The Evolving Role of the Chief Data Officer in the Government of Canada

Guest post authored by Ryan Androsoff & Peter Bruce.

Data is at the core of everything that government does. Be it economic modelling, policy development, service delivery to citizens and businesses, emergency management, or providing transfer payments to other levels of government, all the functions of government rely on the availability and interpretability of high-quality, timely, relevant data. Data is so central to a well-functioning government that it can at times lead to it being taken for granted. Yet as the rapidly evolving technology and public governance landscape has shown, a focused effort around data is needed to ensure that public institutions have the resources they need to be effective as they address the policy challenges of today’s world.

While governments have always spent time and effort on collecting and analyzing data, over the past few years we’ve observed an increasing focus on governance issues around how data is managed (or not) as a strategic asset within government departments. There are several reasons for this, including the rapidly increasing volume and velocity of data being generated and available thanks to the digital revolution. As “digital” because higher on the priority list of government, so too does “data”. Put simply, there is no “digital government” without data, and data cannot reach its full potential without a digitally transformed government.

Adding to the urgency on this topic is the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the increasing incorporation of machine learning, semantic analysis, and algorithmic decision-making applications into the infrastructure of government. These advances in the data science profession provide the opportunity to dramatically improve the responsiveness and business intelligence available to government organizations, and open up possibilities for greater administrative simplification and efficiency. At the same time, they also raise legitimate concerns about the potential ethical implications of the use of such tools and the harm they could do to both individuals and trust in government if used without the appropriate ethical and privacy safeguards in place.

Against this backdrop, 2018-2019 saw three important pieces of policy direction published in the Government of Canada: 

  • The Data Strategy Roadmap for the Federal Public Service which laid out both a vision and accountabilities for departments with regards to how they manage data assets.
  • The Policy on Service and Digital which amalgamated a number of existing policy instruments in the digital and service space which required Deputy Heads to determine clear roles and responsibilities over data, and to make plans to use data as a strategic asset.
  • The Directive on Automated Decision-Making which provided guidance on the responsible use of AI and algorithmic tools when being used by Government of Canada departments to provide services to the public.

Additionally, as part of the Roadmap for Open Science that was published in early 2020, the Government of Canada Chief Science Advisor recommended that Deputy Heads create a Chief Science Data Officer. The even more recent Digital Operations Strategic Plan from May of 2021 also strongly positions data as essential to digital government and decision making. To support the requirement for improved data literacy, both Statistics Canada and the Canada School of Public Service, have developed learning resources in recent years to support upskilling across the public service.

Departments and agencies across the government of Canada have responded to these developments in part by establishing Chief Data Officer positions and departmental data strategies. As might be expected in early stages of this evolution, these CDOs have been established with a variety of different types of reporting relationships, structures, and mandates. Given these developments, the Institute on Governance (IOG) launched a study in the Fall of 2021 to explore these issues further and provide some guidance and recommendations for the evolution of the relatively new Chief Data Officer role in the Government of Canada.

Watch our conversation with IoG associates, CDOs within the Government of Canada, and the University of Ottawa.

The study focused on four Government of Canada departments, namely: Health Canada (HC), the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), and Transport Canada (TC). It consisted of a series of surveys, interviews, and workshops that took place from September 2021 to February 2022. This analysis was combined with inputs from other departments as well as expertise and research from the IOG to establish a set of key findings and recommendations for CDOs in the Government of Canada.

In May 2022 the Institute on Governance published a report that presents the results from this study. The report describes how the CDO role is evolving in the Government of Canada and provides recommendations on how it can be strengthened to deliver on departmental data strategies. Our ten recommendations that build on the key findings are presented in three categories that we have called Engage, Enable, and Evolve.

This work took place at a critical time in the evolution of the CDO role in the Government of Canada as CDOs are leading the move to more data enabled program delivery, policy decisions, and regulatory enforcement. We hope that our findings and recommendations will support the further evolution of this important leadership role and strengthen the use of data as a strategic asset by government departments to achieve their mandates and improve the public good.