For the last several years, US foreign assistance data has been published on two official US government websites: ForeignAssistance.gov and Foreign Aid Explorer. To the uninitiated, the two platforms seem to offer essentially the same data—what and where the US spends on foreign assistance, with some additional information on the how and the results.
Putting information about US foreign assistance all in one place is a great idea. It provides a one-stop-shop of valuable information to a range of stakeholders—including partner countries, other donors, implementers, Congress and other policymakers, US taxpayers, and agency staff. So, the concept is sound.
The difficulty arises when the two dashboards provide different data for the same thing—sometimes to the tune of billions of dollars for the same fiscal year. These two official US government sources provide “duplicative, contradictory, and incomplete [data] to varying degrees.” Such a result is untenable.
Recognizing this problem, Congress put a request into the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2016 that the State Department and USAID consolidate the data collection process and the two websites by October 1, 2018. That deadline has now been missed.
As part of the commitment to transparency and aid effectiveness, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) and Publish What You Fund undertook an in-depth assessment of the functionality of both ForeignAssistance.gov and Foreign Aid Explorer, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of both platforms. We analyzed 10 different aspects of each in order to assess the quality, consistency, completeness, and publishing methodology. Then we compared them to the ideal functionality that we think a consolidated platform should provide. Here are the findings in brief:
ForeignAssistance.gov provides budget request and appropriations information for 17 agencies that report to ForeignAssistance.gov. Although not complete, the “special data download” part of the website provides useful information on budget requests and appropriations that is not easily available elsewhere. The additional information that is provided—such as obligation and disbursement data—is to varying degrees incomplete, sometimes extremely so. The map function intermingles different datasets without notice to the user. Additionally, there are no complete data sets for any fiscal year and incomplete data is not flagged as such to warn the data user.
Foreign Aid Explorer provides verified obligations and disbursement data for all 17 agencies going back to 1946. This is in part due to USAID’s responsibility to report US government data to the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and to the Greenbook. It provides complete data sets through Fiscal Year 2016 and almost complete for FY 2017; like ForeignAssistance.gov, FY 2018 data is not yet complete on Foreign Aid Explorer. Overall, to the extent that data is only partial, it provides a clear flag to users.
The summary and detailed analysis compare additional functionalities, such as timeliness, the ability to compare current with constant dollars, sector code information, granular project level data, and documentation. They also look at processes for publishing data—is the methodology for collecting and publishing clear? And are key terms defined?
The overall conclusion:
Foreign Aid Explorer’s strengths are in nine of the 10 criteria, providing better verified and complete data. ForeignAssistance.gov’s strengths are in two of the 10 criteria, providing timelier appropriations data.
What is the next step? The analysis points to one clear direction—take the strong functionality of Foreign Aid Explorer and add the budget and appropriations datasets to it. USAID—the lead US development agency—has shown the clear ability to collect and publish complete, verified, and timely data. Let’s work from those strengths. After consolidation, additional improvements can be made—such as providing complete and fully linked information at the project level. With that, the U.S. government truly will have a one-stop-shop with accurate, timely, and complete data that will meet the needs of multiple users.
And, finally, why should we care? For starters, having two competing dashboards is simply a waste of resources. Putting these efforts into one consolidated platform at USAID—which already does this work well to meet its OECD DAC and Greenbook responsibilities—eliminates the waste. From a policy perspective, transparency is a fundamental building block of US foreign assistance. Providing publicly available, quality, comprehensive, and complete data allows better coordination, implementation, and accountability. It will improve data quality and usefulness, reduce costs, and contribute to the effectiveness of U.S. assistance.
The data and analysis point to a clear solution. That’s what we should follow