Redesign Data: Dueling Dashboards

The potential redesign of both the State Department and USAID – and their relationship to each other in managing U.S. foreign assistance – is the topic of much discussion and ideas.  How our foreign assistance is delivered, by whom, and with what objective is all part of debate.  Some of the ideas are big, such as A New Foreign Aid Architecture Fit for Purpose by the MFAN Co-Chairs, which combines key development agencies and initiatives into one streamlined agency.  In the spirit of transparency, George serves as a Co-Chair of MFAN, but has written this blog in his capacity as the Chair of Friends of Publish What You Fund.  Other proposals may not be as consequential but can contribute to the larger objective of making U.S. foreign assistance more efficient and effective.

Whether the redesign is bold or incremental, it should include the very practical element of improving how the U.S. collects and publishes aid data.  Right now, we have two websites that purport to publish the same information, one at State (ForeignAssistance.gov) and one at USAID (Foreign Aid Explorer), but the published data is often at odds with each other.

When Congress passed the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (FATAA) in July 2016, it recognized this issue.  FATAA contains a provision that essentially asks the Secretary of State and USAID to coordinate and consolidate these two websites.  Friends of Publish What You Fund has looked carefully at this issue, and in a report issued last fall found that these “dueling dashboards” led to large discrepancies in what was purported to be the same data:

“While each dashboard was initially created to serve its own purpose, they have evolved into very similar dashboards and now – at least to the user community – appear to be duplicative efforts. Although they serve marginally different purposes and prioritize different trade-offs (primarily accuracy versus speed), the apparent duplication of effort strains already thin resources and confuses end users who assume the data discrepancies mean neither dashboards’ data can be trusted. In going forward, the USG should prioritize its data needs, reconcile the dashboards to meet those needs, and better explain to the public the choices it made and the knock-on effects to data quality and completeness.”

As the State Department and USAID continue to look for ways to streamline our foreign assistance, we suggest that they follow Congress’ request to rationalize these two websites.  In doing so, attention needs to be paid to the trade off between accuracy and timeliness, and put the responsibility with whichever agency can best deliver on both.

ForeignAssistance.gov was established in 2010 as part of a greater transparency effort to report all U.S. foreign assistance in one place.  When the United States joined the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) in 2011, the decision was made to have State’s Office of Foreign Assistance Resources (F) collect and publish IATI information on ForeignAssistance.gov.  This process does not verify the data collected, but checks more for form, and then publishes the data, usually quarterly, for almost all agencies currently involved in foreign assistance.  At the same time, since 1962, USAID has been charged with reporting to the Greenbook (a compilation of all U.S. foreign assistance data) under the Foreign Assistance Act, as well as being the official U.S. agency responsible for reporting all U.S. development assistance to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC) – information which it collects from 30 U.S. agencies.  Thus we have two major efforts to collect and report on essentially the same data – surely a candidate for streamlining under the current redesign to make our assistance processes more efficient.

So, what makes sense moving forward?  For a number of reasons, the most sensible house for the combined website is USAID.

Why?

  • While the data on ForeignAssistance.gov has the advantage of being more timely, it has been frequently criticized for the accuracy of the data.
  • For decades, USAID has been collecting and reporting on all U.S. development assistance. The information published in the Greenbook and to the OECD DAC is vetted for accuracy.  Additionally, USAID is the agency that is responsible for the OECD DAC relationship and has the institutional capacity to work with it.
  • The IATI standard is built on the DAC’s Creditor Reporting System so it is possible — like other best practice donors that publish to IATI – to have one set of data that is used for both IATI and DAC reporting. This builds on the principle of getting one good set of data and then reusing it for different purposes.
  • USAID is our lead development agency and has been collecting and reporting on this information for decades. While State F has the coordinating responsibility for foreign assistance, it is not in a position to verify the accuracy of the data. We know from experience that the closer the publication of data is to the source, the more reliable it tends to be.  USAID is responsible for the bulk of the data that currently is published on both ForeignAsssitance.gov and the Foreign Aid Explorer.
  • As pointed out in a recent Office of the Inspector General report, State still has significant challenges in tracking and reporting on its foreign assistance and it could fairly redirect its efforts to meeting the report’s recommendations.

Provided that USAID can take on the obligation to publish timely data – which shouldn’t be an issue as it already publishes its IATI data on a quarterly basis – it seems that we could both avoid duplication of effort and ensure higher quality and more consistent data by combining these two databases into a single website housed at USAID.

Sally Paxton is the U.S. Representative for Publish What You Fund.

George Ingram is the Chair of Friends of Publish What You Fund and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

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