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Archive for the ‘Community’ Category

Want to Know What We Got for Our Money? MCC’s Telling Us.

Friday, April 24th, 2015
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See below for a guest post from MFAN Accountability Working Group Co-Chair, Diana Ohlbaum.

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In this space back in February, I suggested a list of ways for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to advance its thought leadership and boost its development effectiveness.  One of those ideas was to conduct “after-action reviews” to provide an honest look at what did (or didn’t) happen during a compact, why (or why not), and how to improve next time.

True to form, less than a month later the MCC responded by publishing its first “compact closed” page, in this case with respect to Mozambique.  The page has a lot to recommend it: a concise summary of the amounts promised and spent; the dates of compact signature, entry into force and completion; a break-down by project area; the total number of beneficiaries; the changes made during the term of the compact; the key compact indicators, targets, and results for each project; the policy conditions; and links to all the key documents, including constraints analysis, evaluations and scorecards.

This is an extremely useful way to look at the big picture of MCC’s results, particularly for Congressional staff who don’t want to have to wade back through years of notifications and justifications to understand how the project changed over time and what they got for their money.  It answers the important question of “What did this compact achieve?”, which is not ordinarily addressed by evaluations, Inspector General investigations, or Government Accountability Office reports.  My only quibble with the page is that it shows the results according to the adjusted targets rather than the initial goals, which gives an unfairly rosy picture of how the compact was implemented.  The Center for Global Development’s Sarah Rose also helpfully suggests that the page include information on policy impact.

I hope, as well, that this effort was not entirely an exercise in packaging information for the public, but also included a very detailed and substantive de-brief from those who worked on the program, with an eye to identifying best practices and lessons learned.  Although this should happen continuously throughout a compact’s duration, compact closure is an important opportunity to ask questions like:  What do you know now that you wish you had known at the start? What were the most burdensome processes and requirements, and how did you manage them?  If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

Such a review would be different from an independent evaluation in that it would draw directly from the perceptions and experiences of the staff and local partners who were most closely involved, and not necessarily be designed for public consumption.  This type of learning is essential for an organization whose personnel are hired for their specific country knowledge, subject-matter expertise and language skills, and often leave when the compact is complete rather than assuming a new post within the MCC.

Some of these lessons may be too sensitive to be trotted out in public, or too context-specific to be of broader value.  But some of the feedback – from MCC’s local staff and partners as well as its direct hires — could be summarized in a way that is helpful to other organizations, inside and outside government, working in the same countries or on similar projects.

Although it may not be obvious to the user, the “compact closed” page required an enormous amount of effort from the MCC, with dozens of people and multiple departments involved in developing content, writing code, creating charts, designing new layouts and styles, and extracting data.  It’s the template for similar pages forthcoming on other completed compacts, which will be a useful resource for the entire development community.  From my perspective, this is a noteworthy step forward on transparency as well as a valuable tool for assessing overall results.

Broad Coalition Urges President to Nominate a Permanent USAID Administrator

Thursday, April 16th, 2015
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April 16, 2015 (WASHINGTON) – This statement is delivered on behalf of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network by Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette:

Today MFAN, as part of a broad coalition of international development advocates and stakeholders, including four former USAID Administrators, is urging President Obama to expeditiously nominate a permanent Administrator to the United States Agency for International Development. Under the leadership of Administrator Rajiv Shah, USAID has made dramatic steps to strengthen its capacity to deliver results for the American people and for people in developing countries around the world.

Having a Senate-confirmed appointee at the helm of USAID is essential to advancing U.S. development goals and the aid effectiveness agenda. We are calling on the President to nominate a new Administrator as soon as possible to sustain strong U.S. leadership on the development programs that play a vital role in support of our foreign policy goals and are crucial to the lives and well-being of men and women around the globe.

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.