United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Raj Shah announced that the US Foreign Assistance Dashboard was not only updated, but it included 53,000 financial transactions from the first three quarters of fiscal year 2013. It builds off an executive order signed by President Obama to make government information open and machine readable.
“Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing,” said President Obama in a memorandum.
The announcement is a significant forward step for transparency at USAID. The dashboard was created early in the Obama administration to much fanfare, but there were complaints that it was hard to access, data was sparse and it was not published in accordance with International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standards. Changes come ahead of the deadline Publish What You Fund’s 2013 Aid Transparency Index and they should lead to improved marks over 2012.
“Never before has our Agency published spending data so comprehensively and so soon after the close of the quarter,” said Shah in a blog post about the release.
“Our commitment to transparency has not only helped strengthen accountability and improve communication; it has also had a direct impact on the way we work every day.”
US transparency efforts are already showing positive impacts around the world. Shah cites the use of data from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network by small farmers in rural Kenya to negotiate prices for crops.
USAID placed in the middle of the index for 2012 ranking 27th out of 72 donors. The evaluation pointed to the lack of data in results and impact appraisals, areas that are did not see much of a boost in the recent batch of data. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) fared better by ranking 9th overall. The index will be happy to see that MCC followed its advice in 2012 to meet the IATI reporting standards.
The overall changes are good news blogged the Center for Global Development’s Sarah Jane Staats. There are still plenty of areas where the US government can provide more information, but the achievement is encouraging, she says.
Our “hooray” is not just for the amount of new data available but also for the agencies (including State’s Dashboard team) who spent limited resources (staff and money!) to work with difficult and often antiquated financial and data systems and overcome bureaucratic inertia to get data up and out in a common, modern format so that we are a few steps closer to having a comprehensive and detailed look at how US taxpayer dollars support foreign assistance around the globe.
Raj Shah has made it clear that he wants to provide USAID data to the public.
“If I am seeing this information on my desk, why am I not sharing it with all of you?” he said in a 2011 interview.
I asked him at the time what USAID was doing to actually make it happen. Shah admitted that more could be done and explained why he personally believe it to be an important issue for the agency.
“What we have tried to do is make our data systems more transparent. I think we are just on the cusp on this. There is no reason why we can’t have a Google maps platform that shows where the problems are, where the solutions are, and what we are doing as a global community,” he said.
“Not just have the United States government but have it be everyone working together. There is no reason why it can’t be one systematic presentation.”