Almost half of APAC public-sector chief data officers (CDOs) still don’t fully understand what they are supposed to be doing, according to a new study that flagged a “pressing need” for government agencies to review their data culture in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite years talking up the importance of data, just 44 per cent of the 103 data executives responding to a recent Omdia/Qlik survey said their agencies were actually relying on data insights when making mission-critical decisions.

Although the CDO role is fundamentally about formalising data management and analytics, 47 per cent said their roles lack clarity in job definition, job execution, or both.

With most CDOs having served less than two years and government leaders still suffering a “low understanding about the value of data for making mission-critical decisions”, Omdia emeritus chief analyst Kevin Noonan wrote, APAC CDOs were well behind the global curve.

Just 36 per cent of APAC public sector agencies see data governance as a priority, the report found, compared with 71 per cent of US respondents.

The implications of that disparity came into stark relief during the pandemic, when mature data cultures helped some agencies focus their citizen support efforts, but others simply didn’t have the culture to do so.

Although 80 per cent of CDO respondents agreed that digital initiatives can help mitigate the impact of a crisis, 81 per cent believe their organisation needs to focus more on innovation, flexibility, and agility.

And fully three-quarters said they wished their agencies had invested more in data-driven initiatives before the COVID-19 pandemic, so that they could have developed appropriate citizen services more rapidly.

“Corporate culture has not kept pace with changes in community expectations about the need for more facts when government policy is developed,” Noonan said, noting that the survey “highlighted a significant skills gap in both understanding the value of data and putting the data to use in policy development”.

Banking on data’s value

Building a corporate data culture was table stakes for Glenda Crisp, whose three-year tenure as CDO and executive general manager for enterprise data at the NAB saw the bank fundamentally changing its relationship with data.

“I believe that data has gravity,” she told a recent Melbourne Business School analytics conference, “and therefore we really need to bring models to that data.”

Glenda Crisp prioritised data at NAB. Photo: LinkedIn

A multi-year data stewardship program at NAB had seen the bank increasingly trawling both structured and unstructured data for new value.

This proved invaluable during the pandemic, when its NAB Assist hardship-support organisation used speech analytics to capture extensive information about customer’s situations, sentiment, and other aspects.

Developing data skills internally had been crucial, Crisp said, noting efforts such as holding “really fun play days” for its 2,500-strong Data & Analytics Guilds, and supporting over 1,300 people to obtain formal Amazon Web Services (AWS) certifications.

“Uplifting our skills is a big investment that we’re making,” she said, noting that “I don’t believe it’s sustainable for the bank to be shipping large amounts of data outside the organisation to model.”

“Given the type of data we hold, I’m just generally uncomfortable with sending large amounts of data outside.”

NAB had invested heavily in an internal private cloud environment, where developers built a massive ‘data lake’ leveraging cloud technologies for rapid and scalable analysis.

“This was not just about compliance,” Crisp said, “but also about looking after our customers and ensuring they were getting what was needed.”

Crisp this month left the bank for personal reasons, but the data-driven culture she established lives on within the NAB – and is a testament to the degree of change that a CDO can deliver when an organisation fundamentally embraces the value of data.

Building a ‘product-centric’ culture is critical to what Gartner has called CDO 4.0 – a business philosophy that requires CDOs to think about platforms first, change investment models, and use a product-management methodology focused on scalable use of data assets.

The pivot away from the pandemic is the perfect time for organisations to make the shift, Noonan writes – advising broader support for increased data literacy and a critical review of an agency’s existing technology investment, both before and during the pandemic.

“The COVID period has provided some important lessons about the strategic value of data in digital government,” he said, warning of a “pressing need” to ensure the suitability of an agency’s technology investments.

“These important lessons could easily be lost,” he warned, “without a systematic effort to incorporate them into business-as-usual corporate management practices and agency-wide strategic plans.”