No, it’s not a hot toddy – it’s the State Department’s Foreign Assistance Data Review, quietly released last week. Unless you’re a data geek, this is not a report you’ll want to curl up in front of the fire with. It’s the kind of thing that makes one’s eyes glaze over, but a sober assessment leads to the conclusion that this is a big win for MFAN in 2015. Here’s why:
First, a wide range of participants from nearly every regional and functional bureau in the State Department recognized that existing systems are not being fully utilized to track or report on foreign assistance programs. The group met monthly to map out the current processes and identify quick fixes and long-term solutions. Just getting people to see the lack of transparency as a problem and come up with a plan for addressing it is a victory in itself.
Second, the report came up with key recommendations for advancing State’s ability to monitor and manage its own programs as well as to report on them more comprehensively and transparently. The first recommendation (designated as Phase II, since the first phase was the review itself) is to develop a standardized process for managing and tracking all foreign assistance projects across their full lifecycle, and allow for accurate reporting. This work has already begun, and is expected to take three to four months.
The next recommendation is to do exactly what MFAN and Publish What You Fund have been advocating: developing “a costed management plan and timeline for the necessary system changes to supplement the business process improvement in managing foreign assistance.” English translation: they will figure out what kinds of computer upgrades are needed, how long this will take, and what it will cost. This step, Phase III, is expected to take six to seven months.
The final stage will be to implement whatever new computer systems and processes are needed to enable State to fulfill all its reporting commitments, including the International Aid Transparency Initiative, and make more data-driven decisions. The Office of Foreign Assistance Resources hopes to put this in motion before the end of the administration.
Ultimately, the breakthrough here isn’t that State now feels obligated to be more transparent. It’s not that they are doing MFAN a favor or have buckled under to MFAN’s pressure. The significance of this review is that the State Department has begun to understand that they need accurate, comprehensive, reliable, comparable and timely data in order to fulfill their own, internal responsibilities to oversee, manage and implement aid effectively. And once they are truly invested in producing good quality data for their own uses, it will be a lot easier to get them to share it with other stakeholders, who can verify it and provide feedback.
I’m not certain that the Foreign Assistance Data Review would have occurred without MFAN’s urging and encouragement. But it does appear that State’s heart is in this now, and that brings great comfort and cheer to all of us in the holiday season.
See below for a guest post from Diana Ohlbaum, Co-Chair of MFAN’s Accountability Working Group.