The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, or Evidence Act, was signed into law three years ago this month. It requires the 24 federal civilian agencies covered by the CFO Act to create chief data officers.
Two CDOs within the Department of Homeland Security discussed progress made and ongoing challenges of creating data-centric strategies for their agencies while still building their organizations and coping with the effects of the pandemic, during a webcast hosted by the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center on Jan. 25.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Customs and Immigration Services may both be housed within DHS, but the agencies have taken very different approaches to implementing the provisions of the Evidence Act.
Elizabeth Puchek is the CDO for USCIS, which created the Office of the Chief Data Officer. “USCIS really is a data agency,” Puchek said. “Our agency’s [current] priorities are to reduce processing times to get benefits and adjudications in line with expectations.”
She said there are benefits to a CDO not being part of the CIO’s organization.
“We’re able to pick up where the CIO can’t,” Puchek said. “They’re focused on their massive infrastructure, data isn’t at the forefront of their brains … and it shouldn’t be, given their [vast responsibilities].”
Puchek said her office’s current priority is working on how to improve processing.
“What we found in trying to design these streamlined and hopefully soon-automated processes [is that] our legacy case systems are very transactional, not person-related,” she said. Being able to link records across databases to connect everything related to an individual is an important part of accelerating the agency’s decisions, she said.
Kathleen Kaplan is the first CDO for FEMA. Rather than being stood up with her own organization, “I’m actually in the Office of Policy,” she said. “We deal with standards and standardization.”
Kaplan said she relies heavily on one of her branches within the policy office. “They call themselves my twig,” she joked.
The pandemic created serious complications for FEMA and for Kaplan’s new position. “We know there are going to be hurricanes and fires. The pandemic was a new thing … We [can’t say], ‘Please, Mother Nature, no hurricanes this year while we deal with the pandemic.’”
Kaplan said there’s been an avalanche of data coming in from everywhere. She and her staff have been focusing on a “refresh” right now, trying to sort out what data are coming in, from where, and the quality of the data, in order to assess and prioritize FEMA’s needs concerning its use.
“We need everything. One of the issues is that FEMA is a big organization with tons of money, but it all goes out the door” for emergency assistance and grants, Kaplan said. “It’s a constant resource battle, robbing Peter to pay Paul … Everywhere should be more data-driven, and the government should support us [in that].”
Puchek’s experience at USCIS has been very different.
“We’re in year three of our data strategy, getting ready to start our refresh [and] make sure it’s still relevant,” she said. “Over the past three years [people have] bought in, everyone really wants to make it happen, we’re able to develop the processes we need to meet our goals, and our technology is in great shape – we have what we need … For us the biggest hurdle is time and competing priorities.”
The National Defense Authorization Act signed into law by President Biden in December directs the Office of Personnel Management to create specific job classifications for data science positions. Kaplan said her office is working on position descriptions for the new job series.
“It’s really up to the agency to decide whether, within the constraints we’re given, to advertise for data scientists. This is a standard, too – what do we want at each level with regard to skillsets,” she said. “Where are these data scientists, what are they doing, and can we leverage them FEMA-wide?”
Puchek said data sharing among USCIS and its federal partners also needs improvement.
“We’re able to share with them but the interagency sharing technology is a bit lagging,” Puchek said. “We’re just starting to scratch the surface.”
Her wish would be that one or two individuals at another agency or department could be given access to reports and internal dashboards at USCIS. “We’d never have to email another report again, they could just have access to our dashboards.”
Kaplan agreed, noting that data sharing should be the norm rather than the exception, “though right now it’s exactly the opposite.” She added that agencies’ privacy officers should also be included in those kinds of conversations.