A midterm evaluation. The other midterm, that is.

IMG_20112014_161908If you follow U.S. politics or even if you’ve managed to stay away from it, you may have heard the word “midterm” a lot in the last few weeks. It was big news from the West to the East coast, for Republicans and for Democrats and for the winners and losers. We at Publish What You Fund are also talking about midterm but in this case it is the evaluation of the U.S. National Action Plan (NAP) under the Open Government Partnership (OGP).

Our team along with other NGOs form part of an evaluation group tasked with tracking progress on the U.S. OGP commitments. Next month, OpenTheGovernment.org will compile the feedback from NGOs working in open government and publish a midterm evaluation of the 2013-2015 U.S. NAP. If this is not yet on your radar then it should be.
We want to see progress on the implementation of the commitment to foreign assistance transparency. Specifically this commitment calls for:

…agencies managing or implementing U.S. foreign assistance (to) establish an automated and timely process for publishing foreign aid data to ForeignAssistance.gov. Throughout 2014, the United States Agency for International Development, the Department of State, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of Treasury, and other agencies will work to add or expand detailed, timely, and high-quality foreign assistance data to ForeignAssistance.gov…

But the truth is that we’re not quite there yet and we are growing a bit impatient. This is why:

1. Leadership is missing. The commitment calls on all agencies administering foreign assistance to deliver “detailed, timely, and high-quality” transparent aid information. But who is checking on that delivery and the progress? It is unclear how rigorous the evaluation on the delivery is since the commitment was drafted. With one year left before the end of this NAP cycle, who is monitoring progress? It is worth noting that there are other commitments that refer to foreign assistance transparency with the same deadline. We can’t help but ask where are the champions on open government and open data? And have they committed the right resources, time and people to make sure the U.S. government meets this important challenge?

2. Conversations are still had in silos. As advocates, we meet with the agencies working on foreign assistance transparency regularly. We meet with the policy leads and the technical leads working on aid transparency. What we often find is that the main challenge lies in linking the expertise within agencies and encouraging the convergence between existing projects, ideas and ongoing discussions around very similar issues. At the moment these discussions are sometimes happening in parallel and limiting the progress on the respective deliverables. For example, the technical teams see the generation of good quality aid data from the agencies’ systems as a much more feasible exercise (from a technical view) than the policy team but they need the go ahead to act. The policy leads are grappling with the challenges of redactions and data verification and view this exercise as a much more daunting task.

3. Data quality is the biggest challenge facing the agencies. The State Department and USAID each have multiple systems for collecting, sharing and publishing aid information. These systems are not linked, they’re old and they were not designed to be transparent, not at least how we define transparency now. Therefore the information coming from these systems is patchy, it is fragmented, and it is partial as it only comes from some systems and not all. Additionally, the data that we have seen thus far is poorly structured and the process for publication is cumbersome. We explain this further in our U.S. brief. You can also see the full analysis of agencies’ performance in the 2014 Aid Transparency Index here.

So time is ticking. There is a year left to make sure the U.S. is not left behind on making aid transparent. Aid information will not be complete until the largest donor publishes what it funds. We’re eager to work with the relevant agencies and the tech and the policy teams to get this job done.

Though there is still another year to go on this OGP National Action Plan we hope much more is accomplished in 2015. A midterm evaluation should not be just a routine exercise from civil society to hold governments to account but rather for these governments to ramp up efforts to complete the task.

Catalina Reyes

Catalina is a Senior Advocacy Associate at Publish What You Fund. You can reach her at catalina.reyes@publishwhatyoufund.org
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