Share

President Obama’s open government initiative hit another milestone last week: new guidance from the Office on Management and Budget (OMB) on the collection and public sharing of US foreign assistance data. The guidance is heavy on bureaucratic detail but is the type of unsexy government document that changes things; in this case, it will get 22 US agencies to report disparate foreign assistance data in a common format, including to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard and International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Obama’s team deserves a big “hooray!”  I also hope this is the next and not last step towards open aid data.

OMB’s guidance directs the heads of all US executive agencies that “fund or execute foreign assistance activities” to report regularly against common data fields for USAID’s Greenbook, the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, the Foreign Assistance Dashboard (created and launched by the Obama administration), IATI and other reports.

Obama administration officials spoke about the new government-wide approach at the launch of Publish What You Fund’s 2012 Aid Transparency Index (which ranks the MCC as the most transparent US aid agency but says all could do better). Gayle Smith, special assistant to the president and senior director on the White House National Security Council, acknowledged the big political lift required for government-wide agreement on better aid data but said they did it because “it’s the right thing to do,” and also happens to be good for US development partners and necessary for smart development policymaking.

MCC vice president Sheila Herrling encouraged attendees to “take a moment to say yay” for the new guidance. Herrling said the MCC may have an easier time complying with the new guidance—because they already share most of their data publicly and MCC activities are easily categorized as foreign aid—but that MCC is working to make their data more accessible, including through a new open data catalog.

The State Department’s Rob Goldberg, who directs the office of US Foreign Assistance, reminded the audience about where the US government started on these issues and said a “one stop shop” for aid data is a huge accomplishment. The approach will be incremental as agencies work to modify their reporting structure and process.  As I’ve said before, it’s great that the administration is getting something out there even if it is not yet complete or perfect.

The tension I see in the guidance is the push towards open data and ongoing government bureaucracy concerns about  security, data consistency, and control over interpretation.  In the current guidance, the administration balances “a presumption in favor of openness” against explicit national security concerns but also centralizes reporting through the State Department’s foreign assistance or “F” office against defined data fields rather than each agency throwing all their raw data out into the public.

The good news is reporting through F provides an extra check on data consistency in the early days of a new approach, and I’m told it shouldn’t delay reporting to IATI. The bad news is that the data fields outlined in the OMB bulletin are limited and don’t yet include things like geo-spatial coding or performance indicators even though some agencies may have this data on hand. The current approach does allow agencies to submit “extra fields” as a compromise so additional information can be reported from the agencies, through F and to IATI but not from the agencies directly to IATI.

I asked about this tension—and whether the current agreement might change over time—at the Publish What You Fund event. Goldberg agreed there is an inherent tension between bureaucracy and openness. But as Beth Noveck, founder of the Obama White House’s open government initiative, explains, there are enormous and often surprise benefits to policymaking when government data is really open. Noveck and others  also point to huge cost-savings that can come through open data approaches. USAID deputy administrator Don Steinberg reminded event attendees about the Development Credit Authority’s crowdsourcing exercise to clean and scrub 10,000 data records in just 16 hours—it saved time and money (and is cool, too), but is small scale compared to what might be done.

The Obama administration has taken a huge step towards open and useful foreign assistance data and deserves much applause. It’s a move that should be embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike. But, it’s also worth noting the OMB guidance is a bulletin that can be updated without rehashing the entire document. I expect Obama’s team will keep thinking about adjustments to the data fields and reporting process. I hope they continue to push towards even more raw, open foreign assistance data. There are many in town trying to identify the Obama administration’s development legacy. I’d make a pitch that the latest “open government” application to foreign assistance—let’s call it “open development” or even “open aid”—could be just the kind of lasting initiative that changes US development policymaking for the better.

[For those interested, CGD has its own research data disclosure policy.]