Three years after FATAA: What’s the current state of U.S. foreign assistance data?

Over the last almost ten years, the US has made a series of commitments to improve the publication of its aid data.  Behind this effort is the concept that increases in transparency and availability of US data will lead to better planning, accountability, and effectiveness of US aid efforts.  One of the latest steps in this data journey was taken when Congress passed the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (FATAA) in July 2016.  Additionally, on January 14, 2019, President Trump signed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, further underscoring the requirement that US decisions and policies need to be based sound data and information.

FATAA is aimed at two areas of accountability – improved evaluation and monitoring by all agencies involved in implementing foreign assistance, and a requirement that these same agencies report “detailed” information at the country level about awards, strategies, funding, evaluations, and spending, consistent with the US commitment made to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).  With the passage of FATAA, Congress also required timeframes for agencies to publish this data and called upon OMB to report back on all agencies’ compliance with the data elements.  For those not in compliance, OMB was to provide a timeline and plan to meet agency obligations.

On March 29, 2019, OMB posted its implementation report, which includes an assessment of 22 agencies that have some role in implementing foreign assistance.  The report is useful in that it reminded agencies of their FATAA obligations and, for those whom have fallen short, there are renewed commitments to publish the required data quarterly.

The OMB Report, unfortunately, falls short in a number of ways.  Its approach misapplied the reporting requirements of FATAA – which wanted the data organized by country.  Further, the criteria OMB utilized raises a number of questions as to how determinations were made.  Finally, the Report missed the opportunity to assess whether and how the information presented is actually useful and useable for those interested in accessing US data.  See our analysis for more details.

Ultimately, the way that ForeignAssistance.gov is organized makes it very difficult – or at least very time consuming – to get the information that Congress required. There is some data available at the country level, but it is either very high level or very granular.  One cannot, for example, get a summary of what the US is doing at the project level in a particular country without significant work or prior knowledge.  There is lots of information on ForeignAssistance.gov, but it is scattered throughout the website in an incohesive way.  The quick links that are provided – for evaluations, for example – often take the user off of the site, but not in a way that allows the user to find the project or program that is of interest.  Or, as in the case of USAID, there is no link at all for evaluations.

The other glaring issue that the OMB Report ignores are the significant gaps that exist on ForeignAssistance.gov.  For example, for 2016 – a fiscal year that should be closed – there are still billions in discrepancies between US foreign assistance totals on ForeignAssistance.gov and USAID’s Foreign Aid Explorer:

That is a $20 billion discrepancy for just one fiscal year. Despite this enormous gap, ForeignAssistance.gov still provides a worldwide aid figure without acknowledging its “total” is off by many billions. This surely calls into question the reliance upon ForeignAssistance.gov as a source.  It also raises again the need to sensibly resolve the Congressional request in FATAA that the two dashboards be consolidated, as raised again in a recent GAO report to Secretary Pompeo. We have written more on the need for one consolidated US aid platform: see analysis of dueling dashboards and the Congressional letter endorsing the analysis and recommendations.

The effort to publish quality US data has been hampered by old systems that leadership has yet to solve. The latest OMB analysis also shows that, despite years of effort, it is still very difficult to get basic information – descriptions, objectives, funding levels and results – at the country level without significant effort.  And even then, a user would be left wondering whether reliance on a platform with so many gaps is sensible.

FATAA was passed to improve the effectiveness and accountability of US foreign assistance.  One of the tools for doing so was to mandate that detailed country-based aid information be published by those agencies implementing foreign assistance.  The Report provides limited insight into this Congressional mandate.  At the same time, it ignored well-documented gaps in ForeignAssistance.gov that continue to mislead users. It is clear that Congress remains committed to the full implementation of FATAA – as demonstrated by a bicameral, bipartisan Congressional letter to OMB in December, asking for a briefing and written report on the implementation of key provisions of FATAA.  OMB’s response, which has just been sent, provides little new information on the consolidation process.  Years later, the consolidation process and the quality issues are clearly not an OMB priority.

George Ingram is an MFAN Co-Chair and Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution. 

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

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