While the numbers coming out of side events at Addis were hardly worth the single shake of a string-free pom-pom, and the launch of a Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data raised a lot of questions, there were some bright spots in the US commitments to that partnership. In particular, PEPFAR promised a leap towards data transparency: “By the end of 2015, PEPFAR will release a range of additional data, including sub-national results and PEPFAR procurement transaction data from the U.S. Agency for International Development Supply Chain Management System.” This is great news for researchers, advocates, and all other constituencies that care about program effectiveness, accountability, and impact for PEPFAR beneficiaries. (See, for example, how closely the new move aligns with the 2013 recommendations of the Data Working Group of PEPFAR’s Scientific Advisory Board, chaired by our own Mead Over).
But, as the proverbial mouse given a cookie, we can’t help but hope that this most recent move – great news in itself – might also suggest openness to an even more radical form of transparency: full contract publication under open contracting data standards. Having come this far, and with PEPFAR’s clear commitment to openness and accountability, contract publication would be a logical next step. It would also be a great way to pilot proactive publication in advance of what should be a government-wide commitment under the Third US National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership.
PEPFAR moving to a leadership position within the US government on contracting transparency would be a significant event for two reasons. First, the agency is the largest bilateral donor in global health. It funds life-saving medicines for millions through a complex web of government agencies, contractors and sub-contractors. A 2013 CGD paper showed the difficulty of tracing where funding went and how, using available information – and doing so is vital for understanding accountability relationships and developing policy solutions to increase PEPFAR’s impact and value for money. Coupled with the agency’s new commitment to data transparency, greater contract openness would make it possible for friends of PEPFAR to do even more in terms of supporting the program with new ideas to help maximize impact.
Second, precisely because PEPFAR works through a number of different government agencies, PEPFAR leadership on contract transparency would also rope in the US State Department, USAID, and the US Department of Health and Human Services, helping them learn from the transparency experiment. This could help spread contract transparency across the executive branch.
So congratulations to PEPFAR and Ambassador Birx for this huge step forward on data transparency. As eternal optimists, we’re excited to see what else might be coming soon.