Roy and Lila Ash Fellow Ryan Swann: A Story of Service

Meet Roy and Lila Ash Fellow Ryan Swann MC/MPA 2019

Just days after Ryan Swann MC/MPA 2019 and his identical twin brother, Bryan MC/MPA 2019, accepted their diplomas in 1998 at Prince George’s County Largo High School in Maryland, the brothers enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve and were en route to basic training in Parris Island, South Carolina.

“I come from a large family of veterans and public servants,” says Ryan Swann, recipient of the Ash Center’s 2018–2019 Roy and Lila Ash Fellowship in Democracy, a scholarship that is awarded to a meritorious mid-career student with a proven dedication to democratic governance and public-sector innovation. “I really felt the need to serve.”

The brothers planned to finish boot camp, head off to college at the University of Maryland, College Park, and return to the Corps for routine training obligations. In the fall of 2001, during their junior year, however, the attacks of September 11 changed everything. Their unit was activated and, together, they deployed to Iraq during what would have been their senior year at Maryland. “It was a test,” Ryan reflects. “It was a challenging time for my family.”

Ryan served one tour in Iraq, and he and his brother returned home safely in early 2005. Of his time in the military, Ryan says, “[It] humbled me and gave me a sense of discipline and leadership and a challenge that I hadn’t experienced before.”

Ryan then returned to College Park to finish his degree and, when he left a semester later with a newly minted bachelor’s degree, a Navy Unit Commendation, and two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, his career of service would take him new directions.

A New Challenge

In 2006, Ryan traded in his uniform for a suit and tie as a senior business intelligence lead at the US Department of the Treasury, working to set up the department’s data analytics capabilities. His task was to use data to improve the Treasury’s internal decision-making processes, a difficult undertaking in the nascent data analytics field.

Barely two years into his new role, the 2008 financial crisis took hold.

“We realized that [the Treasury] should have been doing more with the data that was being collected and stored,” remembers Ryan. “That was another humbling experience, but I learned a whole lot about the intersection between data and policy.”

In 2014, Ryan left the Treasury to join the US General Services Administration’s Office of Government-wide Policy as the organization’s first director of data analytics. “This thing, data as an asset, was new,” says Ryan. Federal data, however, is as old as the republic itself. From handwritten census forms to spreadsheets and PDFs of reports and white papers—data lay siloed across the federal government in innumerable databases, hard drives, websites, and filing cabinets. Orchestrating the convergence of billions of data points, while necessarily breaking down barriers within or between federal agencies, to serve the public better, was a daunting task. Luckily, Ryan and his federal colleagues were up to the job.

White House Data Cabinet

Ryan worked with DJ Patil, the first-ever US Chief Data Scientist, appointed by President Obama, to convene data leaders from across the federal government in a new organization, the White House Data Cabinet. The Data Cabinet’s mission was to improve data governance, data management, and data sharing across federal agencies.

‟When the president asked something basic like, ‘How many federal buildings are in the federal government?’ That was a really hard question to answer,” recalls Ryan. The Data Cabinet was determined to fix this and help federal policymakers find answers to these relatively elementary questions.

The Data Cabinet’s efforts quickly had a tangible impact on government. The group’s analysis and predictive models informed policies like a White House directive under President Obama to help maintain federal leadership in environmental sustainability.

Federal Data Maturity Model 

Further contributing to the federal data community, Swann coauthored the first Federal Data Maturity Model, a framework that agencies can use to assess how well they have integrated data into their organizations, from data analytics to data culture and personnel.

Ryan’s multipurpose model went beyond allowing agencies to simply understand their current data analytics capacities, but also provided a meaningful roadmap to improve data utilization and a common language for agencies across the federal government to use in talking about common data issues and solutions. The model has been adopted by agencies such as the Department of Defense, Department of Labor, and the General Services Administration.

Ryan Swann

Future Service

His experience in the federal government gave Ryan unique insight into the role of technology and data in governance. “Our leaders, our elected officials, and our civil servants have to be able to not only use data but also understand the impact that it has on the policies that we write,” he notes.

This ability to reflect broadly on how data deeply impacts governance and public leadership made Ryan an ideal candidate for the Ash Center’s Roy and Lila Ash Fellowship.

“We were immediately struck by Ryan’s commitment, expertise, and leadership leveraging data tools and strategies across the federal government. It was clear that Ryan was intimately familiar with the ways that data plays a critical role data in driving innovation in government,” said Tim Glynn-Burke, Ash Center Executive Director, Programs.

Whether taking a course with digital-government expert David Eaves, an Ash faculty affiliate, or engaging with classmates from all over the world, Ryan has found his Kennedy School experience rewarding. “I came to HKS to build out my public service skills and ask some tough questions to some really smart people,” says Ryan, who is joined on campus by his twin Bryan in the 2018–19 cohort of mid-career students.

His time at the Kennedy School is giving him a strong base from which to answer his next call to service. Ryan sees his path leading to public office, whether local or federal. “If the citizens of this great country will elect me, I will serve,” he says, smiling.