Dreary weather in Washington aside, it’s Sunshine Week this week—an opportunity to put the limelight on US Government transparency efforts. And because the December 2015 Busan deadline to fully implement the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) has come and gone, this year’s celebration of open government is a particularly good time to take a hard look at US Government progress in foreign assistance transparency.
I took this opportunity to talk to Dennis Vega, the person at the helm of coordinating US Government foreign assistance transparency. Dennis is the Managing Director for Planning, Performance, and Systems in the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources at the State Department. His team is responsible for coordinating the collection and coding of foreign assistance data from the 22(!) agencies administering foreign assistance funds, ensuring they are published to IATI, and making them available on the US Government’s own online portal, ForeignAssistance.gov. I’ve excerpted (and lightly paraphrased) some highlights from the interview below, but what clearly emerges is that there have been some massive (if sometimes unsung) accomplishments in US foreign aid transparency over the last five years. Continued progress is still necessary, of course, and will take place amidst ongoing challenges—difficulties reporting data (it’s harder than it may seem), uncertainty about how best to drive data use (it’s still low), and the big question of “so what?” (there’s still little evidence linking transparency efforts to improved internal decision making or development outcomes). You can view a full transcript of the interview here.
Sarah Rose: Reflecting over the more than five years of ForeignAssistance.gov’s existence, what do you think are the biggest accomplishments?
Dennis Vega: ForeignAssistance.gov has made great advances since its launch more than five years ago. Its creation and continued existence is a huge success in and of itself, involving leadership and support from the White House, reporting agencies, and the Congress. Tens of thousands of foreign assistance transactions, updated on a quarterly basis, are now available on the website for public consumption for the first time in history. Efforts like IATI…have helped to normalize the topic of transparency as a regular part of the foreign assistance dialogue.
SR: What about remaining challenges. A lot of external stakeholders following foreignassistance.gov ask why reporting USG foreign assistance data is so hard and so time consuming. What are the biggest challenges the agencies providing the data face?
DV: [T]he complete portfolio involves 22 agencies, all with different missions, systems, and business models for operation…. Reporting foreign assistance often involves compiling and reconciling data from multiple systems, most of which were designed for other purposes (namely, accounting) and cannot be easily repurposed for external reporting requirements. [M]any agencies have portfolios with a domestic focus [and] face difficulties in trying to parse out [foreign assistance] records in the giant sea of domestic data. [All agencies face] finite human and financial resources available to support this work. Difficult trade-offs have to occur between deploying resources to address urgent global challenges and allocating resources for aid transparency improvements. A final challenge is how to accurately measure and benchmark progress towards aid transparency…. [Because we] do not always receive recognition for…[certain] advances [that are not captured by external assessments, like the Aid Transparency Index],…it [is] difficult for us to motivate some of our internal stakeholders, especially if they [have expended] immense…effort [on something like the release of a new data field] – and the external perception is that there has been little to no progress.
SR: From the beginning, foreignassistance.gov has followed the approach of incrementally releasing data as it becomes available. This helps build momentum and maintain pressure for continued implementation, but it’s also risky, in that it can result in incomplete (and potentially inaccurate) data in the public sphere. How do you think about the tradeoffs between expediency (getting the data you have out there) and quality (making sure it’s accurate and largely comprehensive)? What are some of the ways F and the reporting agencies have been trying to manage those tradeoffs?
DV: There is an inherent tradeoff between timeliness and quality with datasets this large. A key principle of the open data movement is that releasing data, even if flawed, will improve the quality of data at a faster rate than waiting to release perfect data. Given the choice between waiting for a perfect dataset and making information public as it is received, we have chosen the latter. We know if data is released to the public quickly, errors might arise as it is used; on the other hand, if data is held onto until perfect, the public is not given the opportunity to use the data at all.
SR: With just one year left in the administration that created foreignassistance.gov, what will be necessary to institutionalize and further the current efforts? What are the top three things the next administration should do to ensure continued progress?
DV: The next administration should continue to push for agency leadership buy-in, not only for ForeignAssistance.gov but for the open government community and movement…. [It should] make an effort to standardize all requirements (ForeignAssistance.gov, IATI, OECD/DAC, the DATA Act, Greenbook, and USA Spending, among others). [It should maintain] a strong focus on improving data use. In order to continue to drive quality improvements, it is important to demonstrate that this data is useful for internal decision-making. We continue to struggle to convincingly persuade agency employees, who face many competing priorities, the value of aid transparency efforts…. Lastly…we must automate as much of the data collection process as possible…. The lack of systems across the government to collect the data we need is by far the most difficult challenge.
SR: It was hoped that the process of reporting data to foreignassistance.gov/IATI would enable agencies to use their own internal data better to improve decision making. Have you seen any evidence that agencies are using data differently? What limits further progress in this area?
DV: The truth is we have not seen agencies using ForeignAssistance.gov or IATI to improve their own internal decision-making. This has not happened because many agencies and internal points of contact have their own ways of tracking information, which often differs from the information in the IATI standard. [These points of contact] view this [internal] information as more reliable, due to the fact they are pulling data they maintain, as opposed to from a system they have no control over. The Department of State is leading an effort internally to improve State reporting and data systems, which should lead to improvements in the ability of employees to use this data for decision-making.
SR: It is often postulated that transparency can help improve development outcomes by enhancing coordination, supporting data-driven decision-making, and empowering domestic and host-country stakeholders to enter into dialogue about aid priorities and results. Looking back at five-plus years of foreignassistance.gov, have you seen any evidence of these effects at work? What is needed to better understand the linkages between transparency and improved development practice and outcomes? How will a better understanding of these linkages, in turn, help prioritize transparency investments?
DV: The most difficult question to answer for all of us in the aid transparency community is “does all of this effort make a difference?” The short answer is that it should, but we can’t yet definitively answer that question. We haven’t reached the tipping point where the amount and type of data, as well as the format being provided, is sufficient to drive decisions in a way that people envision…. In particular, a few significant barriers will need to be overcome to bring us closer to this goal. For one, people do not know these [transparency] efforts exist. USAID conducted a series of aid transparency country pilot assessments in 2014 which found wide interest in aid transparency, but limited knowledge of available tools and how to use them. Second, even if they do learn about IATI, activity level data on quarterly basis with hundreds of data fields are extremely complex data sets that are very difficult to distill for individuals that are not familiar with the data. And, while the data that is available is being presented in a machine readable format that is great for analysis using computer-based analytics, it is not easily digestible to citizens without those resources or skills. Finally, while outputs such as number of clinics or hospital beds in a country provide an accounting of program activities, this data is insufficient for programmatic decision-making and conveying progress towards country development goals. While outcome and impact data is often more difficult to collect and convey succinctly, it is far more important for data-driven decision-making and empowering stakeholders.