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Towards a data-driven government: why we might want to rethink “data culture

Dr. Philipp Fuerst
14th December 2023

Data culture is widely believed to be a core ingredient for fully leveraging the promise and potential of data

Nowadays, it is commonly accepted that government agencies need to leverage data to boost their decision-making, increase operational efficiency, and offer better public services. It is just as widely believed that establishing an organization-wide “data culture” is the key to achieving this.

The OECD, for example, identifies the “creation of a data-driven culture in the public sector” as one of twelve core principles “to support the development and implementation of digital government strategies”. Calls to establish a data culture also feature prominently in several national data strategies. The UK’s national data strategy attributes the “chronic underuse of data and a woeful lack of understanding of its value” to a “lack of a mature data culture across government and the wider public sector”. Similarly, the new German National Data Strategy argues the goal of “more data usage” is only obtainable through cultural change in the public sector and devotes an entire chapter to this idea.

…but many government agencies find that

they lack a data culture

Perhaps one of the key reasons why the notion of a data culture attracts widespread attention is that many government agencies find that they don’t really have one. The absence of a data culture conveniently explains why the public sector is still struggling to fully leverage the promise and potential of data to achieve its mission-critical priorities.

Indeed, recent evidence suggests that establishing a data culture is a challenge for all organizations, public and private. In a survey conducted by AWS and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), CDOs were asked about their greatest challenges in achieving their objectives. The answer “Absence of data-driven culture or data-driven decision-making” ranked second and the related “Difficulty in changing organizational behavior and attitudes” first. The same survey also suggests that establishing a data culture is a particularly tough nut to crack, as CDOs reported that supporting “data-driven culture initiatives” consumes most of their attention, along with data governance and enabling new business initiatives.

What is data culture, really?

The proposition that “data culture” is important usually elicits nodding heads, but rarely raised eyebrows. This is surprising because “data culture” remains an elusive concept. Michael D. Watkins’ observation in a Harvard Business Review article on the broader notion of “organizational culture” holds true for “data culture” as well: “While there is universal agreement that (1) it exists, and (2) that it plays a crucial role in shaping behavior in organizations, there is little consensus on what organizational culture actually is”.

Does data culture eat data strategy for


Perhaps one of the reasons why “organizational culture” and “data culture”, respectively are considered a master switch for organizational/data behavior is the wide acceptance of the famous quote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

There are two problems with the idea that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” First, it is usually misattributed to management thinker Peter F. Drucker – but he never actually said it. Second, the popularity of this adage seems to have given rise to the idea that for “data culture” to be so powerful, it must be a broad, almost all-encompassing phenomenon. For instance, in a recent article in Forbes, data culture is defined as the “collective beliefs and behaviors of the people in the organization for leveraging data for improved business performance” and McKinsey relates it to the “the organizing principles, motivations, and approaches that undergird [organizations’] data efforts”.

The issue with such broad definitions of data culture is that they set the bar for management very high. While changing an organization’s collective beliefs, incentives and behaviors around data are indeed laudable ambitions, devising practical approaches that deliver on these goals simultaneously and effectively is a tall order.

“Data culture” revisited (and what Peter F.

Drucker really said about culture)    

Peter F. Drucker believed that worrying about managing culture may result in a dead end. In a 1991 Wall Street Journal article he wrote the following: “Changing the corporate culture has become the latest management fad. Every business magazine carries articles about it […]. There is indeed a need to change deeply ingrained habits in a good many organizations […] But “changing culture” is not going to produce them. Culture – no matter how defined – is singularly persistent.”

Fortunately, Peter F. Drucker did not stop there. He also provided a simple solution out of the cultural conundrum: “If you have to change habits, don’t change culture. Change habits.”

Not everybody will agree with Peter F. Drucker’s advice to discard the notion of (data) culture altogether. After all, changing an organization’s values, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior around data seems necessary for its full-fledged “data-ization”. However, Peter F. Drucker may still have a point: instead of attempting to change data culture at large or by trying to change mindsets in the hope behavioral change will follow, perhaps a bottom-up approach that starts with data habits is the key to success.

Three tactical ideas on supporting data

habits in the public sector  

How then could organizations change the data habits of their employees? Peter F. Drucker had a few things to say this about this (which I encourage you to read), but I would like to draw on James Clear’s fascinating book Atomic Habits, which argues that the “seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision” and lays out the DNA for acquiring new habits:  “Whenever you want to change your behavior, you can simply ask yourself: How can I make it obvious? How can I make it attractive? How can I make it easy? How can I make it satisfying?”

As this is only a blog post, and a rather long one at that, I will not fully expand on these ideas, but close a with few parting thoughts on how to apply this to your public sector organization – and yourself, if you are a data-curious civil servant.

Depending on your stage in your data journey, a tiny, but feasible change in your data habit could be, for instance, to make a rule that you read a piece of data journalism that has a bearing on your professional role and tasks or look at a data-related webinar at least every week or once a month – and reward yourself with your favorite treat upon task completion. Similarly, whenever you are assigned a new task, you might commit yourself to always ask yourself and research what type of data could help you or how similar organizations or peers leverage data, especially if your task revolves around better decision-making, driving efficiency, or improving government services. And if you don’t find the answer, simply ask your Chief Data Officer for help if you have one. Your CDO will be thrilled to hear from you, I promise.

On an organizational level, good technology is key to making data habits obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. Here, the role of rigorous data governance, solid data management, and a powerful data platform can hardly be overstated, so things like data access, visualization, and analysis are not a headache, but are convenient and only just a few clicks away. I wrote a bit more on this in a point of view called Leveraging data is a superpower . Again, the idea is that when the emergence of data habits is practically enabled – and the value of leveraging data is showcased in individual use cases and LOBs – it is much more likely that the beliefs and attitudes regarding data in the organization at large will gradually change and set in motion a positive feedback loop, not vice versa. 

This blog is the first installment of series on data readiness in public organizations, please stay tuned for the next one. And if you are interested to learn more about how we at Capgemini can help your public sector organization develop data habits or have feedback or questions on this blog post, please feel free to get in touch with me at

Dr. Philipp Fuerst

VP Data-Driven Government & Offer Leader, Global Public Sector
To unlock the value of their data, governments need to make organizational changes and meet new technology requirements. Yet, the many examples of public sector agencies that have already successfully embarked on the journey to become data-driven organizations show that these hurdles can be overcome. Their gains in decision making, operational efficiency and citizen experience are tangible and significant. Our clients believe the benefits they have reaped are well worth the effort.