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

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.

MCC: A Pat on the Back, and Then a Push

February 25th, 2015
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See below for a guest post from Diana Ohlbaum, Co-Chair of MFAN’s Accountability Working Group

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When in 2013, the Millennium Challenge Corporation was ranked #1 in the world on Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index, it provoked as much trepidation as pride.  What do you do when there’s nowhere to go but down?

The MCC has spent most of its 10 years blazing a trail to broader country ownership, greater transparency, and a sharper focus on results.  But staying in the lead may prove harder than seizing it.  Sarah Rose and Franck Wiebe’s thoughtful and well-researched analysis of the MCC’s model explains its successes and challenges, and makes detailed suggestions for improvement.  Adopting many of these recommendations could help MCC stay at the forefront of development effectiveness.

To their excellent list, I would add the following ideas, which are admittedly more of a stretch:

  • Threshold Program.  In their focus on policy performance, Rose and Wiebe correctly note the lack of clarity about this program’s rationale and metrics for success.  Instead of either sharpening its current focus or eliminating it entirely, as the authors suggest, how about trying something new: using it to help countries establish a “clean”, well-functioning, transparent, and accountable procurement agency through which their own government, as well as external donors, could channel funds?  Using local systems is a critical element of country ownership, but finding systems that meet even the most rudimentary standards of public financial management can often be difficult.  Even if the MCC did not subsequently sign a compact with a country, creating an entity that was truly accountable to the public would help the government attract aid and investment and responsibly spend its own resources.  And the government’s degree of success or failure in building such an entity, with MCC’s help, would be a good measure of political will for reform.
  • Second Compacts.  If the MCC’s ultimate goal is to help countries “graduate” from assistance (which was the initial concept behind the compacts, as a transitional step from aid to trade), then one thing we ought to expect is that countries complete the program with the capacity to spend resources responsibly.  Every country must deal with problems of corruption, but if a government is unable to build a road without losing half the money to graft or is unable to pay the teachers it hires and make sure they show up at their jobs, then both growth and stability will be at risk.  Given that the pool of candidates for second compacts is growing, what about adding a requirement that second compacts must be spent directly through a country’s own systems – thereby increasing the focus during first compacts on public financial management, and weeding out those countries that have not made sufficient progres
  • Contract Transparency.  MCC was built with transparency “in our DNA”, making not only its budget and results public but also its selection criteria, country scorecards, and compacts.  What would keep MCC in the vanguard and do wonders for accountability would be to publish the texts of all its contracts, and require that partner countries do the same (at least for contracts financed by the MCC).  Knowing the overall amount spent and the nature of the project is essential information for civil society, but knowing who is carrying out each activity, in which locations, to what specifications, under what conditions, according to what timeline, and at what cost, helps even more.  That information is contained in contracts, and American taxpayers as well as intended beneficiaries are entitled to know it.  It also provides a valuable monitoring tool to ensure that contractors are performing as promised in real-time, rather than waiting to find out about problems during an audit or evaluation, when they may be too late to fix
  • After-Action Reviews.  Pioneered by the U.S. Army, this kind of de-brief is designed to provide an honest look at what did (and didn’t) happen during the operation, why, and how to improve next time.  While MCC’s commitment to rigorous impact evaluations is impressive and welcome, these don’t tell the MCC – or more importantly, Congress – whether the compact as a whole was successful.  No doubt, if these reviews are to be fully candid then there would need to be a “sanitized” version for public release, but having a clear view of what we initially hoped to achieve, how and why that changed during the process, and what we would do differently, would earn MCC another gold star as a learning organization.  This is something already under consideration at MCC, but whether they are willing to measure performance against the original standards and targets is yet to be determined.

Changes like these could not only improve the MCC’s own performance and outcomes, but raise the bar for everyone else.  With a forward-looking new CEO at the helm, this is an opportunity for all of us to think big.

Questions for Congressional Consideration: Our Budget Hearing Wish List

February 24th, 2015
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See below for a post by MFAN Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette.

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Beginning this week, Congress will be calling administration officials up to Capitol Hill to answer questions about the President’s FY2016 Budget Request, which was released earlier this month. In advance of the hearings with Secretary of State John Kerry and USAID Acting Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt, we’ve given some thought to what issues we’d like to see come up and learn more about. See below for some of the questions on foreign aid reform that we’re itching to ask the Secretary and Acting Administrator… and we hope Congress is as well.

On accountability:

1)      Is the USG going to meet its commitment to full compliance with the International Aid Transparency Initiative? If not, which agencies/departments are lagging behind? What will the Secretary and Administrator do to exert the political leadership in order ensure their agencies meet the year-end deadline? [See more on this from Publish What You Fund and Brookings]

2)      How will the Secretary ensure that the evaluations now being conducted will (a) be methodologically rigorous and of good quality; (b) be made public in their entirety, and not just their summaries; and (c) be used to guide decision-making, and not just put on a shelf somewhere?

3)      Will the Secretary commit to working with Congress to lock in important reforms such as the Dashboard, the IATI commitment, and the requirement for all foreign assistance agencies to establish and implement evaluation policies? [See more on this from MFAN’s Co-Chairs]

On country ownership:

1)      How is the administration planning to continue and expand its support for initiatives like USAID’s Local Solutions that emphasize the importance of designing and implementing inclusive Country Strategies and programs that work with local partners to build local country ownership?

2)      What is USAID’s current progress towards meeting the goals of Local Solutions? How is Local Solutions being operationalized in-country and what are the outcomes and lessons learned to date? [See more on this from MFAN Co-Chair Carolyn Miles]

3)      In advance of this summer’s Financing for Development conference and in recognition of the changing landscape of development finance, how is the administration considering leveraging alternative finance mechanisms like domestic resource mobilization and co-financing? [See more on this from CGD and Oxfam]

On other reform issues:

1)      When will the second QDDR be released, how will accountability and country ownership be reflected in its recommendations, and who will be in charge of ensuring that it gets implemented?

2)      What progress has been made toward implementing the Partnership for Growth program in the four pilot countries of El Salvador, Ghana, Philippines, and Tanzania? Is the administration planning to expand the use of joint constraints to growth analyses in partner countries, which are a key component of PFG, with other partner governments? [See more on this from CGD]

Making Aid Transparency a Reality

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.

MCC: Moving Forward by Looking Back — Lessons Learned on Transparency

February 4th, 2015
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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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This week one of the federal government’s youngest agencies, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), will once again demonstrate its leadership and forward thinking on accountability and transparency.  After ten years of experience, and with a new Chief Executive Officer at its helm, the MCC is launching a series of events examining what it has learned and what it has accomplished.   This period of reflection will help MCC seize the opportunity to consolidate its gains and stake out the vanguard in data-driven, locally-owned and self-sustaining development.

The test of true leadership, however, is in the extent to which others are motivated to follow.  To inform and inspire the rest of the United States Government, as well as other donors and development practitioners, the MCC this week will release a paper on transparency as part of its “Principles into Practice” series. The new paper details not only the reasons behind making transparency a core principle of MCC operations – such as providing checks against corruption, building public confidence, increasing coordination, and supporting informed participation – but also some of the limits and risks to full disclosure.  For instance, there may be personally identifiable information contained in data sets, national security information contained in meeting notes, or procurement-sensitive information in planning documents.  By demonstrating how it balances these risks, and by describing its systems to ensure that data is reviewed and released in a timely, responsive and accessible manner, the MCC performs a valuable service for governments and civil society alike.

On Friday, February 6, at 10:00 am, MFAN and the Brookings Institution will co-host an event highlighting the MCC’s efforts to make its operations more transparent and accountable.  Following a presentation by Beth Tritter, the MCC’s new Vice President for Policy and Evaluation, representatives of the World Bank, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs will discuss the challenges they faced, lessons they learned, and best practices they identified for sharing data and opening their processes.  Among the MCC’s key findings are the need for committed leadership and the importance of generating demand for data.  We encourage MCC’s new CEO, Dana Hyde, to carry forward the agency’s high standards in being transparent.  And since accountability requires not only transparency and use of data to support improved outcomes but also feedback, participating in this event and putting MCC’s data and information to the test is one way that we can all help the MCC put its principles into practice.