Agencies should see themselves as big data organizations, Avi Bender says

Avi Bender at the 7th Annual Adobe Digital Government Assembly. (FedScoop)

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Data management is a crucial component in the Trump administration’s plans to modernize the federal government, as well as crafting a greater partnership with the private sector to leverage agency data troves as an asset.

Sitting at the intersection of those two goals is the National Technical Information Service and its director, Avi Bender. NTIS fields agencies’ data problems and quandaries and then reaches to a cadre of private sector partners to design solutions to solve them.

Bender spoke to FedScoop about the work that NTIS does and how the federal government can make better use of its data.

Editor’s note: The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

FedScoop: Data management has become even more of a core issue of late through its prominence in the President’s Management Agenda. Given NTIS’s role in helping agencies manage their data projects, can you talk about how your office has changed since its launch?

Avi Bender: So the launch of the new mission of NTIS occurred in 2016 and since that time — in a relatively short period of time, two years, —we have helped a number of federal agencies achieve their data priorities through this unique partnership that we have in place.

And those organizations include the likes of the [Food and Drug Administration], Office of Personnel Management, [the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General] and the [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services]. If you have heard about the E-Verify system, we were instrumental in that as well. So we have about 15 to 17 clients in these past two years. What’s really unique about that is every job that we do helping federal agencies is something on a national scale. For example, we’re about to kick off an effort that will help with potentially addressing supply chain issues addressing global malaria issues. We don’t tackle the small projects, we tackle the things that are really of a massive scale.

And the way we’re structured is we go to market with 31 private sector partners. We have a unique authority for doing that. We’re also a fee-for-service organization, so we do not have any appropriated funds. We essentially have to go up there and generate opportunities. So far, it’s been working well. We still have a long way to go.

FS: Data management overall has gotten such a big spotlight recently. Federal CIO Suzette Kent has said we need more data scientists and more data capabilities in the federal government. What can you say about the emphasis that’s been put on data management? 

AB: I think putting that emphasis is pretty critical. And, in fact, Suzette and the Department of Commerce and others issued a Federal Register notice not too long ago really seeking input from the feds and from the private sector about how the government can do a much better job of leveraging data as a strategic asset. Agencies don’t think of themselves as big data organizations, but, in fact, every single agency is a big data organization. And to the extent that they can do a much better job of managing their data, I think they’ll become much more effective and efficient in running their operations, and I think at the same time also provide improved external services to citizens.

With respect to hiring additional data scientists and [reskilling], we need to continuously refresh the workforce to support IT modernization and data-centered initiatives. It will be very difficult, and it has been very difficult, for the government to attract people very quickly and that’s why I believe that the business model that we have in place, which is somewhat unique, is that we partner with the private sector. In this way, we help agencies achieve capacity to scale very quickly. Because the problems are there today, but to hire people to acquire the tools to establish the infrastructure, that takes a long time, and time is of the essence.

FS: The White House has identified the tentpoles in the PMA of people, technology and data — but data has to take the lead to make the others really work. Is that the situation you are seeing right now, that the demand for data management solutions has gone up significantly?

AB: I think this is a really good point, not to look at the individual PMA initiatives and some of the cross-cutting initiatives as individual centers of excellence or silos. Data is cross-cutting and, in fact, I would say that with the way we operate, is at the intersection of IT modernization and data science.

It’s not two different things because IT modernization requires a real intimate understanding of how you are managing your data throughout the supply chain of the organization. For example, as I mentioned that all agencies essentially, whether they know it or not, they collect and acquire data, they process the data, they analyze the data, they disseminate the data. But someone said to me, ‘Why can’t we do in common that which is commonly done?’

So the difference between the agencies is the mission and their critical success factors. But underneath that, the infrastructure, the mechanism, the technical requirements are all the same thing essentially. So what happens is it’s really a different use case. So the [Department of Agriculture] is different from [the Department of Energy], but it’s really a use case. Underneath that, the requirements for data management are very much the same.

FS: What things do you think the government should be doing to put a handle on its data to make that innovation easier in partnership with the private sector?

AB: I think the federal government needs to look for innovative ways to really implement shared services, specifically for data. I think the government really needs to look very carefully at additional acquisition instruments that are more suitable for data management.

And I believe that also data management is not a project. Data management is an ongoing innovation effort that requires continuous and iterative learning, continuous agility and discovery of new opportunities. And sometimes the contract mechanism or the [Federal Acquisition Regulation] is not ideally suited for that, so I think we need to look at different acquisition instruments.

Then lastly, I think the federal agencies as a whole need to find better ways of just sharing information about what it is they’re doing. Because, often times, we all have the same issues, but we don’t know what each is doing so we’re reinventing the wheel.

The key point is really for agencies to become much more in-tune and aware and to understand that many individual aspects of the PMA and the cross-cutting initiatives, the underpinning of all of them, I believe, is really better use of data.

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Avi Bender, big data, Commerce Department, data analytics, data management, National Technical Information Service
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