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At State Toxic Control Agency, Data Work Begets IT and Culture Changes

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control recently hired its first chief data officer. A host of changes, including new technology to better enable data use among employees, has followed in short order.

Blue lines of data coming from the top of the image. Black background.
When a state agency decides, at a high level, to put real time and resources toward data work, it can lead to a host of efforts at transforming technology and processes — as illustrated through work currently underway at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The agency, responsible for cleaning up and enforcing regulations regarding toxic substances, hired its first chief data officer in September 2022. Their hire was Alex Luc, who promptly began developing a data strategy and turned the agency’s nascent data empowerment initiative into something with an official name: The Data Empowerment Project (DEP).

The idea behind the DEP, according to Luc, is to put knowledge and tools in the hands of employees so that they can effectively use data in their work. Not only is it meant to put the agency’s technology to better use; the project aims to improve public transparency and change internal culture as well.

“Data is just an asset and a tool. It takes people to use it effectively to make better decisions,” Luc wrote in an email to Industry Insider — California. “Organizations that want to create a data-driven culture need to invest in their people. This means providing training on data skills, data analysis and data communication. It also means creating a culture where people feel comfortable sharing ideas and asking questions.”

That has included work to improve data quality, pave the way for data integration and put data governance structures in place.

The effort has led to concrete progress:
  • In May 2023, DTSC used Tableau to roll out its Strategic Plan Dashboard on its website to show the public its performance metrics and how they tie back to agency goals.
  • DTSC has also deployed a data warehouse with Snowflake.
  • The agency is working to set up Azure Purview to manage enterprise data.
  • It is in the process of performing a data maturity assessment, which will inform the data strategy.

Another goal is to build credibility outside the agency. DTSC has formed Data Leadership and Empowerment Committees with CalEPA and other boards, departments and offices in an effort to align strategies and search for ways to improve interagency data access and project efficiency.

“We are just starting on our journey, and it is a process of continuous improvement, learning and experimentation,” Luc wrote. “The initiative has had several impacts on DTSC's business processes and technology. It has led to the implementation of new technologies that have improved DTSC's ability to collect, store and analyze data. We are still in the early stages, but our data empowerment initiative has already made a positive impact in advancing our organization.”

Similar work is underway at agencies across the state government, as outlined in “California’s Data Strategy” crafted under former state Chief Data Officer Joy Bonaguro in 2020.
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology.