Six Lessons Learned to Improve Data Literacy in the Public Sector

Six Lessons Learned to Improve Data Literacy in the Public Sector

Adita Karkera

Adita Karkera, Chief Data Officer, Government & Public Services | Deloitte

(US and Canada) In 1966, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared September 8 International Literacy Day. Since then, International Literacy Day has been observed annually by the international community in order to “remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights, and to advance the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society.”1 Fifty-five years later, International Literacy Day is also an opportunity to recognize the growing importance of data literacy for individuals and organizations throughout the world. As technology permeates our daily lives, and the availability and application of data becomes more pervasive, data literacy is an increasingly important skill that is not reserved for those in traditional data-centric jobs.

In the public sector, data literacy is necessary for workers to serve their constituents and support informed decisions equitably across the population. As the Biden-Harris Administration stated in a recent press release: “Making policies based on the best-available research and data, with scientific integrity at the heart of an evidence-based approach, is critical to keeping the American public safe, healthy, informed, and economically prosperous.”

However, a 2021 survey of federal Chief Data Officers (CDOs) found that identifying opportunities to increase workforce data skills was a challenge for 95% of respondents. It is clear that this is an essential task for CDOs in the public sector as data literacy—the ability for professionals to read, work with, analyze and use data ethically and effectively to solve complex challenges and drive innovation—becomes a core competency in future public sector workers. 

The Data Foundation, Data Lodge and Deloitte completed a data literacy study by interviewing several pioneering public sector organizations that have initiated data literacy programs. These individuals found that their programs had the most success when they adhered to the following principles: 

  1. Programs succeed when senior leadership champions the effort

Leaders set the tone for data literacy and data use in an organization. Getting buy-in from executive leadership to establish or bolster a data effort helps cut across the entire organization, enables work across silos, and facilitates collaboration. Therefore, CDOs should work to identify executive champions to empower others in the C-suite, human capital officials, and others to sponsor and implement the data literacy program effectively. The U.S. Air Force employed this approach when implementing their own data literacy program, identifying and engaging senior leaders within the organization to champion the value and use of data.2

  1. Understand the gaps before beginning any training program 

Organizations should assess the data literacy of their workforce and conduct a gap analysis to identify major areas or priorities that are otherwise unaddressed. This includes assessing existing competencies, personas, capacity, and skills across the workforce, then identifying strategic areas for investment and improvement based on the findings. 

  1. Establish clear, consistent, and common terminology 

Talking about data in a common, relatable way across an organization can drive traction in the application of data skills and expertise for lasting impact. Organizations should use a common vocabulary in the context of everyday interactions, such as meetings with executives and the public, and as a basis for outcome-oriented decision-making. This helps drive acceptance and understanding among the workforce. The U.S. Department of Education incorporated this approach when launching their Data Literacy Program in 2021. It provides a common language for individuals agency-wide and focuses on the development of evidence, analytics, visualization, and decision-making skills throughout the workforce.3

  1. Improve the access to data

Even with a confident and capable workforce, if data access is unnecessarily restrictive and data cannot be readily used in practice, data literacy programs will be limited in their ability to foster a data-informed culture across the agency. Implementing a tiered system for access can strike a balance of availability and oversight. 

  1. Align data governance and data literacy

As agencies are maturing data governance policies and practices, data literacy should be adjusted in tandem and vice versa. Data governance outputs, such as data catalogs and data dictionaries, help foster data literacy and serve as guides for new employees. 

  1. Incentivize staff to embrace data literacy 

Employees are more likely to embrace data literacy programs if it is clear how doing so supports their own career goals and can improve their day-to-day work experience. As Josh Martin, the State of Indiana CDO, stated “[we] created the program internally with the goal of each employee better understanding the connection between their job and data through lessons that explain data concepts with simple, real-life scenarios. So far, it’s been a success with more than 1,500 employees earning their initial learning badge through this opportunity.“ 

Program development is a learning process. This means that no agency or organization should aspire for a perfect program at the outset; every program will change over time. What is essential is that every organization begins to build its capacity for using data and evidence—and that all starts with data literacy.

About the Author

Adita Karkera serves as the Chief Data Officer for Deloitte’s government and public services practice and is a fellow at the Deloitte AI Institute for Government. She spent nearly 20 years with the Arkansas Department of Information Systems and was appointed as the state’s Deputy State Chief Data Officer in 2017.    

  1. UNESCO. 2022. Available at:
  2. Hart, N., Karkera, A., Logan, V. Data Literacy for the Public Sector: Lessons from Early Pioneers in the U.S. Deloitte, 2022. p. 12. Available at:
  3. Hart, N., Karkera, A., Logan, V. Data Literacy for the Public Sector: Lessons from Early Pioneers in the U.S. Deloitte, 2022. p. 13. Available at: 
As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP.

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