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US foreign aid transparency: How to fix dueling dashboards

This blog was written by Sally Paxton, our US representative, and George Ingram, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Chair of the Board of Friends of Publish What You Fund. It was originally posted on June 13th on the Brookings Institution’s Website.

The U.S. publishes an enormous amount of data on foreign assistance—including detailed information on budgets, spending, and results—as well as what could be considered electronic libraries of documents on projects, evaluations, and contracts.

Just finding all the information—scattered across a multitude of websites—can be daunting. That task is made all the more difficult when different dashboards publish data on what purport to be identical indicators yet the statistics reported to the public are sometimes vastly different. For frequent users, this breeds distrust of all data that the U.S. publishes. For unsuspecting users, it provides potentially very misleading information.

Friends of Publish What You Fund has written about these dueling dashboard discrepancies in blog posts in November 2017, August 2017, and in a paper, How Can Data Revolutionize Development?

Congress weighed in on this problem when it passed the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (FATAA) in July of 2016. FATAA set out requirements for U.S. agencies involved in foreign assistance for publication of information to “ensure the transparency, accountability, and effectiveness” of U.S. foreign aid. The last provision of FATAA gave a sense that Congress wanted the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development to consolidate the data reported on two dashboards, and Foreign Aid Explorer, by the end of fiscal year 2018. We realize that these two dashboards were created for different reasons to respond to different needs. But at this point, while not identical in the data they publish, they are so similar in nature that consolidation is the only sensible outcome.

In an effort to resolve the work of State and USAID, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network recently adopted the “Principles for An Effective Dashboard on U.S. Foreign Assistance,” co-written with Friends of Publish What You Fund. We hope that the consolidation exercise that State and USAID are undertaking will focus attention on the needs of users to have timely and quality information, taking into account the expertise and development roles of each of these U.S. government entities.

With that in mind, we offer this advice:

  • Publish once, use often: The U.S. publishes its data to a number of venues—the Green Book, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC), and the International Aid Transparency Initiative Registry—to name a few. If the government were to start with one good source of foreign assistance data, it could then use and reuse this data, reformatted as needed. The consolidated website could greatly help this process.

  • Define your data: Is this budget data? Obligated? Is it complete? The U.S. budget process is long and complicated, so clearly identify not only what a number represents but whether it is partial or represents the total. Also, lay out the methodology, process, and timetable for publication so it is clear to users.

  • Timely versus verified: There is a trade-off, but there is a need for both. Some users need planned data, such as what is in the Congressional Budget Justification, and this should be posted as soon as available. It also would be useful to post forward-looking projections. Other data—obligations and disbursements—should be posted at least quarterly. And when data is updated or verified, such as the process followed by the Foreign Aid Explorer to post data to the OECD DAC, or when a project closes, ensure corrections or changes in status are posted promptly.

  • Is the user looking at just U.S. foreign assistance or comparing it across donors? Sector classifications are done in (at least) two ways, by the OECD DAC categories and by U.S. foreign assistance categories. The U.S. has this information and both formats should be available to users.

  • Foreign assistance information is more than just financial information—the U.S. publishes lots of information that is useful to a range of users. This includes program objectives, descriptions, locations, contracts, results, and evaluations, to name just a few. Gender disaggregated data is also of keen interest and it would be helpful for the U.S. to publish this data in a more consistent and comparable way.

Action on the above points, which encompass principles to work toward, would help ensure published information is trusted and used.

We strongly recommend that the decisions being made to consolidate the two dashboards put the interests of users and taxpayers foremost. The current situation—having data differences, which amount to billions of dollars in discrepancies—cannot continue.

We won’t repeat the findings and recommendations already made in previous posts—those are available. But we will be watching with keen interest—and we think Congress will be as well.

Readers can learn more about aid transparency on June 20 when Brookings and Publish What You Fund host an event to launch the 2018 Aid Transparency Index, an internationally recognized measure of the state of aid transparency in the world’s leading aid organizations.

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