As the US releases more and better aid data, the challenge is turning information into power.
This is a joint post by George Ingram of the Brookings Institution and Gregory Adams.
This week the Obama Administration released a significant new tranche of data on US foreign assistance investments. Meanwhile, Congress is advancing legislation to require such disclosure of aid data by law. Both efforts are driven by the belief that better aid transparency is crucial to meeting commitments to better aid effectiveness and a more open government. But how can the United States ensure that this data disclosure is in fact a useful to make aid more effective and accountable?
Oxfam America and the Brookings Institution recently hosted a roundtable discussion with U.S. policymakers, African government and civil society leaders, and expert data analysts on how local actors are using aid data to strengthen country systems and empower citizens.
Through these conversations, participants are arguing that the United States must move beyond transparency for its own sake and focus on putting aid data to use.
The US government is beginning to make progress both on disclosing data as well as focusing on how that data is made most useful to citizens. One US aid agency— the Millennium Challenge Corporation earned the top rank in Publish What You Fund‘s 2013 Aid Transparency Index released in October, by investing in publishing high-quality, comprehensive data according to the common standard of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). After a nerve-wracking period of radio silence during the government shutdown, the White House released its second Open Government Partnership Action Plan last week that incorporates aid transparency, including a commitment to continued engagement with civil society on the use of aid data. In addition, this week, the White House and the State Department will host a conversation on “Closing the Citizen Feedback Loop.”
Citizen feedback is now emerging as key to making aid data useful for advancing development goals. At the Brookings/Oxfam roundtable discussion, participants shared a number of ideas that the US government should implement to help citizens access and use aid information:
- Localize aid data using geocoding and maps to give the context citizens need to report back to donors on how funds are being spent.
- Release data more quickly, to ensure dialogue between donors, partner governments, civil society and citizens is informed by timely data that helps select and reinforce effective strategies to fight poverty and promote growth.
- Support extending citizens’ capacity to get involved. Aid effectiveness depends on citizen engagement, not a bilateral relationship between donors and recipient governments. Aid information should be presented in a way that supports this engagement.
- Channel aid data through local media and existing local networks, rather than setting up new, burdensome tools or processes that aren’t owned by recipient communities.
- Ask who is using information, and what problems they are trying to solve. Different stakeholders have different perspectives on what the outcome of increased transparency is supposed to be.
- Prioritize aid data that can help citizens hold local governments accountable; while accountability to US legislators and taxpayers is important, do not let efforts to speak to US based audiences crowd out efforts to make data timely and useful for transparency activists on the ground like Alexis Nkurunziza in Rwanda and Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai in Sierra Leone, who are demanding accountability for results.
- Contribute to credible processes, and reinforce relationships that will produce better accountability in local system, by ensuring that aid information to be used in local accountability processes is timely, accurate, detailed, and comparable, in line with the IATI standard.
- Solicit ideas from citizens about what information they need, and facilitate conversations between citizens and suppliers of data so that the systems for delivering aid information can evolve as citizens’ needs evolve.
In light of the growing emphasis on citizen feedback in the pursuit of more useful aid data, the new focus on this issue by open data policymakers at the White House and State Department is welcome. However, to reach the goal set by President Obama to make all governments more open and accountable to their people, citizen’s need to receive a response from donors to let them know how their feedback is being used. For accountability, there is something more important than data—to sustain citizen engagement, citizens must trust that their feedback will be acted upon. That’s when investments in transparency will start paying a return in good governance.