QDDR II: Hard data = smart power

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry launched the second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Report (QDDR). The QDDR, similar in nature to the Quadrennial Defense Review, is designed to identify priorities and means of advancing U.S. diplomacy and development objectives. Not a broad strategy statement like the quadrennial National Defense Strategy, the QDDR is more a tactical document on how to advance key priorities. In contrast to its name, “review,” the QDDR is not a backward-, but rather a forward-looking document.


The first and previous QDDR, “Leading Through Civilian Power,” was issued in 2010 under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and USAID Administrator Raj Shah. It was broad in scope, seeking to describe the changing global landscape confronting U.S. diplomacy and development and proposing means for making our objectives more focus, efficient, accountable, and effective. The theme of leading through civilian power was intended to connote an elevation of diplomacy and development in advancing U.S. global interests.

The first report proposed specific structural changes to enhance the functioning of the Department of State, particularly in the areas of economics and energy. The recommendations for USAID carried forward the priorities of the recently issued Presidential Policy Determination on Development and were largely implemented through USAID Forward. The areas of reform were sharper programmatic focus, better accountability through evaluation and transparency, restoring USAID capabilities in policy and budgeting, and rebuilding its work force. The report also focused both organizations on strengthening their capabilities to respond to situations of crisis and conflict. Gender and women were a strong theme in the first QDDR.

This second QDDR, “Enduring Leadership in a Dynamic World,” builds on the first and on programs and policies already in place. It identifies key priorities for State and USAID and lays out objectives for advancing those priorities. It is divided into three sections. The first is centered on strategic policy priorities: conflict and violent extremism, democratic societies, inclusive economic growth, and climate change. The second section identifies ways in which both organizations can function better, focusing on use of data and analysis, innovation, managing physical risk, employing strategic planning, and engaging the American people. The third section deals with means to strengthen the workforce.

The remainder of this essay will identify ways in which the basket of objectives around data and knowledge might be implemented.

Data, diagnostics, and design

The most revolutionary, disruptive element of QDDR II is what might be deemed a second set of “three Ds.” I refer to data, diagnostics, and design. The basket comprised of data, use of analysis, and knowledge management is both a discrete section of the report and a theme throughout the document. Like everything in the report, this basket is built on existing capabilities, but those capabilities are mostly underdeveloped and in isolated units. The ability and prevalence of use of data and analytics do exist in a few specific offices and programs, but instituting a broad understanding of the potential and use of data, diagnostics, and design requires a dramatic change in culture.

The State Department and USAID are staffed by some of the brightest and most dedicated public servants, but they operate in a culture, especially at the Department of State, that prizes personal knowledge and judgment over pouring over data. But the data revolution has arrived. We have entered a world in which data is ubiquitous; we are saturated with data. We either can learn to access, filter, and mine the data for information and knowledge, or be swamped by it and bypassed by those adept at using data. The source of much of the most valuable data and information is not government but the private sector, academia, and civil society. Government accessing that data, and sharing its own, will provide public officials with the best knowledge and solutions.

For a just-released example of useful and exciting ways in which data can be mined and presented for purposes of policies and programs, see the new Data Hub created by Development Initiatives.

Data, knowledge, and analytics

The review foresees building in the State Department and USAID: a culture of collecting, using, and sharing data; data-driven policymaking; and knowledge management. For USAID this means strengthening and broadening the reach of existing capabilities, such as those found in the Lab, the Bureau for Food Security, and Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation. There are a few programs in State that understand the data world and how data can be useful. A prime example is the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (known as PEPFAR), where Ambassador Deborah Birx is taking a program that has a history of collecting data to the next level of using that data for analysis and sharing. She is demonstrating that joining data with diagnostics produces information that can better target resources.

Along with data, the QDDR talks about knowledge management, learning, and evaluation. The thought behind knowledge management is both about policy and operations—about how to better manage personnel matters, use emails versus cables, and maintain networks of relationships. With foreign service officers moving to a new post every few years, the challenge is how to shift from storing contacts on spreadsheets and in people’s minds to a mechanism that sustains connections to people and institutions. How to share work product in a balkanized organization where information seldom flows between bureaus and offices? 

On evaluation, early on the administration returned USAID to its history of developing knowledge through program evaluation, instituting an excellent evaluation policy that needs further progress in implementation. State is struggling with how to implement its own new evaluation policy, but the culture of the organization is preventing the all too few evaluations from being made public except in summary form and has State fighting congressional mandating of what is actually departmental policy to evaluate security assistance. Don’t we want to know what does and doesn’t work so we can better achieve our objectives? Here’s an area where moving the commitment in the QDDR to action could produce real and constructive disruption.

Data hub

One place where data, diagnostics, and design come together in the QDDR is in the concept of a Data Hub. The document does not detail the Hub, but the notion behind it is as both a physical and virtual entity. There would be a physical office called the Hub that would be virtually linked throughout State’s bureaus, offices, and embassies into a communications network sharing information and knowledge. As the State Department is highly decentralized, with some 40 bureaus and offices setting their own priorities and budgets, the Hub could be located in a central spot, such as the Executive Secretariat, whose lines flow through both policy and operational functions and which can provide leadership and services to the entire organization. 

Data transparency

QDDR II puts the spotlight on transparency, both in policy and operations. It highlights the importance of “transparent and accountable governance” and calls for “increasing data transparency”.  These two aspects of transparency are joined in its recognition of the U.S. commitment to important transparency initiatives – Open Government Partnership, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). 

Regarding the IATI, the Obama administration has an unsurpassed record of commitment to open data, stemming from statements by the president, bulletins from the Office of Management and Budget and the White House, and Secretary Clinton’s commitment to the IATI at the 2011 high-level meeting in Busan, South Korea. Unfortunately, implementation of the IATI commitment of full data transparency by the end of this year, other than by the Millennium Challenge Corporation and a recent surge in effort by PEPFAR, has been slow and uninspired.

But this could quickly change. Teams at both the Department of State and USAID, the two agencies principally responsible for U.S. assistance program, together accounting for 75 percent of U.S. assistance flows, have been quietly but diligently at work in recent months mapping out plans for their agencies to improve their compliance with open data and IATI standards.   

USAID’s commitment was codified in October 2014 in an Open Data Policy (ADS 579). It recently drafted a management plan with cost breakdowns on how to advance its commitment to IATI. In fact, to its credit, phase one of the plan was implemented while the plan was being developed—a positive instance of designing the plane while in flight and an indication of the team’s commitment to the goal. Phases two and three, which require a mere rounding error of resources, if approved, could be completed by the end of this year. The fourth and final phase could begin next fall and implemented over the following several years. Implementation of the plan would take USAID from being compliant on only half the IATI data fields to nearly 80 percent, and would move USAID up the Aid Transparency Index (ATI) from the bottom of the “fair” category to well into the “good” category. The plan offers USAID leaders a quick, easy win in bringing the agency solidly into the era of sharing data.

The State Department has a more difficult path to pursue. AID already collects much of the data required by some of the IATI fields; its challenge is more a matter of proper formatting and linking its several data systems. In contrast to AID’s mostly digitized data, some significant portion of State’s is found on paper, in files, in people’s heads, and some required data is not even collected. State has multiple data systems, some agency-wide and some unique to a particular bureau. State needs to collect more of the right data, move data to electronic form, and have the various systems feed into a common structure. Like AID, State has a small team that is dedicated to identifying the steps necessary to create a holistic system or process that will allow the department to know what data it has and to better use and share that data.

Culture of data

For both State and AID the issue is not really the multiplicity of systems and formatting and technical fixes required to link them together, or the cost. Today is not 1990 or 2000 when software had to be created and took years and tens of millions of dollars to develop. Off-the-shelf software can now be readily customized at more modest costs. The looming elephant is the culture; AID has a partial culture of use of data, and State has little data culture at all. AID employees have good examples within their agency of how data can be used and shared to advance AID missions: Development Credit Authority crowdsourcing and publishing its data; the real-time data map tracking the movement of Ebola so as to know where to target resources; the Lab GeoCenter collaborating with other organizations to map the infrastructure in Kathmandu to help guide teams responding to the earthquake in Nepal. AID has analytic tools—inclusive growth diagnostics, political-economic analysis, conflict assessment tools, and constraints to growth—that use data and analysis to inform policy and strategy.

State not only has less experience collecting and using data for decision-making, or sharing it outside the department, it actually has a custom of not sharing data within the department, with bureaus jealously “hugging” their data. Still, it does have centers of excellence. PEPFAR’s advanced data performance has already been noted. The Bureau of Conflict and Stability Operations has an Advanced Analytics Unit that serves as an example of good use of data and analytics for its work with fragility indices.

So there are people and units in State and AID that value data and understand the agencies must be brought into the data revolution. The cultural change that is necessary will require consistent and repeated leadership at the highest levels, with managers leading by example through using data and demanding data-driven policy making. Most useful will be concrete examples of how using and sharing data can advance the mission and policies of an office, a bureau, and the agency.

Transparent policymaking

The remarkable aspect of this QDDR is the manner in which it was conducted. It has led by example. It has demonstrated that an open, consultative process can lead to better informed policymaking. It is a model for how government policymaking should be carried out—in an open, transparent, consultative process.

Tom Perriello, special representative for the QDDR, and his staff are to be commended for consulting widely and for not only inviting input, but also providing feedback to ideas and suggestions—actually engaging in a two-way dialogue.

One might ask what the value is of consulting outside government on a document that is principally designed as internal guidance and strategy. The area of data and analytics answers the question: government has a lot to learn from the corporate community, NGOs, and academia, which in many ways are far ahead of most of government in using and sharing data. So it was just the smart thing to do to reach out to that experience and knowledge. This may be one reason that the report has garnered an initial favorable response, as key stakeholders feel they were listened to and see some of their advice taken to heart.

Let’s hope U.S. government agencies take this model to heart and understand that the best way to lead is by example.