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Data Governance is Key to Improving ‘Digital Awareness’

SSA and VA are improving digital awareness to keep pace with innovation.

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The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration are improving data governance as the agencies look to increase digital awareness and reduce technical debt.

“It is our responsibility to identify, in practical terms, the potential business risk of that antiquated or legacy technology. Technical debt is often invisible even though it can be monetized, even though it can be reported recurringly,” SSA CIO Sean Brune said during an ATARC webinar. “It has to be visible and explicit for the business leaders to come in and invest the resources to address it.”

At VA, CIO Kurt DelBene is honing in on “engineering excellence.” Kevin Marlowe, VA’s director of IT service delivery management, said that this model focuses on improving the IT environment for end users.

Over the past few years, VA has been building out a standard configuration management database (CMDB), VA’s authoritative database used to manage changes to the agency’s IT technologies that require configuration management control like hardware, software, applications and underlying network infrastructure.

“We’ve spent a lot of time and effort over the last couple of years into developing a CMDB,” Marlowe said. “We’ve got to be thinking about what we’re going to do with this next and how we’re going to fit all that into it. It’s astounding to me every day to find a new nuance, something we didn’t know about a stovepipe, a problem that we didn’t anticipate in gaining a better view of what our situation looks like.”

Data governance is playing a critical role in this process. Marlowe said that the lack of data governance has historically presented a challenge at VA.

“It’s a hydra that explodes out of nowhere and takes control of your data if you don’t have it right. The lack of governance then begets more governance,” Marlowe said. “There are individual pockets of governance that pop up and consider themselves authoritative, and then it’s a question of, ‘Which one is more authoritative than another?’ Then you have to prioritize between two organizations assessments of the same thing and try to decide which one deserves more IT attention. It’s a real problem.”

Brune noted that SSA is investing resources to ensure that data is accurate, complete and governed properly. Data integrity isn’t completely reliant on technology; it’s based on a sound enterprise data management strategy with practical and applied data governance that makes data one of the agency’s most strategic assets.

“Data is the lifeblood of our core mission. It’s the oil that makes the engine run,” Brune said. “At SSA, our core mission boils down to the right check, in the right amount, to the right person, at the right time. That depends on data collected over decades.”

Moving forward, both agencies are honing in on collaboration with other agencies, customers and internal business units to drive an enterprise understanding of the digital landscape. These agencies are placing their mission at the center of IT transformation, building internal and external partnerships around customer needs.

“We have to work arm-in-arm with the enterprise, with our customers, with the business units to ensure that we’re delivering the products that customers need us to do for the benefit of our end users. In our case, our nation’s heroes, our veterans, our population, our citizens and our taxpayers,” Marlowe said. “We’ve got to do that by working together.”

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