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Lessons From The Road To Transparency: Four Tips For Publishing To IATI

Thursday, March 19th, 2015
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See below for a guest post from Laia Grino, Senior Manager, Transparency, Accountability and Results at InterAction. This piece originally appeared on InterAction’s blog on March 19.

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In honor of Sunshine Week – a weeklong celebration of open government – we’d like to share four lessons InterAction has learned in our own journey towards openness. Today, we join the more than 300 organizations that have published data on their activities according to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standard (view our data on the IATI Registry or a visualization of our data on NGO Aid Map). This includes our counterparts in the U.K., Ireland, Netherlands and Nepal, and several InterAction members, including CDA, ChildFund International, GlobalGiving, Pact, and Plan International USA. In doing so, we have taken another important step in making our organization more open and accountable, in line with the open information policy InterAction adopted last October.

In the blog post announcing that policy’s launch, we explained our rationale for making a commitment to greater openness and transparency. Our reasons for publishing to IATI are much the same, so I won’t repeat those here. Instead, I’d like to share four tips:

  • Adopting an open information policy first can be helpful. Not every organization publishing to IATI has adopted an open information policy. For InterAction, however, I believe this was a critical first step for two reasons. First, in adopting the policy, InterAction’s senior management signaled their commitment – both internally and externally – to improving the organization’s transparency. Having this public commitment to point to is useful in ensuring we are continuously making progress on implementation. Second, the development of the policy prompted us to have important discussions about why transparency matters specifically for InterAction, and to come to an agreement about what type of information we would and would not make public (a list of exclusions is available in our open information policy). This laid the groundwork for identifying what data we would be publishing to IATI.
  • Identify/cultivate internal champions. The commitment to publish to IATI or to be more transparent in general should not lie within one person alone. Those responsible for leading an organization’s transparency efforts should do whatever they can to identify or cultivate other internal champions. Some people will become champions for normative reasons – because they believe in the value of transparency in and of itself. Others will do so for practical reasons – because they realize how publishing to IATI either helps the organization or helps make their own work easier. At InterAction, it has been important to have both types of champions.
  • Integrate IATI publication into existing (or needed) business processes. Just as the commitment to publish to IATI should not lie only within one person, neither should the responsibility for actually publishing. It would have taken just one or two days for one person to simply publish information on our existing grants to IATI. Instead, it took us five months. Why? To try to ensure that our publication to IATI will not be a one-off effort, we began by figuring out: (1) what information IATI calls for and what we could realistically publish based on our current systems; (2) when and where that information should be captured; and (3) who within the organization should provide that information. Based on this analysis, we’ve made changes to our grants management process to integrate the data we need for IATI publication, rather than set up an entirely separate process. An important lesson here is that, depending on how it is approached, IATI can be a very useful tool for improving an organization’s data management practices.
  • Be patient. Publishing to IATI will almost inevitably take more time than expected (especially since – at least at first –it is usually not part of anyone’s job description). But while improving an organization’s transparency does require consistent pressure, it is important to avoid turning IATI into just another reporting requirement or making the processes of openness seem like a burden. As one of my colleagues emphasized, ultimately this is about shifting organizational culture – something that takes time in any context.

InterAction is committed to publishing high-quality information on its grant-funded activities on a quarterly basis. As we work out the kinks in publishing what we’ve currently committed to, we will be thinking about how we can make the process easier and further improve the quality of our published information. As all IATI publishers should, we will also be looking at how InterAction itself can realize the full benefits of publishing. Hopefully these lessons help clear the path to transparency for other leaders (like you?!), too.

MFAN, Devex Launch New Series on Aid Effectiveness: Reform for Results

Thursday, March 19th, 2015
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Today, Devex and the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network are launching a new series on U.S. foreign assistance reform, Reform for Results. Last Spring, we released our policy paper, The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond, which laid out concrete goals the U.S. government could take to make U.S. aid work harder and achieve more. With this series, we will examine accomplishments to date and emerging opportunities in 2015. We believe that the time to push the envelope on key reforms is now as the Obama Administration moves into its final years, the U.S. considers its commitment to the next round of global development goals, and Congressional interest in ensuring aid dollars are well spent increases.

We start the series with a piece from MFAN Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette, which can be found here. In the coming weeks, we will be publishing new content to the Reform for Results website on our pillar issues of Accountability and Country Ownership and we encourage the community to engage in the series starting today using #Reform4Results on Twitter.

What We Learned: Looking Back at “Do More with Data”

Friday, March 6th, 2015
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Last week, MFAN and AidData, in cooperation with the State Department and USAID, hosted Do More with Data: Moving U.S. Government Aid Transparency Forward, an event that brought together internal and external drivers of U.S. government foreign assistance transparency to explore ongoing and new efforts for making data more readily available for more people. Following the event, we asked three of MFAN’s leading thinkers on transparency and accountability to share their takeaways from the event. See below for thoughts from George Ingram, Lori Rowley, and Diana Ohlbaum and see here for a Storify of the Twitter activity from the event.

George Ingram, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and MFAN Co-Chair

A big takeaway from what was a very open and enlightening discussion is the contrast between the commitment and understanding by U.S. government foreign affairs officials of the importance of open data and the data “disarray” within those agencies.  Officials at the meeting advocated strongly for the value of transparency in foreign assistance data, and this advocacy is seen in the forward position the U.S. is taking in the international discussions around a post-2015 set of sustainable development goals. But, with the possible exception of the MCC, U.S. foreign affairs agencies are incapable of practicing that commitment. Agencies have multiple internal data systems that lack inter-operability and do not allow communication or sharing of data between agencies. U.S. agencies are good at tracking financial data – at feeding the accountants – but wholly inadequate in providing information of what is spent where, how, and with whom – on getting critical program data in the hands of program managers and stakeholders.

As one speaker put it, who are we to be telling developing country officials about open data.  It is good to see officials from the Department of State and USAID taking data transparency seriously, but, as someone suggested, there is still the problem of moving it up the chain of priorities – until it becomes a real priority, progress will be slow and inadequate.

Lori Rowley, Director, Global Food Security and Aid Effectiveness at The Lugar Center and MFAN’s Accountability Working Group Co-Chair

There were a host of positives that came out of this event for me. First and foremost was the large number of people who took the time to attend and participate in the event, a reinforcement that data is relevant and useful to a host of people throughout the public and private sectors.  It was a full house!

Next, as the facilitator of a breakout session with Catherine Marschner of the MCC, the agency known as the leader within the U.S. Government on data transparency, I was reminded again of the vital role of leadership in accomplishing open data goals. As far ahead as the MCC is in reporting its data to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), Catherine reminded the group that there are technical challenges that take time to work through in order to achieve reporting goals. The opportunity for a dialogue with Catherine among other agency representatives was also a great positive of the event.  Often agency representatives are working in a vacuum with regard to their data and reporting requirements and it is just one portion of their jobs, but the event gave them the venue to ask detailed questions, get recommendations for solutions, and support each other in their common goals.

Finally, just as we at MFAN regularly remind ourselves and others, demand for timely, reliable data must continue to grow in order for government managers to continue to see the relevance of ensuring its openness. This point was reinforced by government data managers at the event.

Diana Ohlbaum, Independent Consultant and MFAN’s Accountability Working Group Co-Chair

The event helped crystallize for me four separate types of open data needing focus.

The first is the one we are all familiar with: data that is collected but not published, often due to technical problems in extracting good data from existing systems.  In all likelihood, this will ultimately require the creation of new systems and processes for tracking foreign assistance activities and spending.

The second is data that is collected but not shared, such as the missing data from USDA, the Defense Department, and other agencies that have been less than forthcoming with the Dashboard requirements.  Although there are some technical issues at play here, what seems to be missing is a sense of urgency or priority on the part of these agencies.

The third type of missing data is one we are just beginning to grapple with: data that is not even collected by some agencies, such as project-level data.  This data will be needed not only to fulfill our IATI commitment, but also to provide the types of information that are most useful to local stakeholders, yet there doesn’t seem to be a clear plan in place to begin collecting it.

Finally, there is information that is already available and easily publishable, but not centrally collected, indexed, or linked to the Dashboard.  Most of this is what we call “unstructured data” – things like Country Development Cooperation Strategies, project descriptions, answers to Congressional questions for the record, and the wide variety of informational materials that Missions hand out locally.  Although they are not machine-readable or useful for high-level data analysis, these Word documents and PDFs can be extremely valuable to those trying to understand the granular details of a program, project, or policy.

While there are many small solutions, there is only one big solution: a demonstrated political commitment to open data, to using data as a management tool, and to full IATI compliance from the highest levels of each U.S. government department and agency.

Making Aid Transparency a Reality

Thursday, February 12th, 2015
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See below for a guest post from George Ingram, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and MFAN Co-Chair. This piece originally appeared on the Brookings blog on February 11.

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With many development organizations, both government and non-government, working to introduce greater transparency—in data, policy formulation, and program assessment—it is an important time for the development community to take stock of the lessons learned by agencies that have lead in this arena.

With this in mind, Brookings and the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) recently held a public discussion on aid transparency. The discussion was built around a new paper by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) setting out the organization’s experiences in implementing aid transparency.

We were fortunate to host a panel comprising the key transparency experts in four of the lead organizations—Aleem Walji (World Bank), John Adams (U.K. Department for International Development (DFID)), Theo van de Sande (Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MinBuZa)), and Beth Tritter (MCC). For context, in the 2014 Aid Transparency Index, DFID scored second, MCC third, the World Bank seventh, and MinBuZa 19th (out of a total of 68 agencies surveyed).

The session focused on two fundamental aspects of transparency: the value proposition for transparency, and the obstacles and incentives to implementation—the “why” and “how” of aid transparency.

Why Do We Care About Aid Transparency?

The fact that transparency promotes accountability is the most common understanding as to why transparency is important. In development work there are multiple sets of stakeholders to be accountable to, including taxpayers, implementing partners, recipient country governments and citizens, and the agency itself.

Transparency facilitates donor accountability to the most immediate stakeholders by providing taxpayers with information that reveals what the agency is doing and how well it is doing it. Public oversight is most often conducted by researchers, the media, and the legislature. Several of the panelists noted that making data public provides stakeholders—they had in mind the press and parliamentarians—with information that is readily accessible and conveys how assistance is used, allowing them to better appreciate both the specifics and broader context of aid provision, and thereby creating a more supportive environment for assistance.

Increasingly, however, donors are coming to understand that they also are accountable to intended beneficiaries in recipient countries. This same information allows beneficiaries and stakeholders in recipient countries to assess the use of assistance, except that local stakeholders need a greater level of detail about project implementation.

Not only does making data available allow citizens to hold donors accountable, it provides an incentive for donor organizations to hold themselves accountable as they know that what they do and how they make decisions can be reviewed by the public.

Transparency can contribute to better decision-making. It provides information on what agencies are doing so outside experts and stakeholders are more knowledgeable and can provide better informed input. MCC, for example, makes public both the data it uses to determine country eligibility and the results from crunching that data, so anyone can use the same data to check the results and provide feedback. When implemented in a truly open fashion, outside input can produce better informed decisions.

Transparency facilitates local ownership. How can you have real local engagement and ownership of development programs if local organizations and stakeholders lack basic information? Transparency can fill this gap. It provides data and information that allows local entities to be active participants in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of assistance programs. It provides information, not just to citizens, but also to recipient ministries, which often are in the dark on development agency activities in their country.

Transparency promotes market intelligence and facilitates coordination. If all donors share their information, the development community as a whole will have a clearer understanding of what other development agencies are doing and will be able to identify what has worked and what has not worked. Coordination is almost impossible in countries that are the focus of tens of donor agencies and hundreds of projects—it is just not feasible to get all the right people in the same room and sift through all the requisite material. But, if everyone publishes timely, comprehensive data in a common format through the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), anyone can learn what other donors are doing in a particular sector or region of a country. Coordination then becomes possible.

Transparency improves competition. More complete market information leads to better, fuller competition. And not just competition in the development arena, but also in the broader marketplace as it provides the private sector with data and information it can deploy in its business operations.

What does all this add up to? More effective use of assistance resources—a goal towards which we all should be striving.

Overcoming Obstacles to Greater Transparency

The discussion of obstacles and incentives to aid transparency focused on political will and organizational culture, reporting systems and technology and software, and costs.

All participants agreed that political leadership was critical to their organizations moving ahead on aid transparency. In each case there was political leadership of the highest order, in one case from the head of state, and for all organizations from the agency head.

While political leadership is essential, it is not sufficient. It must be accompanied by a supportive culture in the organization. It is imperative that the internal audience understands and owns the use of the data—if they do not appreciate that the data and its public availability can be of benefit to them, they will not support transparency. The natural state of bureaucracies is to “hug” data—keep it internal. It is natural for bureaucracies to be fearful of revealing data and information—fearful it will be used by the media and parliamentarians to expose weaknesses. It is essential to (i) overcome this fear, and (ii) demonstrate that the data is useful for agency program management. Overcoming the fear requires leaders who are willing to risk making data public. In the case of the three bilateral agencies represented at the event, the fear dissipated once data was released, including in the case of the MCC evaluations that revealed mixed results. To quote one of the panelists, “the silence was deafening.”

Reporting systems and technology and software to integrate financial and program data are always an issue. But the clear message from the experience of these four organizations is these issues can be difficult but by no means insurmountable, so long as there is strong political leadership and a supportive culture in the organization. An important instrument for overcoming systems and technology hurdles, and at the same time for building a supportive bureaucratic culture, is to ensure that the issues are tackled and solutions found through a team approach that includes experts from the program side who use and analyze data, the data crunchers, and the technology experts. Working together they come to understand the value and role of each party and build an understanding of the value of aid transparency.

In fact, the DFID participant on the panel offered up the DFID transparency tool to anyone who wanted to use it. That is a generous offer that other agencies should consider as a way to build on the DFID experience and knowledge.

A key challenge frequently raised is the potential cost of aligning systems and upgrading technology and software to be able to publish agency data to IATI. Interestingly, when the question was put to the panel, the response was that the cost to implement transparency was minimal to modest, not huge.

The Need for More Political Will

The bottom line for these experienced practitioners of open data is that political will and leadership are critical to transparency efforts, as is the need to foster a culture of collaborative data use. In looking at the principal U.S. government agencies involved in providing assistance, MCC was fortunate to have had transparency built into its founding structure and strong political leadership on transparency, which the new head of PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) is now bringing to that program.

There has been good leadership at the highest political level—President Obama has been very clear and articulate on government transparency, and the White House and Office of Management and Budget have issued several directives mandating open data. But evidence of political will and leadership from other U.S. agencies has been worryingly scarce. Until that happens—and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review offers the most immediate opportunity—those agencies will continue to muddle along on aid transparency.

Transforming U.S. Foreign Aid through Country Ownership

Thursday, January 15th, 2015
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See below for a guest post from Carolyn Miles, President & CEO of Save the Children and MFAN Co-Chair.

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Throughout my life, and particularly in my work with Save the Children, I have seen examples of where aid has made a powerful difference in helping to transform people’s lives; and I’ve seen it fail.

When it works, whether it comes in the form of health, nutrition, or humanitarian projects that prevent thousands of deaths or in education that provides children the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty, aid can play a crucial role in meeting the needs of billions of children and families around the globe and literally changing the future.

And when it fails, its impacts range from insignificant to actually leaving communities worse off in a range of ways.

Because of this, an important part of our advocacy at Save the Children is directed at improving the way aid is delivered to maximize its positive impact.  Research has shown time and time again that foreign assistance is more effective and sustainable when those local governments and communities on the receiving end have a strong voice in deciding and developing the relevant projects, using their vast local knowledge and skills.   When developing countries are in the driver’s seat and leading the design, implementation, and management of development activities we are closer to achieving country ownership.

Country ownership has become an increasingly important aspect of U.S. development projects.  In 2010, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) launched USAID Forward, a set of policy reforms, to strengthen the agency and restructure its approach to aid.  The Local Solutions initiative is a key aspect of USAID Forward that focuses on bolstering local capacity, promoting country ownership, and increasing sustainability of program results.  The initiative has the potential to transform the way aid is administered, implemented, and ultimately the effects it has on millions of lives in developing countries.

However, the initiative currently uses a single indicator to track progress – percentage of USAID Mission funds provided directly to local institutions.  This single measure is insufficient to evaluate such a multi-faceted effort.

Save the Children has recently released a report entitled, Tracking USAID’s Efforts on the Local Solutions Initiative: A Review of Select Procurements in Six Countries.  For this research, Save the Children looked at the procurement documents that so often shape how policies at the headquarters level translate into programs in the field.  Based on the content of these procurements, our researchers scored USAID’s efforts to promote county ownership across the six countries.  They found that in all six countries reviewed, USAID integrates country ownership principles satisfactorily.  Moreover, USAID collects a wealth of data through its programs that could be analyzed to assess its multi-faceted effort more comprehensively and used more strategically to inform its operations – particularly its engagement with local institutions.

The report recommends three action for USAID: 1) conduct a more comprehensive review of efforts across all countries implementing the Local Solutions initiative to report on progress and identify and scale up promising practices; 2) adopt additional standardized indicators to complement the current single indicator and expand the agency’s ability to track more broadly its efforts to promote country ownership; and 3) pay more attention to the local institutions working on agency-funded activities as sub-grantees or sub-contractors.

Effective tools to evaluate country ownership can impact the way USAID does development and could shift the entire sector towards practices that advance countries’ local priorities and ownership over decisions about their own development.  Similarly, adopting a consistent set of indicators would ensure that all USAID Missions around the world “speak the same language” and learn from each other.

The procurements reviewed show that USAID is prompting movement in the right direction with the Local Solutions initiative.  In Uganda, USAID is emphasizing the need for its projects to be measured against the goals of the Government of Uganda, not just its own goals.  Furthermore, USAID is recommending that monitoring and evaluation of project activities be carried out with participation from local organizations.

Country ownership – and USAID’s Local Solutions initiative – can transform the way aid is delivered while upholding human dignity and supporting people to become agents of their own development.  Save the Children’s report attempts to fill crucial information gaps in the implementation of USAID’s Local Solutions initiative and draw the aid community’s attention to the urgent need for a comprehensive progress update as the initiative enters its fifth year of implementation.