Case Study: Five Components to a Successful Data Stewardship Program

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The Ministry of Children and Youth Services for Government of Ontario, Canada, provides services to 17 million children and youth across an area the size of Montana and Texas combined. The Ministry collects a great deal of data about those services, the children and youth who access them: “Like many organizations, we’ve struggled with inventorying, organizing, managing, and using that data,” said Charene Gillies, Manager for the Government of Ontario, while presenting at Enterprise Data World 2016 Conference with Kyra Augustyn, Senior Policy Analyst for the Government of Ontario. They work in the Ministry’s Strategic Information and Business Intelligence branch, where their role is to “help the Ministry better use the data” that it collects. They discussed how they implemented at Data Stewardship Program for the Ministry and how such a Case Study can help other organizations move forward effectively with their own.

Their challenge was to design a program to manage data from a variety of sources, for a variety of uses:

“From structured financial and service-related data, to highly-sensitive personal and identifying data, to unstructured data about client satisfaction – all captured in a variety of ways, using a variety of systems,” said Gillies. “In some cases, we get data via fax on pieces of paper, in some cases, it’s very unsophisticated.”

The Ministry also wanted an innovative Data Stewardship Program that could meet the needs of staff with a wide range of skills and experience.

A sudden increase in attention to the Ministry’s struggle with data accelerated the time line for their plan. Gillies talked about their relationship with the Toronto Star national newspaper. In the last few years, she said, the Star “has recognized the value of data and the stories that data can tell,” and using data obtained from the Ministry, the paper built a Data Analytics unit, “to support stories about the situation of some of the most vulnerable children and youth in our province.” The Star itself reported that they conducted “an unprecedented analysis of data” and in almost all cases, Gillies said, “the newspaper has become much more familiar with our data than we at the Ministry are.”

Gilles said they hoped that,

“By building staff capacity at the ground level to use data more often, more effectively and more reliably, we [could] improve the Ministry’s culture around data, raise awareness about the value of Ministry data, and change behavior related to data.”

Program Assessment

The Ministry first conducted an Information Management Maturity Assessment, arriving at some key understandings:

  • Their Data Management capabilities were “in a very immature state”
  • Ministry data is an untapped source of value. The Ministry was not structured use the data they collect.
  • Evidence-informed decision making was important. Government leaders are particularly committed to “made in Ontario” evidence, she said.

Program Development

Program development began with four questions:

  1. Should Data Work be Everyone’s Business?

This was “the critical question we had to ask ourselves about improving data-related capacity in the Ministry,” said Gillies, and, “In our case, data work is everyone’s business.” The program’s premise is that staff at all levels, “have a certain level of responsibility to understand and use data in their daily work, and therefore, require a corresponding level of comfort with data.” Proper Data Governance is critical, she said, but “Without placing equal attention on improving the information management maturity of the Ministry, improving the skills of individuals will be futile.”

  1. How to Change Attitudes and Behaviors?

Gilles said the team educated themselves on the importance of organizational behavior and change management theory, building on the understanding that, “The human element of data work must be recognized.”

  1. Data is scary. What are we afraid of?

Fear is justified, she said, because:

“Bad things can happen when data is incorrect or when it is used incorrectly, and for government, that’s just the start of the risk story. Sometimes when data is looked at closely it doesn’t reflect the stories we’ve been telling ourselves about how well our programs and services are doing, or what outcomes they are achieving. Then there are those instances when the data tells us something we may not be prepared for, or are not easily in the position to address, or more likely, don’t know how to address.”

To address these legitimate fears, they decided to emphasize the importance of working together:

“Nothing is more important for most of us than knowing if we’re working [with] identifiable risk, that we are not alone. Therefore, breaking down silos and building relationships across the Ministry has been a way to quell fears [and] mitigate risk.”

  1. Who is Accountable for Achieving Data Stewardship Program Outcomes?

Shared responsibility was also built into the program, she said:

“If using data is everyone’s business, then accountability for achieving program outcomes is also everyone’s business. Therefore, it’s been critical for us to make clear to everyone across the Ministry that all areas of the Ministry are accountable for achieving program outcomes.”

Using answers to these key questions, they arrived at guiding principles for Data Stewardship Program development, Gillies said. They chose to be very deliberate about innovation and managing change to ensure that the program was compelling enough to draw in and engage staff all across the Ministry:

“We’ve worked very hard to ensure that everyone involved experiences a program that is not traditional, bureaucratic, or stale, but rather, innovative, challenging, and exciting, but most importantly, provides value by helping them meet their individual branch and Ministry – and ultimately the government’s – need to make decisions based on evidence.”

The Data Stewardship Program

Augustyn presented program components and outcomes, noting that their initial expectations for participation were low, expecting they’d have fewer than 20 volunteers, but two years into the project, “We have about 80 Data Stewards from across our Ministry and they represent 26 areas.”

One of the key challenges they faced was that program participation, unlike most governmental initiatives, was voluntary, and participants would already be busy with their own core work, she said. They also knew that changing attitudes and behavior take time, so “the lever that our program team has relied most heavily upon has been relationship building,” she said.

In the process of building those relationships, Augustyn said, they discovered that, “We had to give people an opportunity to speak about their experiences and challenges,” and before attitudes and behaviors could change, they had to “show them that part of our jobs as leads for the program was to help address those challenges.”

This process not only contributed to relationship building, it allowed the team to work co-creatively with Data Stewards on developing program components. Using input from their inaugural meeting, introductory surveys, and, “With culture change strategies and best practices in mind,” they developed a plan for meeting the needs of branches across the Ministry, using four components.

Component One: Individual Area Action Plans (IAAP)

The cornerstone of the Data Stewardship Program is a template designed to identify needs and create shared accountability for the program. Individual Area Action Plans (IAAP) are created by all areas that have Data Stewards. She said, “For the program to succeed in a decentralized model, we believe that all areas must take ownership for their data work, because data work is everyone’s business.” Plans include all current and prospective data work, timelines, resources, challenges, and needs.

The IAAP process also identified skills and gap areas, which were used to create skill-building plans. Results were sent to senior leaders to provide a better understanding of what work is like in the Ministry.

Component Two: General Meetings

Semi-annual general meetings brought Data Stewards together from around the province to focus on the strategic direction for programs. Providing opportunities to build personal networks is also important, and in-person attendance for Data Stewards is stressed, so Data Stewards can “build and maintain relationships. There is no web conferencing at these meetings,” she said.

Component Three: Skill-Building

To address gaps identified during the IAAP process, Augustyn’s team organized sessions that offered opportunities for Data Stewards to develop skills. Recently they have been emphasizing the importance of self-directed learning, and have developed an online curriculum for building skills.

Component Four: Communities of Practice

“We recognized early on that building a community is key to success,” she said, and by providing Data Stewards the opportunity to connect and continue to learn from each other on an on-going basis, they are able to build networks they can use when they encounter issues. This also makes data “less scary.” The communities also allow Data Stewards to apply new skills by working on collaborative projects, she said.

Component Five: Management Engagement

This is one of the most challenging pieces, she says:

“We know that engaging managers and soliciting their support for the program is vital for its success, however, we continue to struggle with how to penetrate the busy space that managers exist in and to show them value of the program as being important to – and not separate from – their work.”

Lessons Learned

At the end of the first year, participants expressed a desire for improved capacity and for building more robust data and software skills. They also wanted a better knowledge of and access to data assets, as well as more consistent policies and processes in relation to data, she said.

Augustyn said that the second year results indicated that data work is being prioritized and is “more valued in the Ministry,” as is participation in the program, and that “data skills are being used and expanded” by staff. They also noticed that second year goals showed more sophistication, indicating that participants had taken “real time to talk about these issues,” she said.

The process of being nimble enough to make adjustments based on both the needs of the Ministry as well as participants was an important lesson, she said, and the co-creative process they used to develop the Data Stewardship Program must continue as they make adjustments. To accomplish this, they continue to encourage feedback at all levels, which, “is an important part of relationship building,” she said. “We must respect diversity. We must always be cognizant of the range of skills and work being done in the Ministry and tailor the program to meet that diversity.” Because engagement with the Data Stewardship Program is essential, and engagement level varies throughout the Ministry, Augstyn said that they must continue to find ways to demonstrate the value of the program.

Next Steps

Their second year focus was on providing opportunities for Data Stewards to put newly acquired skills into action. In year three, Augustyn said they are focusing on expanding the definition of a Data Steward, developing more specialized communities of practice, and continuing to offer collaborative opportunities for application of new skills.

“Co-creating the program has been a rewarding project,” says Augustyn, and they hope to continue to meet the Ministry’s goal to better use data, she said:

“The representation we have is essential to the overall success of the program. The more people who are aware of data issues and who are increasing their capacity, the better position we are in to achieve the program’s outcomes.”

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