With the dust already settling on Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index (the Index), launched at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC on 20 June, it is worth reflecting on one of the more interesting results to emerge this time – the contrasting fates of the two UK agencies featured in it.

Congratulations go to the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), which ranked third, putting it near the top of the ‘very good’ category. The UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), however, ranked ‘poor.’ And, indeed, looking at all of the EU donors included in the Index this year, the contrast is yet starker: of all 19 European donors we looked at, DFID led the way and the FCO came bottom.

The FCO was not measured in the last Index in 2016, but was included in 2012, 2013 and 2014. And each time they received a ‘poor’ ranking.

This apparent lack of improvement is disappointing. Not least because transparency matters. Without this information: other donor agencies cannot be sure they are filling much needed gaps and not duplicating their efforts; the governments of countries where this money is being sent cannot be sure what is being spent and where, and so cannot decide how best to allocate their own budgets; parliaments, civil society and the media – both here and abroad – cannot be sure that the money is being effectively spent. And above all, it restricts the ability of all of us to share and learn from what has gone well – or what could have been done better.

But the FCO’s poor performance in 2018 is all the more disappointing because in its 2015 aid strategy, the UK Government committed all government departments other than DFID (OGDs) spending ODA to rank ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in the Index by 2020.

This was the corollary to the call in the same document for a greater proportion of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) to be disbursed among OGDs to draw on their complementary skills and help ensure a joined up approach. The proportion of aid being channelled through OGDs, already over 26%, is expected to rise to nearly 30% by 2020.

A number of inquiries and reviews, notably by the UK Parliamentary International Development Committee (IDC) and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), have also criticised the FCO and others, particularly pooled funds such as the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund and the Prosperity Fund, for their lack of transparency and management of ODA funds. Most recently the IDC stated in its conclusions and recommendations to its Inquiry into ODA:

“Given the level of spending involved, we are concerned that departments are not publishing fuller details of their ODA spending as this lack of clarity clouds the public’s ability to see good and bad spending.”

The 2018 Index, however, was the first true litmus test for how the FCO, at least, was progressing to meeting the UK Government’s commitment.

So these results should be a wake-up call. But the FCO should take heart too, and take note. Other interesting features of this year’s Index suggest that, although time is now tight, it should be possible for the FCO to do well.

One of the highlights of the 2018 Index, for example, has been how well a variety of different agencies with a diverse range of operating models have fared this time.

The agency that came top, the Asian Development Bank (AsDB), and indeed four of the seven agencies in the ‘very good’ category are multilateral development finance institutions.

The secret of the AsDB’s success? According to their President, Mr Takehiko Nakao, this improvement can be attributed to:

Cross-organizational commitment, including at the highest level, to improving the quality of our open data. Transparency is a critical aspect of effective development work and we are glad to be at the forefront of it.”

The same can be true of humanitarian agencies or organisations handling sensitive information. On being questioned about their poor scoring by The Guardian, an FCO spokesperson pointed out that security issues prevented it from releasing details on projects that were high-risk or in conflict zones. Of course no information should be shared that could be sensitive or put anyone in harm’s way – which is of particular concern in emergency settings. But that does not mean no information should be shared at all. There are workarounds. ECHO, the EC’s agency for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, is a case point. They ranked ‘good’ in this year’s Index, coming second only to DFID among all EC agencies and EU member States in the Index.

The FCO should be able to achieve ‘good’ transparency levels and, more importantly, help make its work more effective and accountable as a result. We have seen, however, that as well as systems changes and technological fixes, it also takes high-level political commitment, matched by sufficient resources, and for greater transparency to be made a cross-organisational responsibility. We hope to see more progress on this front in the lead up to 2020 and beyond.