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Archive for the ‘White House’ Category

Remembering the Contributions of USAID Staff: The Administrator’s Take (Part Two)

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Peter McPherson, former USAID Administrator and MFAN Principal, in response to John Norris’ recent blog series for Devex, Inside USAID’s top job.

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I greatly appreciate the very nice comments about my time at USAID and also appreciate the major effort Mr. Norris put into his paper. What the story did not try to do, no doubt in part because of time and resource constraints, was identify by name and contribution the huge number of mostly career people at USAID who made a significant contribution to a country or region. Some of these contributions were part of an administrator’s stated big agenda, but many were unique to a country or region. They came from a commitment at various levels within USAID to get something done to solve a problem.  Inevitably, any such a listing of people and contributions would miss someone, but still what a story it would be.  These people and their collective efforts demonstrate how USAID has changed the world.

I have often wondered how such a history could be put together.  Along with others, Ray Love — a longtime USAID senior official — and I have considered the possibility. We need the history to not only properly thank those who’ve served, but also as an inspiration for the current USAID staff and the development community at large. Everyone needs to learn lessons of what worked in the past. We need that history to help sell Congress and the American people on the importance of continuing to fund USAID.  The agency put together some material for its 50th anniversary, but it was limited to some key stories as opposed to a complete history.  The State Department has an office that tracks and reports on its history and some good material about USAID is there and easily accessible. Of course each year some of the direct knowledge of that history is lost as people who lived it pass away.

We all need to consider how such a complete, living history could be organized and made publicly accessible so that the past and future accomplishments of USAID staff can get the attention they deserve.

The Clashes of the Nineties: The Administrator’s Take

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from J. Brian Atwood, former USAID Administrator and MFAN Principal, in response to John Norris’ recent blog series for Devex, Inside USAID’s top job.

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John Norris has performed a service in recounting the highlights of USAID’s history. I am convinced that no organization in the world has contributed as much to development and humanitarian relief. He is correct in characterizing my tenure as tumultuous. But the battle over Senator Helms’ plan to merge with State did not prevent the Agency from taking new initiatives. The Agency got a lot done in those years and we set an agenda that lives to this day.

While I appreciate very much being remembered as the Administrator who saved the Agency, I must point out that no Administrator had as strong a group of appointees and career leaders. As a team we were not the least bit naïve about Capitol Hill politics or State Department pressures. Each of our presidential appointees possessed relevant Washington experience on the Hill, at the State Department, the White House and in politics, in addition to having solid development and/or relief backgrounds. They were supported by career professionals who were anxious to implement reforms to untie red tape.

Those reforms, undertaken in the first two years, are what saved the Agency. We created an operational model that has largely remained in place. We not only eliminated 26 overseas missions, we merged and/or eliminated bureaus in Washington. When one considers where the world of development is today with respect to local ownership, transparency, results measurement and mutual accountability, we were way ahead of our time.

We created a strategic framework for the Agency, narrowing down and rationalizing the principle objectives of the development mission. We flattened out the structure of our overseas missions, creating strategic objective teams who would work with local partners to determine specific goals, even signing agreements with them on how, when and what was to be accomplished. We insisted that results and failures be documented.

Within a few years a local university recognized the Agency as having submitted the most comprehensive annual report as required by the Government Performance and Review act. And the Ferris Commission that had issued a highly critical report on the Agency in the Administration of George H. W. Bush called our reforms “a dramatic transformation.”

We introduced the Office of Transitions Initiatives, filling a gap between our long-term development and relief programs. The concept of the relief-to-reconciliation-to-development continuum continues to characterize the approach adopted in post-conflict and fragile states. Today the United Nations and other bilateral donors have OTI-type units

Our commitment to transparency led to our desire to create a system that would allow our partners, Congress and the public to view real time information about expenditures, results and overall performance. Given Government Accountability Office audits about the Agency’s failure to account for taxpayers’ resources, we had to try to fix our systems; we wanted a system that would do more than just accounting.

Our plans were too ambitious and, like other government agencies (most recently HHS’ Affordable Care Act implementing system!), we could not solve the challenge of attempting to connect a sophisticated system with our over 100 missions. Technology had not yet evolved to make this possible. I take full responsibility for what happened, but I do not regret making the effort. This is exactly the kind of real-time information the International Aid Transparency Initiative encourages donors to provide today.

By far the most difficult issue I faced was the necessity to conduct a reduction in force (RIF) during my tenure. The USAID operations budget was under constant pressure from the Hill, particularly after the other party captured both houses of Congress. Some believe that the effort to modernize our accountability systems caused the RIF. However, we were in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. If we didn’t try to fix the auditing systems, our operations budget would have suffered even deeper cuts.

This was the era of the “Contract With America” and the prevailing belief that the end of the Cold War demanded a “peace dividend.” But it was State and USAID, not DoD that suffered the large cuts. In future years DoD would complain that the civilian effort in places like Iraq and Afghanistan was inadequate. State and USAID budgets have grown, but they are still woefully inadequate given the challenges we face today.

Yes, the nineties were tumultuous times, but even so, USAID led the international development community in innovation. We pushed to set goals within the Development Assistance Committee and other donors agreed. These became the Millennium Development Goals. Now the entire world is being held accountable against these standards.

We promoted the idea that democratic governance was an essential aspect of sustainable development. That was controversial in those days. It is now settled development policy.

In the health sector, we led in the fight against malaria by offering evidence of the preventive benefits of bed nets. We promoted the fortification of food with vital vitamins, encouraged the use of disposable syringes and HIV/AIDS testing kits. We were in the forefront of the battle against climate change by helping developing countries modernize power plants to reduce emissions. We began the effort to help vulnerable countries become more resilient.

We also took our case to the American people and were rewarded with dozens of favorable editorials. Our “Lessons Without Borders“ program brought our professionals home to share experiences with domestic anti-poverty workers. We engaged young people in “Operation Day’s Work,” a Norwegian initiative that exposed school children to development programs. We didn’t lie down in the face of political opposition; we took our case to the country.

The story of the nineties for USAID was one of success in adversity. The credit should go to great career professionals and the best set of professional political appointees the Agency has seen (I will only name one here, my friend and former deputy Carol Lancaster who is battling cancer just as she battled everything else life threw her way).

Many of the ideas and concepts that grew out of the nineties are only now seeing their full potential. That would not have happened had USAID been merged into the State Department. The diplomatic and development missions are vitally important, but they operate on different time lines, require different management systems and their professionals have different skill sets. The “clashes” of the nineties brought out these realities. The tensions may remain, but the debate is over.

New Devex Site Explores History of U.S. Foreign Aid

Thursday, July 31st, 2014
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Last week Devex launched a new microsite dedicated to exploring the history of U.S. foreign assistance. The new site features a timeline recounting the history of our foreign aid back to the establishment of U.S. Agency for International Development in 1961. In addition to the timeline, the site takes a close look “inside USAID’s top job” in a series of posts by John Norris, Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress and MFAN Executive Committee Member.

Norris breaks down USAID’s history into four periods, with a final piece reflecting on what lessons can be learned from past administrators as we move forward. See below for brief highlights from the series:

Kennedy, Johnson and the early years

The first part of the series covers the establishment of USAID in 1961 and its first three administrators: Fowler Hamilton (1961-1962), David Bell (1962-1966), and William Gaud (1966-1969) who were appointed under President Kennedy and President Johnson.

An interesting highlight from this period is that President Kennedy and Administrator Bell, noted as the first administrator to really get USAID up and running after it was established, “agreed that effective development required a degree of independence from the State Department” and that “many subsequent administrators would have to fight to maintain that relative autonomy.”

The Cold War and its aftermath

Part Two looks at President’s Nixon, Carter, Reagan and H.W. Bush and the administrators appointed during these Administrations: John Hannah (1969-1973), Daniel Parker (1973-1977), John Gilligan (1977-1979), Douglas Bennet (1979-1981), Peter McPherson (1981-1987), Alan Woods (1987-1989) and Ronald Roskens (1990-1992).

Notable moments from this period include:

  • The Peterson Commission Report, a major review of U.S. foreign aid, and the creation of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation under Administrator Hannah;
  • The appointment of Daniel Parker marking “the beginning of a downward slide for the agency”;
  • President Carter’s (unsuccessful) attempt to consolidate management of all U.S. foreign aid programs at USAID while John Gilligan was administrator; and
  • The appointment of USAID’s longest-serving (“and one who is also widely considered to be its best”) administrator, Peter McPherson, by President Reagan.

The clashes of the 1990s

The third part of the series examines the two administrators appointed by President Clinton: J. Brian Atwood (1993-1999) and J. Brady Anderson (1999-2001). Norris notes that when Clinton became president he was “acutely aware that the American public had denied George H.W. Bush a second term, in no small part because they felt he was excessively focused on international affairs at the expense of domestic priorities.”

Stay tuned for an upcoming piece from former Administrator Brian Atwood responding to Norris’ take on this time period.

Sept. 11 and beyond

The fourth installment looks at USAID under President George W. Bush and Administrators Andrew Natsios (2001-2006), Randall Tobias (2006-2007), and Henrietta Fore (2007-2009). The piece notes that “much of Natsios’ tenure was defined by massive reconstruction work in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Other highlights from the Bush presidency include the establishment of the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, as well as the establishment of the Development Leadership Initiative (DLI) under Administrator Fore.

This piece also examines foreign assistance during President Obama’s administration and USAID under current Administrator Raj Shah (2009 – Present).

Lessons for the future

The series concludes with Norris’ thoughts on what we can learn from looking back at the evolution of foreign assistance and the experiences of past administrators. To avoid the dreaded spoilers, be sure to check out his conclusions (and the rest of the site and series!).

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit: Africa’s Dramatic Development Story

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from George Ingram, Senior Fellow at Brookings and MFAN Co-Chair. This post originally appeared on the Brookings blog on July 28th.

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With the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit taking place on August 4, now is a good time to reexamine the storyline around Africa. The continent has made progress in economic and social development well beyond expectations, but still has obstacles to overcome. It is time we approach the Africa narrative with enthusiasm, maybe cautious enthusiasm, but enthusiasm nonetheless.

Poverty and Development: The Pessimist’s Narrative

The two maps below reveal the story of the locus of extreme poverty shifting in a generation (1990 – 2010) from Asia and Africa to principally Africa. While there remain millions of people in Asia living in extreme poverty, the vast number of countries with extreme poverty affecting over 40 percent of the population are in Africa.

These maps reflect disturbing statistics. Africa is home to over 400 million people living in extreme poverty and three-quarters of the world’s poorest countries. One African in three is malnourished and over 500 million suffer from waterborne diseases. Twenty-four million Africans, nearly 70 percent of the global burden, are afflicted with HIV. Thirty million (one in four) primary-school-age African children and 20 million adolescents, are not in school.

According to the 2014 Fragile States Index the five countries in the highest category of fragility are all in Africa (South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan), and 10 of the 16 in the top-two most fragile categories are in Africa.

Turning the Page on the Past

But that is only part of the story. It would be easy to focus on these statistics and see Africa as hopeless, as has been all too common. But a more holistic picture reveals trends that are cause for considerable optimism. That picture is drawn by the maps presenting the level of absolute poverty in countries in Africa over the same period.

 What is striking is that the space representing poverty above 40 percent has shrunk, from 31 countries in 1990 to 22 countries in 2010. Delving deeper reveals a host of encouraging data.

Seventeen countries in Africa, accounting for over 40 percent of the population of the continent, have experienced a level of economic growth over 3 percent per capita since 1996. From 2000 to 2010, six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies were in Africa. Africa was the fastest-growing continent at 5.6 percent in 2013, and that momentum is expected to be sustained this year.

The poverty rate in Africa, estimated at 56.5 percent in 1990, is projected to fall to 42.3 percent in 2015. Most countries have achieved universal primary enrollment rates of 90 percent or higher. The primary school completion rate has risen from 53 percent in 1993 to 70 percent in 2011.

Almost half the countries of Africa have achieved gender parity in school. The proportion of women in national parliaments has reached nearly 20 percent, a milestone that only developed countries and Latin America have achieved.

Improvements in health have been dramatic. The under-five mortality rate declined by 47 percent, from 146 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 91 deaths in 2011. Maternal mortality fell by 42 percent, from 745 deaths per 100,000 live births to 429 deaths over the same period. The once seemingly unstoppable HIV/AIDS rate has, in fact, been reversed, with prevalence rates dropping from 5.9 percent in 2001 to 4.9 percent in 2011. Tuberculosis and malaria remain serious problems, but their spread has been largely stopped.

U.S. Assistance to Africa: Writing the Next Chapter

While external private investment flows have been a growing source of capital for Africa—a fivefold increase from major partners in the past decade as explained in a recent blog by my Brookings colleagues—for many countries in Africa foreign assistance remains an important source of development finance. One way to get a crude indication of the relative importance of foreign assistance is to compare it to the size of government revenues. The map below shows 20 countries in Africa for which total foreign assistance is equivalent to more than 40 percent of the national budget.

If one wonders whether Africa is a priority for U.S. assistance policy, just look at the numbers. At the 2005 Gleneagles Summit, the G-8 committed to increase assistance by $50 billion, half for Africa. The U.S. subsequently more than doubled its aid to Africa. Today, the U.S. and World Bank IDA (International Development Agency) vie as the largest donor to Africa, with shares at 17 percent of total assistance flows to Africa each. The next biggest donor is the European Union at 10 percent, followed by France, the United Kingdom and Germany, in that order.  In fact, aid to Africa from European nations has declined the last several years while the U.S. has maintained its Gleneagles commitment.

The U.S. priority for Africa has grown over the past decade. In 2002 U.S. economic development assistance (not counting humanitarian assistance) to Africa was 17 percent of total U.S. economic assistance. That percentage has steadily grown over the past decade to 40 percent for both FY2014 (estimated) and the budget request for FY2015. The priority given to Africa is even more impressive when you consider that U.S. budget levels for foreign assistance peaked in 2010, in which year 32 percent of U.S. economic development assistance was devoted to Africa. Despite a decline of approximately 20 percent of budget levels for all development assistance from 2010 to 2014, the magnitude of assistance for Africa has remained above $6 billion per year, accounting for Africa’s continued rise in percentage of total U.S. economic development assistance.

As with the U.S., Africa is a rising priority for China As reported by Yun Sun in a companion blog, Africa represented 46 percent of Chinese aid in 2009 but 52 percent in 2010-2012. The major difference between U.S. and Chinese assistance to Africa is that Chinese assistance is principally for infrastructure and economic activities, with negligible amounts for humanitarian purposes, and is mostly loans. In contrast, U.S. assistance is concentrated in the social sectors and is almost all grants. In addition, the U.S. is the major provider of humanitarian assistance to Africa.

For the past decade, health has been the main focus of U.S. assistance to Africa, accounting for approximately 80 percent of total U.S. economic assistance in recent years. But after a decade of growth, that focus may be begin to change to reflect the 2012 White House strategy statement on U.S. policy toward Africa. That policy document emphasizes governance, economic growth and trade, and peace and security. The accompanying chart shows the proposed shift in funding into those accounts in the FY2015 budget request. Whether Congress will go along with that shift remains to be seen.

Power Africa

One particularly recent innovative U.S. program is Power Africa, announced by President Obama in June 2012. Some 600 million Africans live without electricity. The goal of the program is to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa by adding 10,000 megawatts to output. The innovations in the program are multifold. Rather than the typical sequence of designing the program and then inviting in the private sector, the design started with canvassing the needs of private sector energy investors. Furthermore, the program joins together a focus on both governance and finance and operates across the U.S. government.

The initiative, led by USAID, involves 12 U.S. government agencies, some 40 private companies, and six African countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania). The U.S. government has committed $7 billion in financing over five years, and private companies have committed another $ 14 billion. Development of the program involved identifying specific private sector investments that have not moved beyond the planning phase because of inhospitable host government regulations and policies, or inaction, and/or insufficient financing. In addition to providing financing, the equally important part of the program is the effort to help remove restrictive host country policies and regulations, and institute policies that more rationally regulate and encourage private investment.

Interest in Power Africa has grown in the U.S. Congress since it was announced. Congress may even up the ante on the president. HR 2548 (Electrify Africa Act) passed the House on May 5, and the companion Senate bill S 2014 (Energize Africa Act), would double the goal of Power Africa to 20,000 megawatts.

The development story in Africa is still being written. The African leaders who come to Washington in early August will have a large voice in how that story plays out. There remain many causes for concern, but more reasons for optimism.

Let’s forget about pledging a host of deliverables and hope that the result of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is a frank exploration of the needs and potential for Africa, and a no-nonsense appraisal of how the U.S. can be most helpful. Let’s hope that the impact is to expand the priority that Africa holds for U.S. policy and show that this is a story in which the U.S. is determined to play its part.

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.