USAID steps forward on aid transparency

With considerable discussion and side events expected next week at the Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on the importance of transparency and open data, it is worth noting recent improvement within our own government that strengthens our voice on data transparency.

USAID, the principal U.S. development agency, while more accustomed to using data than most U.S. foreign affairs agencies, has been unexpectedly slow on the uptake on data transparency. But uptake has now occurred.

In June, the acting administrator of USAID, Ambassador Alfonso Lenhardt, approved the first three phases of a four phase plan to improve USAID’s commitment to publishing data to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), and the plan was made public—score two goals for transparency!

Further evidence of USAID taking aid transparency seriously is an excellent blog by senior AID officials Alex Their (assistant to the administrator for policy, program, and learning) and Angelique Crumbly (assistant administrator for management), highlighting the value of transparency and USAID’s commitment to being a leader on aid transparency.

The small team that produced the plan over a number of months is to be commended for developing a detailed, realistic plan that will significantly advance USAID’s compliance with the open data standards of IATI. The team’s commitment to the goal is demonstrated by phase one having been implemented while the plan was still in development and completed before the plan was finalized—an indication of the urgency they accord to open data. A second, easily overlooked but significant piece of evidence of the team’s commitment and thoroughness is that the plan covers not just the IATI fields on which Publish What You Fund bases its annual Aid Transparency Index—on which USAID has just shown good improvement—but on all the IATI fields. Kudos to the team for caring about full aid transparency and not just the ratings.

Phases two and three involve a modest commitment of additional resources, and when implemented will actually produce savings, as much of the process of accessing the data and putting it into IATI format will be automated. Phase four, which would bring further automation and allow USAID to meet additional IATI fields, hopefully will be approved in the near future.

There are a few key benchmarks in the plan that, with strong leadership at the senior policy and technical levels, can keep USAID moving into the open data world and by the end of 2016 advancing from its current compliance with 54 percent of IATI reporting fields to 81 percent:

  • The plan indicates that phases two and three can be completed in four months once the required short-term staff is engaged, but that identifying the resources and going through the contracting procedures can take time. It is now just short of six months before the Busan deadline for IATI compliance by the end of 2015. Hopefully, USAID senior managers will set the goal of completing phases two and three by the end of the year, immediately identify the resources, and expedite the contracting process.
  • Phase four is expected to take six to nine months to implement. It can begin after phase two is completed and depends on the rollout of the AIDtracker and the planned Development Information Solutions (DIS). Again, USAID could set the goals of approval of phase four by the end of this year and completion by the end of 2016, thereby institutionalizing and automating open data processes by the end of the Obama administration.  
  • The plan notes that USAID could provide information for several of the IATI fields with certain approvals; these approvals are necessary for other U.S. government agencies reporting to IATI. USAID, along with the other U.S. agencies and collaborative efforts, should begin now changing—for the good—well-entrenched practices, in order to provide sufficient time for due consideration.

To repeat, the financial and staff resources devoted to implementing the four phases of the Cost Management Plan will be repaid in future savings through the automation of data retrieval and processing. Even more significant, it will enhance USAID’s ability to better manage its resources—to know where and how its resources are spent. It also will allow USAID to be more transparent and responsive to its stakeholders: Capitol Hill, the State Department, the White House, the American public, and USAID’s development partners.

Congratulations to the team for the IATI Cost Management Plan and to USAID senior management for moving it to action. Concerted effort over the next 18 months can position USAID well in the open data arena and enhance its development effectiveness.