U.S. compliance with open data: With 6 months left on the clock, who is on track on IATI?

The end of 2015 is the date by which institutions are supposed to fulfill their commitment to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). To both assess where the U.S. is, but more importantly to spur the final push to reaching the end-of-the-year goal, Publish What You Fund is issuing a mid-year stock-taking. This interim 2015 U.S. Aid Transparency Review, a targeted version of the organization’s annual Aid Transparency Index (ATI), will show which U.S. agencies are on and off track.

The 2015 Review for six U.S. government agencies will be presented on July 1. The parallel review on 16 European donor agencies was launched earlier in June. 
This is part of the Road to 2015 coalition campaign, led by Publish What You Fund, along with over 30 global partners, to spur donors on during their final efforts to meet their aid transparency commitments by December 2015.

IATI has reached a critical tipping point. For some countries, enough data is starting to flow through so that partner countries can start to use it. Some are building platforms and Aid Information Management Systems (AIMS) that provide geocoded information and other data visualizations. This shows that IATI can be a one-stop shop for development data and that there is evidence of demand and use. But what is also clear from these new tools is that not enough aid is “visible,” meaning that for far too many countries—particularly low-income countries—only a portion of the aid they receive is available in IATI. For many countries the information available is not usable as the data is of poor quality.

In the U.S., the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) have taken the lead in practicing open data. They recently increased their transparency by partnering to make gender-disaggregated data available as well as by exploring the traceability of funds all the way down to the recipient.

In the 2014 ATI scoring, the MCC was rated very good, USAID and PEPFAR fair, and the Departments of State, Treasury, and Defense poor.

What can we expect in the interim U.S. report to be released next week? We know that PEPFAR CEO Deborah Birx has been leading the organization into the data revolution and is instilling a culture of data transparency. We also know that USAID has recently approved and funded three out of four phases in a plan for IATI compliance; phase one has already been executed and phases two and three are underway. Those are all good signs.

But the real test will come at the end of the year. For those agencies deemed on track next week, we want to see sustained leadership and additional progress, particularly on promoting data use. For those that are off track now, can they leverage the necessary political attention and human resources to course correct? The 2015 review should set the stage for a significant race to the end of the year by those agencies that are lagging.

What are the benchmarks we can expect by then? The MCC should remain in the very good category. Will PEPFAR and USAID move from fair to good? That would appear a reasonable expectation. Treasury may have renewed interest in IATI and could readily move from poor to fair or even very good. Previous ATI rankings show this is possible, and Treasury’s international programs could, without major reform, be published in line with IATI. State has recognized its shortcomings and has been undertaking its own internal analysis; let’s hope it identifies a path forward that begins to improve its data transparency. This needs to be made public, consistent with the State Department’s embrace of the transparency agenda. As for the DOD, with its vast resources and capabilities, it needs to decide to cease being the laggard holding back the U.S. advance.

As the single largest donor of bilateral foreign assistance, fulsome data from U.S. government agencies is critical to the success of IATI. With President Obama having made transparency and open data an administration priority, from the day he entered the Oval Office, one would expect that agencies would see their compliance with IATI as an administration legacy.

To fulfill that legacy, every agency (besides the MCC) needs to drastically raise its game and make aid transparency a high priority.

The question is: will the U.S. capitalize on the momentum of next month’s Addis Ababa conference on development finance and the post-2015 sustainable development goals to enter the data revolution? The U.S. has the technology, the data knowledge, and the commitment to open data and government. It also has the moral obligation to make its aid transparent, to its own citizens and those whom it benefits. What is needed is the leadership across the relevant agencies to pull the U.S. into IATI compliance.