Data Governance: Agencies Made Progress in Establishing Governance, but Need to Address Key Milestones

GAO-21-152 Published: Dec 16, 2020. Publicly Released: Dec 16, 2020.
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Fast Facts

How do agencies ensure that their data is transparent, accessible, and of sufficient quality for policy-making and informing the public?

Federal laws and guidance have outlined several actions agencies can take to implement "data governance"—a framework of organizational structures and supports intended to help agencies improve the quality and availability of data.

The four agencies we reviewed made progress establishing data governance. We made recommendations to ensure agencies address key milestones for data governance by assessing data and infrastructure maturity, staff data literacy, and more.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Commerce (Commerce), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have recently taken steps to establish data governance consistent with applicable statute and guidance. The selected agencies established data governance frameworks to help ensure that their data assets are transparent, accessible, and of sufficient quality to support their agencies' missions, improve operations, and provide information to the public. All four agencies designated Chief Data Officers (CDO) as required under the Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act of 2018 (OPEN Government Data Act). As directed in the Federal Data Strategy 2020 Action Plan (2020 Action Plan), USDA, Commerce, and NSF established data governance bodies and published information about them on their websites. USDA and NSF have also established agency-wide data strategies. However, Commerce and HUD have not conducted an initial data maturity assessment, as required by September 20, 2020. All four agencies identified opportunities to increase staff data skills but three agencies did not perform an assessment of staff data literacy skills by July 31, 2020, as directed in the 2020 Action Plan.

USDA, Commerce, HUD, and NSF developed data quality plans for their spending data reported under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act) that were largely consistent with Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance. However, Commerce and HUD did not include plans to ensure that information on award descriptions—defined as a description of the purpose of the award—is reported in plain English as required. Without plain English descriptions, the public and other users of the data may not clearly understand the purpose of the award.

The OPEN Government Data Act also established a CDO Council to identify government-wide best practices for the use, dissemination, and generation of data. The Council adopted its charter in June 2020. The Council supports agency CDOs' implementation of data governance and provides a forum for cross-agency collaboration to address issues of national importance. The CDO Council could better realize these benefits by developing additional mechanisms to track progress toward established goals.

In addition to these requirements, the OPEN Government Data Act assigns the responsibility for implementing data governance to agency CDOs. Officials from academia, state and local governments, and industry told us that effectively implementing data governance requires a culture change that results in a shared understanding of the importance of using data as a strategic asset. Based on interviews with these officials and analysis of related documentation, GAO identified three key questions for federal CDOs to consider to effectively implement data governance:

1. How can the CDO ensure data governance strategies answer the agency's priority mission questions?

2. What are the CDO's key objectives with regard to data governance?

3. How can the CDO communicate the value of data governance?

Why GAO Did This Study

Federal decision makers need data of sufficient quality to assess whether federal programs achieve intended results. Effective data governance is a key component to ensure data quality.

Congress included provisions in statute for GAO to report on the quality of spending data and use of evidence. This report examines: (1) selected agencies' efforts to meet the data governance milestones in the 2020 Action Plan; (2) the extent to which agency data quality plans for spending data were consistent with OMB guidance; (3) the extent to which the CDO Council follows leading collaboration practices; and (4) key questions to help CDOs effectively implement data governance. To address these objectives, GAO selected four agencies to represent a range of data governance experiences: (1) USDA, (2) Commerce, (3) HUD, and (4) NSF. GAO reviewed documents and interviewed officials regarding agencies' implementation of data governance. GAO also interviewed state and local CDOs and officials from academia and industry.

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Recommendations

GAO is making a total of nine recommendations to the four selected agencies to address milestones in the 2020 Action Plan and to ensure their data quality plans are consistent with OMB guidance. GAO is also making one recommendation to the CDO Council to develop additional mechanisms for monitoring progress toward established goals. The four selected agencies generally agreed with GAO's recommendations. The CDO Council did not agree or disagree with the recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should direct the Chief Data Officer to perform an assessment of current staff data literacy and data skills, conduct a gap analysis between the current staff's skills and the skills the agency requires, and establish a baseline performance plan to close the identified data skills and literacy gaps. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
USDA generally agreed with our recommendation. In October 2021, USDA officials identified four priority competency gaps as a result of a gap analysis, which was completed in July 2021: (1) Creating visualizations, (2) Data stewardship skills to ensure agency data are high quality, (3) Skills and knowledge of best practices to improve data accessibility, and (4) Programming languages such as R or Python. In December 2021,USDA provided GAO with a copy of their Data Skills Assessment Action Plan that identifies near-, mid-, and long-term activities the agency will pursue to close identified data skills and literacy gaps. These steps should help ensure that USDA's federal workforce is well-prepared to support evidence-building activities.
Department of Commerce The Secretary of the Department of Commerce should direct the Chief Data Officer to aggregate bureau-level assessments to conduct and document the outcome of an initial data maturity assessment. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
Commerce agreed with our recommendation. Commerce combined its data maturity assessment and its staff data literacy and data skills assessment into one assessment managed by Commerce's Maturity Assessment and Data Skills Working Group convened under the Commerce Data Governance Board with representatives from all 12 Commerce bureaus. In January 2021, Commerce provided us with its aggregated bureau-level data maturity and data skills assessment, which sets a baseline for future improvements.
Department of Commerce The Secretary of the Department of Commerce should direct the Chief Data Officer to aggregate bureau-level assessments and analyses to assess current staff data literacy and data skills and to conduct a gap analysis between the current staff's skills and the skills the agency requires, and establish a baseline performance plan to close the identified data skills and literacy gaps. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
Commerce agreed with our recommendation. Commerce combined its data maturity assessment and its staff data literacy and data skills assessment into one assessment managed by Commerce's Maturity Assessment and Data Skills Working Group convened under the Commerce Data Governance Board with representatives from all 12 Commerce bureaus. In February 2021, Commerce provided us with its aggregated bureau-level data maturity and data skills assessment, which sets a baseline for future improvements.
Department of Commerce The Secretary of the Department of Commerce should direct the Chief Financial Officer to develop and include a description of the controls for the Award Description data element, specifically the agency's significant milestones and major decisions pertaining to the use of plain English descriptions for describing the purpose of its awards, in the next data quality plan update. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
Commerce agreed with our recommendation and in December 2021 provided us with its updated data quality plan and related internal guidance on requirements for certifying financial assistance data. The guidance includes a description of the controls for reporting award descriptions in plain English and is consistent with the government-wide data standard, which will help improve the transparency of reported financial assistance awards.
Department of Housing and Urban Development The Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development should direct the Chief Data Officer to publish all data governance materials on its web page, including the data governance body membership, charter, and the cadence of its meetings. (Recommendation 5)
Open
HUD generally agreed with our recommendation. In June 2021, HUD officials said that the Chief Data Officer responsibilities stated in the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act were reassigned from HUD's Office of the Chief Information Officer to HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research and designated an Acting Chief Data Officer (CDO). To begin the foundational work to establish a Data Governance Program, the Acting CDO acquired temporary staff through HUD's Rotational Assistance Program. During this rotational assignment, the staff will develop HUD's data governance body charter, which will include the membership and cadence of meetings. In October 2021, HUD officials said the charter was undergoing internal review and they plan to publish it and related data governance materials on HUD's webpage by December 2021. In June 2022, HUD told us that the Office of the Chief Data Officer is finalizing the Data Governance Board structure and charter with plans to have the board fully operational by the end of FY2022. All material related to the Data Governance Board will be posted to the CDO's website by the end of October 2022. We will continue to monitor HUD's web page for its data governance materials.
Department of Housing and Urban Development The Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development should direct the Chief Data Officer to select an operational maturity assessment model for data and data-related infrastructure and conduct and document the outcome of an initial data maturity assessment. (Recommendation 6)
Open
HUD generally agreed with our recommendation. In June 2021, HUD officials said that HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research is establishing and staffing the Office of the Chief Data Officer and plans to select a data maturity model by December 2021 and to complete the initial assessment by March 2022. In June 2022 HUD said it plans to leverage the Social Security Administration Advanced Analytics Capability Maturity Model, but due to lack of resources in the OCDO the assessment has not started. With the support of contractor staff, the plan is to start the maturity assessment during the first quarter of FY2023. We will continue to monitor HUD's effort to complete its initial data maturity assessment.
Department of Housing and Urban Development The Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development should direct the Chief Data Officer to assess current staff data literacy and data skills, conduct a gap analysis between the current staff's skills and the skills the agency requires, and establish a baseline performance plan to close the identified data skills and literacy gaps. (Recommendation 7)
Open
HUD generally agreed with our recommendation. In June 2021, HUD officials said that building a data literacy training program is important to create a culture that is data driven. HUD plans to assess data literacy skills after establishing its data governance body charter and conducting its initial data maturity assessment. Officials said HUD plans to assess current staff data literacy and use the outcome of the assessment to identify current data skills and data skill gaps by June 2022. We will continue to monitor HUD's efforts to assess staff data literacy and skills and conduct a related gap analysis. In June 2022 HUD told us that it plans to assess current staff data literacy after the governance body is established and the initial maturity data assessment is completed. The outcome of the initial data assessment will establish the baseline performance plan. The maturity assessment is planned to start during the first quarter FY2023. We will continue to monitor HUD's efforts to assess staff data literacy and skills and to conduct a related gap analysis
Department of Housing and Urban Development The Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development should direct the Chief Financial Officer to develop and include a description of the controls for the Award Description data element—specifically the agency's significant milestones and major decisions pertaining to the use of plain English descriptions for describing the purpose of its awards—in the next data quality plan update. (Recommendation 8)
Open
HUD generally agreed with our recommendation. In June 2021, HUD officials said that HUD is beginning analysis on controls for the Award Description data element, including decisions related to ensuring data quality, determining authoritative sources, data collection, data storage, and data transformation. HUD does not have an anticipated completion date for this effort. We will continue to monitor HUD's efforts to update its data quality plan. In June 2022, HUD told us they had completed the analysis and concluded that there is currently no standardization of the award description data element available in their grant management process. In response, HUD's Office of the Chief Financial Officer will prioritize the standardization of award description for reporting ARPA spending. Lessons learned from this effort will be incorporated into HUD's FY22 data quality plan which is anticipated in July 2022. We will continue to monitor HUD's efforts to address this recommendation.
National Science Foundation The Director of the National Science Foundation should direct the Chief Data Officer to conduct a gap analysis between the current staff's skills and the skills the agency requires, and establish a baseline performance plan to close the identified data skills and literacy gaps. (Recommendation 9)
Open
In October 2021, National Science Foundation (NSF) officials said that NSF completed its skills gap analysis as part of its initial data maturity and capacity assessment. NSF expects to complete its final draft capacity assessment in December 2021. The assessment is expected to include a performance plan to close identified data skills and literacy gaps. In March 2022, NSF reported that they are making progress and expect to complete this action by Q3 FY2022. We will continue to monitor NSF's development of its gap analysis and related performance plans.
Chief Data Officers Council The CDO Council Chair, in coordination with the Council, should develop additional mechanisms, such as performance measures, to monitor and report on progress toward meeting its short- and long-term goals. (Recommendation 10)
Closed – Implemented
In March 2022, CDO Council officials provided documentation that the Council developed mechanisms to monitor and report on progress toward meeting its short and long-term goals. The Council developed objectives and performance measures for each goal. The Council's Executive Committee also regularly meets with CDO Council working groups to monitor deliverables and timeframes. These actions will help facilitate the Council success in meeting its goals.

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