and accountability.
  • Promoting horizontal data governance and interoperability.
  • Fostering partnerships and data sharing with non-governmental actors (private sector, academia, NGOs, etc.).
  • Exploring new ways to create greater public value from the use, reuse and sharing of data.
  • Facilitating global data collaboration.
  • Unlocking innovation.
  • Coordinating and mobilizing data resources, key actors, and strategies to address pressing global challenges, such as climate change, inclusive and equitable development, digital inclusion.

In cases where the CDO does not exist in the public sector, these functions often fall under similar roles such as Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Chief Information Officer (CIO), or Data Stewards. However, in some cases, officials in charge of data-related duties lack clarity about the scope and mandate of their roles, operate with varying levels of autonomy and resources, and in organizations often without a clear long-term vision or strategy around data. The absence of this leadership makes it difficult to establish long-term national data strategies or a data culture in the administration, which in turn contributes to the perpetuation of silos that impede interoperability and the responsible and strategic use of information across ministries. More importantly, it erodes trust in the data stakeholders.

Global landscape of GCDOs

Currently, only a select group of pioneering countries have embraced the formal CDO role in government, incorporating it at national, subnational, or executive agency levels. At the national level, we find GCDOs in countries such as Canada, Estonia, France, Spain; at the subnational level, London (UK), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Reykjavík (Iceland), to name a few examples. In the US, there are GCDOs at the state, city and executive agencies-level, and there is a Federal CDO Council that meets regularly to establish government-wide best practices and promote and encourage data sharing agreements between agencies.

Examples of the impact of existing GCDOs and other data officers include deploying a cloud-based data infrastructure that centralizes more than 20 critical datasets (Rio de Janeiro); coordinating a national network of 180+ CDOs across all sectors (Saudi Arabia); increasing the availability of open data by 10-fold, with known open data use-cases growing 15-fold from 2018 to 2020 (Estonia); advancing a renewed national data strategy for horizontal data and information management (Canada); developing a Data Interoperability Maturity Model (Australia); and drafting a Data Protection Strategy for 2023-2030 (Serbia).

Advancing the establishment of the GCDO role

The creation of the CDO role in the public sector should not be overlooked. To ensure success, the political, legislative, and technical environment conditions must be conducive to data leadership. This includes providing a clear mandate, mobilizing resources, building technical capacity in the administration, and becoming a voice to guide decision-making around the responsible use of public data. GCDOs can help strengthen governance and the use of data, to ensure that governments can deliver better public services, move towards measuring and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and drive positive social change.

Better coordination is needed for the creation and operation of the GCDO role. In response to this, the World Economic Forum's Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR), is establishing the Government Chief Data Officers Community. This Community aspires to provide a neutral platform that facilitates knowledge exchange and peer-to-peer collaboration. The goal is to strengthen the role of GCDOs, design a forward-looking roadmap to address policy and technical challenges, and drive transformational changes, nationally and globally, that benefit both society and the environment. To learn more about this effort, please contact datapolicy@weforum.org.

The UN World Data Forum 2023 provides a unique dialogue space to highlight the relevance of GCDOs, in alignment with its Thematic Areas (TAs), for improving the use of data for decision making (TA 2); fostering trust and ethics in data (TA 3); and promoting multi-stakeholder partnerships to develop data ecosystems (TA 4); and with its sessions, to advance public-private data collaboration (TA4.05), create integrated data systems (TA2.35), guide the transition to the data economy (ANCE.502), and foster the creation of more inclusive data ecosystems (High Level Plenaries TA1 and TA4).