Showcase Interview: Fulton County’s first ever Chief Strategy Officer – Anna Roach

I sat down with Fulton County’s first ever Chief Strategy Officer – Anna Roach, to discuss her role. I wanted to understand what it is she does? What led her to the role? What value does she bring? And finally how, being a former criminal defense attorney, her previous experience equipped her to tackle this newly created position head on!


Douglas Leach: In preparation for our Chief Data & Analytics Officer Government 2018 event, I’m bringing together a few of our speakers who have emerging job roles. I’ve spoken with a number of other different, ever so slightly nuanced roles, working within data and strategy. I thought it would be great for you to share some of your thoughts and explain what a Chief Strategy Officer is.

Anna Roach: Sure. I think it is an incredibly interesting role … particularly in government. We did not have this role defined prior to four years ago when I was offered the position in its inaugural phase. Dick Anderson comes from the private sector and brings a wealth of private sector experience and discipline to his role as our leader and County Manager for Fulton County. One of the first things he did when he came was to restructure our government in a way that made a lot more sense, borrowing bits of principles from the private sector and applying it to how we constructed our government here at Fulton County.

So rather than having the title of Deputy County Managers, he organized the department under three Chief Officers, and mine was the role of Chief Strategy Officer. We also have a Chief Operating Officer who handles all of the citizen facing departments such as police, fire, health department etc., and a Chief Financial Officer who is responsible for all of the internal services departments. So, procurement, finance, IT and human resources. The third leg of our “stool” as Dick affectionately calls us, is Chief Strategy Officer, which I occupy. My primary role and responsibility are to develop and manage the county’s five-year strategic plan, and, more importantly, to track and report performance metrics that are tied to our strategic plans.

Our Strategy and Performance Management Office houses that performance division, a continuous improvement division, and an analytics division. The primary focus of our office is to leverage the tremendous and expansive amount of data that we have access to, inform decision making and provide an unmatched level of transparency in government. I’m very proud of this role that has been established and in which I serve, because it is a resource to our stakeholders, elected officials, and citizens.

In addition to the work tied to strategy and performance, my other responsibilities include a stack of departments that are in the justice realm. Was a good fit and I enjoy working with those elected partners at a strategic rather than operational level, and it helps I have a background as a criminal defense attorney.

Douglas Leach: Yeah, I was going to mention that – Going from a criminal defense attorney to a Chief Strategy Officer…. Seems like an unexpected change? And to go from a very well defined role in law to a broader role in government must’ve been a major departure?

Anna Roach: It is!

Douglas Leach: So how has your background played into your role as a Chief Strategy Officer?

Anna Roach: It’s really interesting, ’cause it’s hard … I think that this role would have been more difficult for me to fill and be successful in had I not had such a diverse background. The Chief Strategy Officer role is not limited to a particular set of services.  It is a mindset. I can’t think of any service in the county that I have not touched as the Chief Strategy Officer. I have to be able to operate in many different circles here at the County, because every single thing that we do in our strategy office touches every single service we provide and every single department that we have. And so I think that my diversity in my professional experience has really helped me to be successful in this role.

Douglas Leach: One thing I was reading recently, was looking at how Japan recently invested $35 billion on state-funded research into technologies such as AI and Big Data Analytics to help solve some of the issues they’re having with their workforce demographics. They have an aging population, so they’re finding it very difficult to keep up with a lot of the competitiveness that other countries bring. How do you feel big data analytics can help alleviate some of the issues which governments are experiencing? How have you used data analytics to solve various problems, to find efficiencies? to cut down on costs? Basically, what value do you bring?

Anna Roach: Yeah, part of the value we have added is to help try to provide a conduit to remove politics and the guesswork from resource allocation decision making. We have seven elected officials from districts across the entire county, and with the assistance of our office, they have truly demonstrated a good discipline of using data to define where in our county a particular need is more prevalent. My most recent example is a data analytics exercise which used both internal data that we had from our senior services department as well as external census data, to analyze where we had low-income senior citizens and their proximity to our existing senior centers, as well as access to public transportation. And we developed geo-heat maps to show where the greatest propensity for need was and where exactly throughout our county we needed to direct or divert more resources in areas to serve seniors. Based on the data, we are able to better define underserved areas seniors in more need in these particular areas, and it really resulted in a shift in the way we allocated resources as a result of that data analytics exercise. More importantly, it started the dialogue around program design and spurred innovation in senior transportation decision making, and a pilot partnership with Uber.

We also have an exciting partnership brewing with Code Atlanta and Microsoft, where we plan to crowdsource development of a citizen interaction tool for our property assessment process, by hosting a hack-a-thon.

We are also in discussions with KPMG to explore evaluating six potential test cases for blockchain technology or distributed ledger to help streamline information sharing in a way that solves real problems in government. The list includes a variety of prospective applications that range from property records all the way to inmate mental health assessments.

Douglas Leach: Sounds like a great driver for Social Transformation.

Anna Roach: Sure, sure, absolutely.

Douglas Leach: For many of the emerging roles there are widely held misconceptions – for instance when I discuss Chief Data Scientists, people often feel that they’re just sitting there all day with calculators and algorithms when in actual fact, they’re far more ingrained in the business. I know from speaking to people about Chief Strategy Officers, I think they have an image in their head of endless flow charts basically and project management programmes. How true is this? What is the biggest misconception about your role?

Anna Roach: Yeah, I think that that’s a terrific question because all of those things that you said and all of those misconceptions are true. If I were to pick one to be the biggest misconception, which we’ve had to work really hard to dispel this misconception, is that your Chief Strategy Officer and folks in your data and performance management group are a set of auditors or a set of “got you”-ers. And we’re not.

We’re really a service to departments because as valuable as this data is at an executive or enterprise level, it is even more valuable for a department head who truly has to know what is going on within their business area. And so we have managed to dispel the notion that we’re coming in to provide performance information on a “got you” basis and rather serve as a service to our departments.

In other words, what is it that you need to know? What information can you not do without knowing? And how do you define success for your business practice and how can we help you track the correct metrics to know whether or not you’re being successful? And so that’s one culture change that we had to get on top of right away and I think that our departments now view us as a service to them rather than someone coming in trying to tattle from a performance standpoint. So that has been a journey and I’m glad we are where we are right now.

Douglas Leach: So with regards to the Chief Strategy Officer, Since there are still relatively few of them around. How do you see the role evolving in the future? Do you think more departments a) should have more chief strategy officers? and b) how will the role evolve moving forward?

Anna Roach: Sure, and the reason I think that this role is so critical is that it’s hard to tell whether or not you’re doing the right things for the right reasons and being successful at it without having a Chief Strategy Officer. Now, if you are an organization or a department that just exists for the sake of existing, a Chief Strategy Officer’s never gonna be valuable. But if you are an organization that seeks to demonstrate your value, especially in public service, then I think this role is critical. The secret sauce is well thought out strategic plan at the onset that you garner consensus around. Then you have to ask the honest question of Where are you now, and where do you see yourself as an organization 5-10 years from now? Then, most importantly, you have to define success using time-bound metrics tied directly to those objectives that you set out in that plan. Finally, without having some dedicated resources to spend their every waking hour making sure that (1) everything you do is tied back to that strategy, and (2) there is a process in place to track and report progress it’s gonna be hard to stay focused and be successful, and the organization will get back to one focused on counting widgets to no end. Widgets are important, but again, if it’s not tied to a strategy, if it’s not tied to certain citizen outcomes that you predefine, then it’s really just spinning your wheels.

Anna will be speaking at The Chief Data & Analytics Officer Government 2018 event on 30-31 May in Washington DC. For further information and to see the full agenda and speaker line-up:

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed are Anna’s and do not represent the views of the Fulton County or US Government.

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