You Can’t Boil the Ocean: How Data Governance Teams Bring Focus

A Q&A with the Center for Government Excellence’s Sheila Dugan

From determining a starting place to getting leadership's buy-in, building a strong foundation for data-driven decision-making can be an overwhelming task, but Sheila Dugan is driven to equip cities with the tools to overcome those challenges.

Sheila Dugan

As the Director of Cities at the Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) at Johns Hopkins University, a What Works Cities partner, Sheila leads the team that is responsible for helping cities do everything from setting up open data initiatives to developing performance management programs. Cities’ development of a data governance team is foundational to getting that work off the ground and sustaining it over the long term. These teams work together to make data more accessible for decision-makers and help grow a city’s use of data to improve outcomes for residents.

We caught up with Sheila to learn how cities can get started on building their own data governance teams. Get her insights below, and find out how your city can learn even more by participating in a four-week What Works Cities Sprint she’ll be leading in May 2019.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Data governance is among the foundational practices outlined in What Works Cities Certification. How does strong data governance contribute to building a well-managed city?

Data governance means having a system and exercising authority over the management of your data assets. It’s important because it’s the foundation of everything that we do here at GovEx — and that cities do to use data and evidence to improve outcomes. If you don’t have a handle on where your data is or who is responsible for what, you often cannot do some of the more advanced data projects that you are interested to take on — or, quite frankly, some of your more simple data projects.

For example, at the very beginning of a lot of our advanced analytics projects, we would try to scope projects with cities based on their interests, but once we probed deeper, we would realize that cities didn’t know what data sets were available. Or the cities didn’t realize that those data sets were 15 years out of date, so they did not represent what was currently going on in the community. Cities want to conduct analysis, develop predictive models, and build cool data products, but you have to address data governance first.

Certification also calls for cities to form a data governance team. What types of responsibilities does this team take on, and what value does it bring to a city?

The specific responsibilities are different for every city, but the team is responsible for managing the data assets in an organization. That’s everything from leading a data inventory to developing policies to identifying data to be shared and used by the public. The data governance team is responsible for grappling with those issues and developing policies and procedures to allow cities to do their data work.

Image via Unsplah

What is a data inventory, and why is that something data governance teams should take on?

A data inventory is a list of data sets that are available across departments in a city. That’s important because if you don’t know what you have, you don’t know what is possible.

What are some of the most common challenges cities face when establishing a data governance team, and what are some strategies for overcoming them?

Capacity is a great challenge. Doing data governance well is not always about financial resources — sometimes it’s about setting aside time to actually do the work. A lot of cities are understaffed and pressed for time. That’s why, when we are working with cities, we approach data governance by engaging people from all across the city. Buy-in from senior leadership is critical to convene a variety of stakeholders and then to get support for the policies and procedures that you develop.

How can cities build momentum and support for their data governance team inside their city halls?

Understand what is important to your community. What are your challenges, and what are the challenges of your chief executive? Cities should be very clear about tying their data work to a challenge that they have, rather than advocating to start a data governance initiative for its own sake. This is one reason why we encourage cities just creating their data governance teams to begin their work with a focus area. For example, a lot of our cities grapple with issues like blight. It’s much easier to sell the importance of a data governance initiative if you say, “We are starting a data governance initiative because blight is an important issue in our community, and we need to understand our housing stock and what data is available to help us tackle this problem.” It’s really about trying to make a deep connection between your data governance work and how you want to make your community better.

What advice would you give to a city that already has a data governance team and is ready to take its work to the next level?

Make sure that you have all the right stakeholders in the room. The people that are often overlooked are subject matter experts. For example, if you are working on public safety, it’s important to have the police or fire department at the table shaping the conversations you have about your city manages and uses data…Engaging your legal team is important when you’re interested in sharing information with outside parties. They can help you identify what can be shared.

The second is to keep centering your work on your city’s priorities because you can’t boil the ocean. If you are trying to do everything at once, you’re not going to be successful.

What do you enjoy most about working with cities?

There is a really talented, smart, fantastic group of people working in city government right now, and being able to learn from them is really rewarding.

What Works Cities Certification — the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government — emphasizes the importance of data governance. Has your city completed an assessment? If so, you’re eligible to join Sheila’s upcoming Sprint on developing a data governance team. Register here.

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Get insider tips from the front lines of data-driven transformation in this Q&A series with city champions and What Works Cities experts

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