Politics of Poverty

2016 in Review: Exploring a User-Driven Aid Transparency Model

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How the US government is helping shift aid transparency discussions to ensure data on foreign aid is not only available, but useful to people in developing countries.

Dennis Vega is Managing Director for Planning, Performance, and Systems in the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance.

In recent years, the international community has made tremendous progress to open foreign assistance data to the public, and 2016 was no exception. On a global and local level, there is much progress to celebrate.  As a member of the transparency community, ForeignAssistance.gov (FA.gov) has been busy too. While we have achieved much this year, our focus has been centered on 1) improving data completeness and quality, 2) advancing system and policy changes, and 3) furthering data use around the world.

Data Completeness and Quality

In 2016, several U.S. government agencies took steps to begin reporting to FA.gov, tackling systemic hurdles to do so in the name of transparency. Three new agencies will be added to FA.gov this month: the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the Departments of Labor and Transportation. For each reporting agency, FA.gov will provide contextual information and detailed planning, obligations, and disbursement data at the transaction level, helping to educate the public on the players involved in foreign assistance and how much they spend, where, and to what effect.

We’re not stopping here. FA.gov is working to onboard all agencies involved in foreign assistance and several others are close to being online. We have seen an increase in agency willingness to engage in this important effort, as they begin to realize that in addition to increasing transparency, reporting to FA.gov can also help streamline other reporting requirements.

System and Policy Changes

Even with this progress, only so much can be done to improve data quality without re-examining the systems used to capture foreign assistance data and assessing whether they’re appropriately structured for transparency goals. The Department of State’s Foreign Assistance Data Review (FADR) lays out recommendations to improve tracking and reporting of foreign assistance. In January 2017, this effort produced the FADR Data Element Index, identifying 57 standardized data elements to be incorporated into agency-wide data systems.

Also in 2016, Congress passed the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act, institutionalizing our efforts and catalyzing other advances across government. The Act bolsters what the U.S. government, led by the Department’s Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources (F), is already doing in aid transparency and also lays out new requirements. It increases oversight on agencies’ abilities to redact information on FA.gov, and requires establishing a clearinghouse to publicly share foreign assistance documents. The Department and other agencies are developing tools to address these requirements.

Data Use Around the World

Suffice it to say, it’s been a big year for aid transparency. However, a glaring problem remains: how can we ensure the public understands the power of data and how to tap into it? Data portals like FA.gov have the power to connect users with foreign assistance data, but one of our biggest challenges is reaching those outside the transparency community and making data useful for them.

This requires getting out from behind our desks to work hand-in-hand in with potential users. In 2016, I traveled to Malawi, France, Thailand, and Indonesia and engaged in practical discussions about transparency and data use with journalists, technologists, civil society, donors, and recipient governments. I observed strong interest in transparent foreign assistance data, hindered by challenges related to quality, level of detail, and statistical capacity. We know we cannot travel to all corners of the globe to spread the message. To further our reach, we asked university students to create foreign assistance data use handbooks for users around the world through the State Department’s Diplomacy Lab program and expect to share them later this year.

It is increasingly clear that the aid transparency community must examine all aspects of its efforts, including whether the current model of data preparation – with multiple layers of transmission through the bureaucracy – is the best process for meeting transparency goals. Would adopting an IATI reporting model that started at the country-level as opposed to headquarters allow for increased accuracy as well as customization for use? We explored ideas around transparency models internally and through our partnership with Oxfam, with whom we hosted an event at the Open Government Partnership Summit that opened up real data sets from the Ebola outbreak and recovery to scrutiny by donors, civil society, and recipient governments. Participants found that in many cases, the information provided was not sufficient to meet their real-life goals.

This is the kind of insight that should inform our actions in the future. Moving forward, we must put the user at the center of the transparency model and focus on providing data to people who need it most, in a way that’s useful for them, and in a format suitable for their use.

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