A Tale of Two Websites

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.

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