Making U.S. Foreign Aid Not-So-Foreign: Taking Stock of Our Aid Transparency Progress

 

The end of 2015 marks an important milestone for the U.S. government’s efforts to increase foreign aid transparency: in 2011 on the eve of the fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, the U.S. pledged to publish foreign aid data in the internationally agreed upon standard with a goal for providing comprehensive data for the available elements by the end of 2015. This pledge was not a matter of ceremony – we believe that open government leads to better government and, by extension, aid transparency has the potential to change lives. The U.S. is committed to increasing transparency and the quality of data to help recipient governments manage aid, empower citizens, and support data-driven development. By making our own government more transparent, we are applying fundamental principles of our foreign policy – openness and accountability – at home, as well as abroad.

Since the fourth High Level Forum in 2011, the U.S. government has made more data open to the public than ever before.  The State Department coordinates across more than 20 U.S. government agencies to make foreign assistance data publicly available on ForeignAssistance.gov and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) registry. Originally built with one data set in 2011, the data on ForeignAssistance.gov now represents 98 percent of the U.S. foreign assistance portfolio – over $30 billion of annual programming. And, vast improvements have been made in the quality and comprehensiveness of the data. In 2016, anyone with an Internet connection will be able to link U.S. foreign assistance dollars to results at the country level by running analyses on a single data set!

In the early days of our efforts, there was a great need to educate some federal agencies on the value of aid transparency; among many other demands on staff time and resources, working towards aid transparency was often seen as something that would be nice to do – but not a priority. Over the past five years, agencies have evolved in their stance of the value of transparency. Now, rather than being seen as a mandate, agencies are now coming to the ForeignAssistance.gov team to discuss ways to improve data quality. We are encouraged by these conversations and will continue to foster them.

While there is much to celebrate, this journey has not been without its challenges, and we acknowledge the U.S. will fall short of its goal to fully publish foreign aid data to IATI at the end of this year.  While the agencies on ForeignAssistance.gov represent 98 percent of all foreign assistance, we do not have complete data sets for any of the 10 agencies. These gaps are due to IT system limitations, a variety of business models, and resource constraints. Aid transparency is a significant priority for the U.S. government, but efforts to increase our data must compete against other pressing and immediate issues each agency manages. Difficult trade-offs have to occur between deploying resources to address urgent global challenges and allocating resources for aid transparency improvements.

Furthermore, business models and budget processes within the U.S. government will continue to fall short of the full IATI standard.  IATI requests budget forecasts for three years, but the U.S. government only produces single year budgets. In other cases the IATI standard requests detailed information falling into the category of personally identifiable information the U.S. government doesn’t release.

Finally, as timely reporting is desirable, we need to automate data collection. This requires the use of systems which were never designed to collect and report the level of detail required by our transparency commitments. This disconnect between the data we want and the data we have is our biggest challenge. Changing systems or building new systems is costly and lengthy. It is important for us to acknowledge these challenges and have an open dialogue with the community.

Nevertheless, we are committed to increasing transparency, and the recent public release of the State Department’s first-ever Foreign Assistance Data Review findings and recommendations document illustrates this commitment. The recommendations in this review will improve the Department’s ability to use data for informed decision-making and help meet transparency commitments.

We know there is more to be done, and we have set the wheels in motion on several initiatives to accelerate progress in 2016. We launched our toolkit to assist agencies who are not yet reporting, and we are working with the Office of Management and Budget to develop a comprehensive, standard data inventory for all agencies.

For the first time, the 2015 U.S. National Action Plan for Open Government included a commitment to engage in selective capacity building efforts to promote foreign assistance data use.  Recommendations on how to implement this commitment will be drawn from USAID’s Aid Transparency Country Pilot Assessments released in May 2015.  At the State Department, we are engaged in several efforts to promote data usage. Through the Department of State’s Public Private Partnership with universities, the Diplomacy Lab, we recently completed a three month project with students at the University of California-San Diego and the University of Notre Dame on improving usability of the data on ForeignAssistance.gov. The findings and recommendations will directly guide our improvement efforts in 2016. We are also working through the Department’s Office of eDiplomacy to better use technology to engage with stakeholders globally.

These accomplishments and subsequent dialogue would not have been possible without the support and encouragement from the aid transparency community. Their advocacy is instrumental in advancing the policy agenda and raising awareness to senior leaders across agencies.  The community pushes us to rapidly improve and constructively works with us to make advances. The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network’s (MFAN) advocacy and Publish What You Fund’s technical support is critical. The community’s expertise, experience, and perspective are key inputs into our decision-making process. Through our consultative partnership, we have improved our approach to transparency.

We are proud of the many advances in our aid transparency journey and are learning from the obstacles that emerge along the way. As global actors come together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals over the next 15 years, our collective commitment to data-driven decision-making will be essential to solving globally pressing issues and measuring progress. Whether you are member of the advocacy community, an implementer of foreign assistance, an academic, or a government employee, we all believe that open government leads to better government. So we’ll continue to push together to do more, faster, to make our government better.

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This is a guest post by Dennis Vega, Managing Director for Planning, Performance, & Systems at the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources, U.S. Department of State. This is the second post on the topic of transparency for our ACCOUNTdown Dialogue Series.

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