Dashboard for a Dashboard? Sarah Jane Staats on CGD’s New Foreign Assistance Dashboard Tracker

June 11, 2013

The US government gives about $30 billion in aid each year—less than one percent of the US budget and less than 0.2 percent of the US GDP. Even so, the United States remains the world’s largest donor, providing nearly a quarter of the roughly $133 billion spent annually on foreign aid.

So US development assistance matters. But it’s not easy to find out how it’s being spent. If you’ve ever tried to discover how much the US spent in Haiti after the quake or how much the US plans to spend on Feed the Future or how much the Department of Defense has obligated for global health programs, you’ve likely joined my colleagues at CGD who often feel like gnashing their teeth in frustration.

In response to a global movement for increased aid transparency, and a domestic US push for greater government transparency in general, the US government has promised to disclose much more information about US foreign assistance. The main result is a new US Foreign Assistance Dashboard, managed by the State Department, that is designated as a public data repository for 22 US agencies that fund or deliver foreign assistance.

To learn how it’s working, I invited Sarah Jane Staats, who directs CGD’s Rethinking US Foreign Assistance Program to join me on this week’s Wonkcast. Sarah Jane and her team recently launched the US Foreign Assistance Dashboard Tracker, which is designed to encourage agencies to report their data on the Dashboard.

The Dashboard, she says “is a fantastic effort to get all the information in one place” but US agencies have been slow to post their data. “One of the things that we could do from the outside was to show that people are paying attention to this… to have a little competition and extra incentive [for the agencies] to report their data to the Dashboard.”

I note that although only five of the 22 agencies involved in foreign assistance have so far provided data, these five (MCC, Treasury, USAID, State, and Defense) account for the lion’s share of US development spending. Does this mean the Dashboard is off to a good start?

The Dashboard currently has three categories of information, Sarah Jane responds.  “There’s planning information, which is what you usually would find in the congressional budget justification, for example. Then there’s obligation data, which is where the money has actually been obligated to, and then the spent category which would show where it was actually spent.”

The State Department, for example, has reported complete planning data from 2006 to 2013 but provided no information on obligations and actual spending. The Defense Department has provided complete planning, obligation, and spending information, but only for two years, 2011 and 2012. “To say that five agencies have their data on the dashboard is a little bit misleading,” she adds.

Nonetheless, Sarah Jane is cautiously optimistic about the Dashboard’s potential.

“Ideally, the Dashboard would include a few years of backlog data from each of the agencies and would be updated quarterly with current data,” she says. This would create a running tab of how much money is being spent, by whom it is being spent, and to whom it is given.

She says the next year or two will be “make-or-break time” for the Dashboard. If enough data is posted that it becomes widely used, agencies will feel compelled to continue reporting, she says. Otherwise not so much.

I asked Sarah Jane about a bill that passed the House last Congress and is expected to be reintroduced this year:  Representative Ted Poe’s (R-TX) Foreign Aid Transparency & Accountability Bill, which would require agencies to report such data. She is less enthusiastic about the legislation than I had expected: listen to the Wonkcast to hear why. Also in the Wonkcast you can hear our discussion of the links between the Dashboard and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).

Sarah Jane and her team welcome suggestions for improvements of the US Foreign Assistance Dashboard Tracker via comments on her blog post. The Tracker can be found here.

Thanks to Aaron King for producing the Wonkcast and Nick Gibian for his assistance in drafting this post.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.