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A Tale of Two Websites

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
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Please see below for a guest post from MFAN’s Accountability Working Group Co-Chairs, Diana Ohlbaum and Lori Rowley. Ohlbaum is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Rowley is the Director for Global Food Security and Aid Effectiveness at The Lugar Center.

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The first great boon for transparency of U.S. foreign assistance came in December 2010 with the launch of the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, a visual presentation of budget and appropriations data that previously had been difficult for outsiders to obtain.  Created by the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance Resources (F), the Dashboard aimed to bring together information from all 22 U.S. government agencies carrying out foreign aid programs.  Its main purpose was to be a resource for Congress and the American public.

The second great boon for aid transparency came about a year later, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared U.S. backing for the International Aid Transparency Initiative, which publishes standardized and comparable data from public and private donors as well as developing country stakeholders.  Because the IATI Registry is far more comprehensive than the Dashboard, it promises to be a more useful resource for developing countries themselves.

But there was a hitch: the Dashboard and IATI were using different formats and collecting different fields of information.  The State Department, USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation and other U.S. agencies were burdened by either having to produce the information twice, in two different schemas, or else by having to translate data from one schema to the other.  As a result, there were bottlenecks and delays, and reported information often was stripped of important details in the process.

In light of this mismatch, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network’s (MFAN) Accountability Working Group decided that one of its top priorities for 2014 would be to ensure that foreign assistance data is published fully, without delay and without compromises to quality, to the IATI Registry.  Rather than duplicating the data, we argued that it made sense for U.S. agencies to adopt the IATI standard – along with a special extension for details that are unique to the U.S. government – and to use that as the basis for the Dashboard.  This would allow agencies to produce one set of data that could be easily adapted for both purposes.

Led by one of our partners, Publish What You Fund, the Working Group met several times over the spring and summer with the Dashboard team to convey our concerns and recommend solutions.  Publish What You Fund, which ranks the transparency of all major donors in its annual Aid Transparency Index, provided sustained technical assistance to the State Department to help it make the conversion in a timely and efficient way.  With a deadline approaching for collection of information for their 2014 Aid Transparency Index – due to be released on October 8th – the Dashboard made an all-out bid to fix the problem.

So we are pleased to announce that these efforts have all paid off: the Dashboard has adopted the IATI standard with a U.S. extension.  This has eliminated some of the data quality issues and will help to streamline the process for data being published to the IATI Registry.  Let’s give credit where it’s due: to the Dashboard team at the State Department for recognizing and successfully addressing this problem, and to Publish What You Fund for midwifing a solution.

Although this particular MFAN benchmark has been met, it’s only a small part of a much broader transparency agenda.  There are still serious problems with data quality and missing data, and we are calling on the State Department to develop and publicly release a management plan that explains how it will meet its obligations for full IATI implementation by the end of 2015.   USAID in its 2014 Open Government Plan has pledged to “investigate the costs of fulfilling additional IATI reporting requirements and publish a cost management plan which elaborates the findings,” which we applaud, and we urge the State Department to do the same.  Both plans are needed on an urgent basis if adequate funding is to be identified and technology upgrades are to be made by the promised deadline.  In the end, the higher the quality of the data, the more useful a tool it becomes for strengthening the effectiveness of foreign assistance.

USAID’s Frontiers in Development Asks More Questions than It Answers…and That’s a Good Thing

Monday, September 29th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Casey Dunning, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Global Development. This post originally appeared on CGD’s blog on September 23, 2014.

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Last week USAID held its second Frontiers in Development conference, a two-day smorgasbord of keynotes, panels, roundtables, and an Innovation Marketplace all focused on Ending Extreme Poverty.  As the agenda can attest, USAID sought to explore its role (and that of foreign assistance, writ large) in ending extreme poverty from multiple angles. From ‘Can it be done?’ to ‘How will it be done?’ to ‘Who will do it?’, the notion of Ending Extreme Poverty received a 48-hour in-depth examination from some of global development’s leading thinkers and practitioners as over 600 members of the development community observed.

I applaud Frontiers for tackling tough questions directly related to ending extreme poverty, including inequality, fragility and instability, climate change, and the spread of Ebola. While I didn’t leave the conference certain USAID had the answers to ending extreme poverty as an agency, I did come away thinking it had at least asked the right questions and was pursuing this noble, and incredibly difficult, mission with eyes wide open.

Because ending extreme poverty looks to be a global vision around which the world will coalesce for the next 15 years through the post-2015 agenda, it’s encouraging that USAID is seeking to bring intellectual and policy firepower to what could easily become rhetoric with no real substance behind it.

Frontiers offered a substantive two days. Below are my additional takeaways, observations, and general points of interest. It should be noted that this list is completely subjective as I was not able to attend every session, not yet being able to be in two places at once.

  • The theme of ‘Ending Extreme Poverty’ pervaded every event. With 29 separate events and more than 86 speakers, I would have forgiven Frontiers for occasionally veering off-topic – but it didn’t. The conference maintained coherence in exploring multiple sectors, issues, and populations through the lens of extreme poverty.
  • It wasn’t only US voices doing the talking. President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, former President John Kufuor of Ghana, Foreign Affairs Minister Tedros Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, and Winnie Byanyima of Oxfam International (just to name a few) all spoke about country and context-specific approaches to ending extreme poverty.
  • Frontiers rightly focused on Africa. Some colleagues thought the conference should have had a more balanced global focus, but I disagree. If we’re talking about extreme poverty, that’s where the majority of the extreme poor will reside. What’s more, Sub-Saharan Africa receives the highest levels of USAID funding (by region). This is called focus, folks; we can’t call for it and then get miffed when everything isn’t included.
  • Peace and stability are integral to ending extreme poverty. From Secretary of State John Kerry to President Kikwete to former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, I was struck by how often and how stridently numerous speakers pointed to conflict as one of the greatest drivers of increased poverty. This is nothing new, per se, but it was instructive to hear the importance of stability and good governance emerge from various perspectives. My hope is that this bodes well for the inclusion of these issues in the post-2015 agenda.
  • The world doesn’t have the right tools to end extreme poverty…yet. In his address, Secretary Kerry noted that, “development tools have not kept up with a changing world…too many barriers still exist.” Likewise USAID Administrator Raj Shah declared the United States must “earn the right to lead every single day. And unless we seek to evolve and get better, many of our partners—including the countries we celebrate today—will simply look elsewhere for solutions.” The entireFrontiers conference seemed to be a starting answer to this challenge, with the Innovation Marketplace offering pioneering practical solutions and the many sessions offering new approaches and models for how the world might end extreme poverty.

Incentivizing Transparency

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014
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Please see below for a guest post from MFAN’s Accountability Working Group Co-Chairs, Diana Ohlbaum and Lori Rowley. Ohlbaum is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Rowley is the Director for Global Food Security and Aid Effectiveness at The Lugar Center.

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For those of us who seek to improve development effectiveness, the rationale for transparency over foreign assistance spending is obvious.  Knowing what is spent, where and how it is used, and what is achieved is essential for ensuring that governments deliver on their promises – both here in the United States and in developing countries.  Quality data that is timely, comprehensive, accessible and usable is the currency of democratic accountability.

But for those who produce and collect the data, releasing it does not always seem to carry significant benefits.  If knowledge is power, then insider knowledge is concentrated power, and the rewards for sharing it may be less apparent.

To clarify the advantages of transparency for those who are not already convinced of its value, MFAN’s Accountability Working Group has produced a one-pager that explains the key reasons why transparency is important:

  • It improves coordination among U.S. agencies and international donors.
  • It enables partner governments to plan effectively.
  • It reduces administrative burdens and helps meet reporting requirements.
  • It builds stronger, more resilient, and more capable states.
  • It harnesses information that can be used to improve policies, services, and outcomes.

These are just a few of the many reasons why releasing data to the public, and making it as reliable and useful as possible, serves our larger foreign policy and development goals.  But those goals can only be met if those of us in civil society actually use the data to inform our programs, our analysis, and our advocacy.  Thus we offer these recommendations for the larger development community:

1) EXPLORE.  Set aside time to go to www.foreignassistance.gov and www.iatiregistry.org.  Prepare some questions that you’d like to have answered and see what you can find out.

2) SHARE.  It’s shocking how many people and organizations that could benefit from this information don’t even know it exists, here in Washington as well as across the United States and around the world.  Do your part by spreading the word.

3) TRAIN.  For researchers and advocates in the United States and developing countries alike, demonstrations and trainings can be very empowering and can overcome initial anxiety and intimidation about using new tools and technology.

4) PUSH.  Don’t just let the data reside on the internet as a passive resource.  Take the time to extract useful information and analyze, reframe, and repackage it to meet the needs of specific stakeholder communities.  Distribute it in formats that are widely accessible.

5) CREDIT.  Publicly cite the Dashboard and IATI when you use their data for blog posts, articles, research reports, and media stories.  Those who toil at collecting, reviewing and disseminating the data need to know that their hard work has not been in vain.

6) RESPOND.  The Dashboard team at the Department of State openly solicits feedback on the quality, format, and content of the data.  Let them know what works well and what doesn’t at http://www.foreignassistance.gov/web/Contact.aspx.

Sampling IATI data round 1: Lessons learned

Thursday, July 10th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Ruth Salmon, Research Assistant at Publish What You Fund. Salmon is the lead on data collection for the 2014 Aid Transparency Index. This post originally appeared on Publish What You Fund’s blog on July 7, 2014.

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Data collection continues for the 2014 Aid Transparency Index (ATI). And for the first time, we are sampling documents and data on the results, conditions and sub-national location published to the IATI Registry in XML format.

Sampling essentially means manually checking that the information provided is specific to that activity, has been appropriately tagged using IATI codes, and that it adheres to the ATI indicator guidelines.

The prospect of sampling documents and data for 16 ATI indicators, covering 25+ IATI standard elements, across 27 IATI publishers, was a daunting one. But we knew we had to plough our way through to ensure the information published about aid is relevant and of good enough quality to be used.

Yet this task turned out to be much more fun – and much less arduous – than we feared.

The good examples we found highlighted the potential of IATI data. There were plenty of things to get excited about. We’re happy to note in this first round of sampling that 82% of the 27 IATI publishers sampled passed the sampling checks for the indicators they publish.

The Good

As we clicked through the documents and IATI excerpts randomly selected for us by our sampling tool, there were many examples of good practice:

  • Subnational geo-coding: The European Commission’s Foreign Policy Instrument Services, the Netherlands, African Development Bank (AfDB)  and the World Bank are all publishing excellent geo-coded data, enabling us to see the coverage of project activities clearly within each country.drc-location
  • Results documents and data: Some results information clearly shows whether activities have achieved their intended outputs against stated goals. GAVI, Asian Development Bank (AsDB), Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), World Bank, and DFID have some great results documents, and Global Fund, Sweden and Canada  have some good examples of structured data.mcc-results
  • Appropriate language use: Several organisations (IADB, AfDB, UNDP) are publishing documents and IATI data fields using the language of the recipient country, making it more accessible for in-country users.

The Bad

Some less than helpful trends emerged too…

  • Over tagging: Some organisations are linking many documents to a single IATI category code, even when the code isn’t relevant to that document. This effectively renders the use of codes meaningless, making it very difficult to find the information you seek.
  • Inaccessible data: On a few occasions we were unable to access documents because of broken links. The use of scanned PDFs also makes the data difficult to parse and scrape. Document links led to generic web pages, with no clues on how to find documents for specific activities. Some samples were difficult to understand due to the acronyms and shorthand used to describe information.
  • Incoherence within data: Occasionally the codes used in the IATI data didn’t match the documents tagged. For example, country strategies tagged as organization strategies. There are several cases where the data specifies that no conditions are attached but conditions documents, with clear conditions outlined, are tagged!

The Ugly

Finally, a tiny percentage the IATI data we sampled was incomprehensible. Activities had no titles or descriptions, and were just lists of unlabelled transactions. This makes the information fairly useless to pretty much everyone. Queue many unrepeatable mutterings, long sighs and exasperated researchers.

The reality hit that it’s not possible to truly celebrate IATI publication until it is done well. Done badly, it serves very little use at all.

In summary…

Sampling has showed us the potential of using XML for publishing aid data for a wide variety of organisations. The elements of the IATI code had been used in many different ways, depending on what fits best with organisation’s particular structure and activities. When accurate and well-coded, it became clear that IATI data makes it easy to compare aid spending across time, space and many organisation types.

But it has also shown that unless the IATI standard is adhered to, the information published runs the risk of being difficult to understand, difficult to access, and difficult to reuse. Although it’s our impression that the majority of the errors we found were unintentional, it’s important that they are fixed to deliver on the full potential of IATI – of comprehensive, comparable aid data.

Now with data collection complete for 2014, we’re busy finalising and analysing the dataset so we can see this year’s results. Watch this space!

ForeignAssistance.gov Is Getting Bigger; Here’s How to Make It Better

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Sarah Rose, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Global Development. The piece originally appeared on CGD’s blog on June 23rd.

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We’re getting closer to knowing how the USG spends its foreign assistance dollars.  Recently, the State Department announced its first release of foreign assistance data on the ForeignAssistance.gov website (also known as “The Dashboard”).  This may not sound terribly glamorous, but it’s actually important news.  Since State’s spending makes up over a third of all US foreign assistance spending, the absence of its data has been a huge gap. With this recent State Department move, spending data for agencies responsible for 96 percent of US foreign assistance are now online. It’s great to see the Dashboard—now in its fourth year—slowly coming together. As it does, here are a few thoughts on why it’s still a good investment, the big challenges it faces, and how it can be improved.

Why We Should Cheer for the Dashboard

If well implemented, the Dashboard, an online resource of US foreign assistance spending (and potentially other) data, can:

  • Increase accountability and transparency: One of the Dashboard’s main goals is to enable easier access to information about US foreign assistance investments by US citizens, Congress, other US agencies, along with citizens and governments in recipient countries.
  • Ease agencies’ reporting burden (eventually): Behind the Dashboard lies a massive database that will eventually contain all of the underlying information necessary not just to populate the online interface but also to fulfill USG’s other regular reporting, like IATI, the Greenbook, and the OECD-DAC’s Creditor Reporting System.  Once the Dashboard/IATI process is automated within the agencies, complying with all this reporting should become much more streamlined and, importantly, more institutionalized.
  • Create incentives for improved data quality: Publishing data can change the dynamic around data quality.  The prospect of increased scrutiny can create an incentive for agencies to reinforce internal systems to produce cleaner, better organized data which can, in turn, bolster an agency’s own understanding of its internal operations.

Why It’s Taking So Long

The Dashboard was announced in 2010.  The effort is led by State’s F Bureau, which coordinates with the (over 20!) USG agencies that deliver some form of foreign assistance, and collects, codes, and publishes their data submissions. Some agencies, however, are far more capable of reporting to the Dashboard than others.  What’s so hard about data reporting, you may ask?  Quite a few things, it turns out, including:

  • Existing information systems’ incompatibility with Dashboard requirements.  Different agencies have different financial and project management information systems.  In fact, individual agencies often have multiple, separate systems.  Most of them long predate any notion of “open data” and are simply not designed to compile information in the way the Dashboard needs it.  Changing IT systems is a massive, costly undertaking.
  • Foreign assistance funds must be parsed out from a broader portfolio.  For agencies whose core mission isn’t foreign aid, internal systems weren’t set up to differentiate between foreign assistance and domestic spending. This makes it difficult to identify what’s right for the Dashboard and what’s not.  MCC has it easy in this respect (foreign aid only); the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, does not (mostly domestic).

At this point, the Dashboard team over at State is focused principally on providing data (i.e., getting more agencies on board) as well as pushing for improved data quality.  The team is pursuing a phased approach to populating the web portal, publishing agencies’ data as they have it ready.  It’s a courageous move for the USG to publicly release information knowing that it’s incomplete (and highly imperfect). Yet, they recognize that an incremental approach maintains pressure for continued implementation and fosters competition among agencies.  It may also help ease the culture shift towards transparency by gradually demonstrating that openness doesn’t have to be threatening.

Users Beware

This incremental approach also creates risks for users since:

  • A user can’t easily tell if data are complete—and often they’re not.  By illustration, this graphicshows agency-by-agency reporting to the Dashboard. You’ll see that not a single year contains information from all agencies (2006 to current), and that most agencies have reporting gaps.  It’s great that the Dashboard is frank about this, but the problem is that this is not clearly indicated where it needs to be.  For instance, if you wanted to find out about aid to Tanzania from 2008 to 2012, you would probably go directly to the Tanzania page and assume that what you pulled for “all agencies” means just that.  You’d be wrong. Only MCC and Treasury have 2008 data on the Dashboard, so “all agencies” means just those two for that year.  More broadly, it’s hard for a user to tell easily if data that don’t show up are absent because they don’t exist (e.g. DOD didn’t spend foreign assistance money in Country X in a given year) or because it’s missing (e.g. DOD did spend foreign assistance money in Country X that year but hasn’t reported it). The Dashboard does include caveats about data limitations but they’re unintuitively scattered in way too many locations that aren’t near where users are looking at data.  So they’re only helpful if a user thinks they should have a question about data quality or comprehensiveness and actively seeks this information.
  • Transaction-level data are incomplete (and sometimes unintelligible). Some important fields are missing from most agencies’ submissions.  For example, State is uniformly missing project title and description making it nearly impossible for a user to tell what he or she is looking at.  MCC has titles, but not descriptions.  USAID has descriptions for most of its transactions, but many of these merely replicate the title, are unintuitive to outsiders, refer to supporting documents that are unavailable, and/or cut off mid-description.  Start and end dates are also complicated.  For USDA they’re missing.  USAID provides only the year; MCC provides only the start date. State’s date reporting is spotty and contains apparently inconsistent information, like disbursements that happen before start dates.

Getting the data out there is important, and it’s the right thing to do.  But doing so while simultaneously improving coverage and quality gives me two related (though opposite) concerns.  I’m worried that:

1)      People Will Use the Data and draw incorrect conclusions due to missing or poor quality data; and/or

2)      People Won’t Use the Data because they are aware of its current limitations and will write off the Dashboard as an unreliable source, regardless of whether data coverage and quality improve later.  In a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum, lack of use could in turn slow Dashboard progress, since, to some extent, agencies need to know people will use the data before they invest scarce resources to provide it and improve its quality.

Ideas to Increase the Dashboard’s Potential

State’s Dashboard team and the 20+ agencies with foreign assistance spending are working hard to make the Dashboard a useful, relevant tool.  It’s a big undertaking.  Here are four things I hope they are considering:

1)      Help users better understand the data: The main risks to the Dashboard come from incomplete and thus unreliable data.  Breadth and reliability are key requirements for data to be truly useful. Therefore, the Dashboard should be abundantly clear when users are looking at complete versus partial information, or preliminary versus final data. Users should not have to dig through multiple, separate “additional information” pages to find this out.

2)      Improve transaction data:  Agencies should strive to fill the gaps in their transaction data (especially critical things like titles that facilitate rolling up transactions to the project level), as well as improve the comprehensibility of the information (for example, make descriptions descriptive).

3)      Don’t forget about usability: The current priority of the Dashboard is to publish as much data as possible in manipulable format and let users work with it as they wish.  However, a single user interface is never going to be able to meet the needs of all stakeholders, so the USG should reinforce its efforts to: (i) define who their priority audiences are; and (ii) understand how these different groups want to use the data and tailor the interface accordingly.  The Dashboard team is already taking steps in this direction with outreach to country missions and US-based stakeholders.

4)      Publish agency specific implementation schedules: The Dashboard website does explain where each agency is in the implementation process. But, it should also include agency-by-agency schedules for reporting compliance (and not just with Dashboard requirements, butwith IATI requirements, too).  This would not only provide an accountability structure that would help motivate continued momentum, it would also serve as an important signal of commitment.