In March 2015, the United Kingdom appointed Mike Bracken as the country’s first chief data officer. His appointment was supposed to be the start of a new cross-government initiative to place data at the heart of government decision making. However, just a few months later, Bracken resigned, and while some of the British government’s agencies now have their own chief data officers (CDOs), the national position has remained vacant since. Unfortunately, the UK is no isolated case: Only a handful of EU member states have a national CDO, including France and Estonia.
In the digital economy, data can no longer be an afterthought for governments that are serious about embracing innovation. At the very least, each member state should have already appointed a national CDO with a clear mandate and strong political backing to oversee the implementation of their governments’ data strategy and data policy. This position is essential—for three main reasons.
First, governments need a CDO to champion and preserve open data across public sector agencies and to supervise the implementation of open data initiatives. With thousands of open government datasets worldwide and the rise of technologies such as machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT), data management in government has become ever more critical. Governments have a responsibility to oversee the quality of the data they make available, seek ways to create greater public value from data, and promote responsible data use. The CDO should support the public sector in collecting, using, and sharing information. For example, CDOs can establish data sharing agreements across government agencies, create data standards for particular sectors, and provide best practices for data management.
Second, governments need a CDO to use data to improve their decision-making and operations, including by building data analytics capabilities within teams. As data becomes more important in finding solutions to public problems, evidence-based policy making and data-driven innovation in the public sector are critical to enhance governments’ ability to deliver better services and formulate more precise policies. Governments collect a broad array of data on workers, households, firms, and the environment which allows them to better understand issues such as healthcare, education, and housing. They can leverage traffic data, for instance, to gain greater insights into road safety, or use census data to better understand how communities are changing. CDOs can provide the leadership to ensure that government agencies have the tools and talent necessary to make use of data-driven insights.
Third, CDOs can encourage data-driven innovation in society more broadly. In particular, CDOs in the EU should take the lead in developing and promoting national strategies to create a more data-driven economy. To ensure the EU can compete in the digital economy, European governments need to support their businesses in developing new technologies such as AI. These require data—which governments happen to hold in immense quantities. As a national focal point, the CDO can facilitate access to public sector data for businesses, build partnerships to foster private demand for it, and promote the use of new technologies in order to support the growth of digital business models. CDOs should also work with regulators to ensure that policies incentivize, rather than hinder, commercial use of data.
But it is not enough to do this domestically. Member states should form a new, independent, EU-wide advisory panel made up of national chief data officers charged with counseling the EU on how to maximize opportunities to innovate with data, AI, and related tools. With Article 29 Working Party, later replaced by the European Data Protection Board (EDPB), the EU was able to set up such an advisory body to with a representative from the data protection authority of each EU Member State to standardize its approach to data privacy, but it has yet to do the same for data innovation.
The EU needs new leadership on data, and the best way to achieve this is by institutionalizing and elevating the voices of a CDO in each member state. CDOs can help member states’ governments to clarify public data practices, promote the use of data, enhance data-driven decision-making, and forge a cohesive vision and strategy for capturing the full benefits of data-driven innovation in Europe. There is a pressing need to get data higher up the political agenda. Governments should no longer be asking themselves whether they should consider hiring a CDO. The question is now why they do not have one already.
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