Spotlighting Success: Insights from the 2023 Data Labs Program

Recently recognized by Fast Company’s Best New Things in Tech 2023, Data Labs graduated its second cohort of states—Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota, Nevada, and West Virginia—in Fall 2023. The second-annual cohort developed data-sharing projects designed to improve student outcomes, provide greater access to safety net benefits, and improve workforce outcomes for residents in their states. 

The Data Labs program, developed and offered by the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, in partnership with the National Governors Association, employs a human-centered design approach to help states launch projects that improve government services and the lives of residents. The goal of the program is to help state teams learn best practices for making data-informed policy decisions, create stronger relationships and enhanced coordination between state data and policy leaders, and shift government culture toward responsible data management practices.

Between March and October 2023 Data Labs helped states in the cohort work through data challenges by convening cross-functional state teams, providing hands-on support from a dedicated program manager, leveraging insights from subject matter experts, and offering a safe space for learning, innovation, and experimentation.

At the conclusion of the 2023 cohort, the Data Labs team conducted in-depth debrief discussions with state teams. Through these discussions, three notable takeaways emerged:¹

1. State chief data officers (CDOs) play a unique and crucial role in helping states overcome project roadblocks.

To leverage the uniquely collaborative role of CDOs, Data Labs states were encouraged to recruit their CDO as a member of the project team. In instances where a state did not have a CDO, Data Labs matched the project team with a CDO from the Beeck Center’s State CDO Network whose background and expertise aligned with their data project and challenges. 

CDOs specifically gave teams guidance on (1) creating a strategy, governance structure, and inventory of data; (2) increasing the capacity of stakeholders to effectively use data; (3) establishing clear and predictable processes for data sharing; (4) providing mechanisms and platforms to enable data integration and analysis; and (5) ensuring ongoing support exists for data efforts.

In one instance, a state in the 2023 cohort did not have a CDO to provide statewide leadership on data sharing. The state was navigating a risk-averse culture and the complexity of data-sharing authorities across programs. Inspired by the level of authority and purview of the CDO role, this state is now assessing statutory authority for establishing a CDO position of their own.

Josh Martin, CDO of Indiana, connected with one Data Labs state to discuss lessons learned from Indiana’s Management Performance Hub. Through this partnership, the state team learned how to think critically about data management and important data-related questions. They also received constructive feedback on opportunities to improve their approach and actionable strategies for maximizing usage. These insights informed the development of this state’s strategic plan that sets the goals and guide for the work in the near future.

Arkansas CDO Robert McGough met with the deputy chief information officer (CIO) of another Data Labs state to discuss the best practices and lessons learned from the hurdles that McGough faced to make Arkansas’ longitudinal data system useful to state legislators. McGough also gave the team insight into what legislators commonly look for in data and tactical approaches to get project buy-in. As a result, the team was able to set realistic expectations for their work and establish a practical project timeline.

2. Investing in thoughtful problem scoping can clarify thinking and reveal surprising potential solutions.

For many projects that take a data-informed approach to improving the delivery of public services, understanding a data challenge may end up being more than half the battle. Data teams often jump too quickly into ideating and developing technical solutions, when they should be investing time asking questions about what their data challenge truly is.

The Data Labs program kicks off by having state teams thoroughly research and analyze their data challenge. In doing so, state teams align on what project work they need to do and are better equipped to identify and implement an effective solution.

One Data Labs state faced the complex challenge of sharing data across a network of autonomous educational institutions. This team grappled with a variety of questions, such as how to get buy-in and support for data sharing in the absence of mandates, what data would be needed to make informed decisions, and what technology would undergird data sharing across siloed systems. By revisiting and rescoping their problem statement, the team critically assessed the various ways they could address their challenge and, ultimately, what solution would balance feasibility with impact. As a result, this team pivoted from thinking about building a new solution to researching resources that already exist within their larger ecosystem. “I envisioned some bigger data system structure. A data lake, something like that. But the … experts that were brought in … made us realize: why would you start over? Why wouldn’t you leverage what you’ve already got in trusted existing data sources instead?” a core team member noted.

Another Data Labs state had to determine how to effectively bring together health and labor data. Because these complex factors make early planning and scoping critical for future project success, this state spent the majority of their time in the program focused on right-sizing the scope of their project to ensure maximum impact. This effort culminated in the creation of a comprehensive action plan designed to get key stakeholders on board and kickstart a thoughtfully designed pilot initiative.

3. Effective storytelling is critical for securing buy-in from diverse stakeholders.

Even the most promising data projects can fall short of their potential if people are unaware that they exist, are uncertain about their goals, or do not see them as relevant to their needs and interests. Crafting a compelling narrative around a project is crucial because it raises awareness of a team’s efforts and can secure critical buy-in from stakeholders who will help move initiatives forward.

In the final month of the Data Labs program, states connect their project goals with potential narrative approaches and receive a one-on-one consultation with Beeck Center storytelling expert Ashleigh Fryer to identify audiences and develop project messaging. 

“Sometimes I think data people are so into data that communicating outward is where we fail. So doing better to connect to the value, and describing that better, that was big for me,” a team lead noted. 

Each Data Labs state took a slightly different approach to telling the story of their work based on their project goals and audience. One Data Labs state that sought to organize cross-agency workforce data realized that drafting a compelling and focused narrative would help open a line of communication with end users. Understanding end users’ needs would, in turn, inform the project’s priorities and better serve end users in the long run. 

Another team, focused on clarifying data-sharing authorities across programs, drafted a narrative designed to inspire their stakeholders and demonstrate how the project can provide value for data users. Similarly, a team seeking to secure buy-in from health and labor agency leaders crafted their messaging to include a value proposition that would resonate with each type of stakeholder audience. These examples demonstrate that each story is unique to the data-sharing project and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to storytelling.

Recommendations for all Government Officials

Many government officials who are trying to improve how data are used to achieve their mission can apply takeaways from the 2023 Data Labs cohort for their work. Those include:

  • Foster a relationship with a data executive. 

State CDOs are not only data experts, they are often expert problem solvers and eager collaborators. If your state or organization doesn’t have a CDO, identify an equivalent or look to a peer organization in another state to compare notes on program implementation. Use their time well by preparing an agenda and key questions, keeping the meeting short (e.g., 30 or 45 minutes), and making a clear ask for how you hope to engage moving forward, which includes offering to be a thought partner on any challenges they may have now or in the future.

  • Examine your assumptions about the data problem at hand. 

With your team, perform a critical inquiry of a data challenge you’re experiencing. First, set aside time to ask probing questions to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the problem. Doing this with others can give everyone on the team a fresh perspective about the issues at play. Second, make a list of what you don’t know and devise a plan to get answers to those open questions. Often, this entails interviewing people who are closer to the problem at hand and learning from them, especially end users or people affected by the data challenge. Using what you learn, you can revisit your understanding of the problem. This process helps ensure you’re not spending time on a solution that won’t solve your problem.

  • Align storytelling with your data project goals. 

Much has been written on the importance of telling a story with data. However, if you’re earlier in your data sharing project and you don’t yet have the data you need, this doesn’t mean there aren’t stories to tell. Crafting a compelling narrative that conveys what your team is trying to achieve and why it is important will help build awareness and buy-in from key decision makers, stakeholders, and members of the broader organization. Below are additional questions you can ask to identify opportunities to tell your story on your data-sharing project journey:

  1. What are your top S.M.A.R.T. (i.e., specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals for the project in the next 12 months? Of those goals, what is the most immediate or highest priority project goal that would benefit from strategic communications? Why? Which key stakeholder/group will yield the greatest ROI to this goal?
  2. What is your ask of this stakeholder/group (e.g., participate, endorse, help remove barriers, help secure resources, etc.) and, therefore, what is your communication goal (e.g., inspire, inform, mobilize, influence, convince, etc.)?
  3. What is the story or perspective that matters most to this stakeholder/group? Where and how do you reach them?

Join the 2024 Cohort

We invite state leaders committed to data-informed governance to participate in Data Lab’s award-winning program and apply for the upcoming cohort. The call for proposals will open in February 2024

In the meantime, states are encouraged to utilize the Data Labs Playbook, a practical guide for public servants who want to launch a data-sharing project in their state. Each section offers best practices, key questions, and tactical tools for advancing any data project action plan, whether a project is new or existing.To learn more about the Data Labs program contact

¹Data Labs follows the Chatham House rule. As such, supporting quotes are not attributed to program participants, and state teams are de-identified.