A salute to the transparency champions

I’m leaving Publish What You Fund in a few days after an exhilarating two and a half years. Over that period, I’ve been fortunate to work with a superb team but also with a diverse community in and around international development: government budget officials, civil society activists, politicians, academics, IT systems managers, open data experts, economists and statisticians. Many of them have patiently (or not so patiently…) listened to me extol the virtues of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), setting out why I think IATI will help them do their jobs better.

I can talk about standardised data and aid effectiveness ‘til the cows come home. But it’s not all about XML data. In fact, I think the most interesting impact that IATI is having right now is a shake-up of how organisations think about and use information.

To produce data that complies with IATI, organisations often need to address three big issues:

1)      Institutional resistance to openness

2)      An absence of information

3)      Outdated IT systems

There are still people who resist transparency, and not just the bureaucratic dinosaurs. NGOs and governments worry a lot about the safety of their staff and partners working in dangerous environments. That’s one reason why exemptions to publication are rightly important. Statisticians worry that people will treat real-time management data – with all its flaws and gaps – like verified statistics. So data needs to be presented appropriately.

But none of these concerns should be blocks to taking the plunge into open data.

The second and third problems are often overlapping. Information officers tell me that they can’t publish information items like the locations or descriptions of projects because there isn’t a field for that in their database. Or they explain that they have the information but staff don’t follow data-entry guidelines so it’s just not good enough to release publicly.

I’ve spoken to officials who are mortified to admit that they can’t accurately determine which country will receive the most aid that year. Or who can’t trace (except manually) a project from one financial year to the next, let alone publish that information according to an international standard. You might well ask how those organisations can make good assessments of impact and value for money when such basic knowledge management is so challenging.

That is why I so often find that officials welcome our advocacy, even if they face the drudgery of drafting yet another ministerial response to a Publish What You Fund missive. Lonely transparency champions can feel isolated in institutions which either dislike sharing data or just find the whole question of data management too boring or technical to engage with. It’s hard to pitch for funds for a new database when aid budgets are declining and you’re competing with highly visible aid delivery projects.

I salute these transparency champions! Some are looking for real accountability, hoping that more open information will help to redress power imbalances in development cooperation. Others have been converted to the subtle beauty of data standards (don’t laugh) and want organisations to be smarter with their data.

So why have I put such faith in IATI to help? It’s because it strikes the right balance between realistic goals – based on existing practice, not pie-in-the-sky aspirations – and a smart approach to technology that gives organisations a good reason to deal with festering IT problems and, crucially, a lack of data use skills.

No-one expects aid officials and recipients to become programmers. But I do hope that more of them become data seekers, using publicly available, standardised information about themselves and other actors to make informed policy and spending decisions.

I feel the much heralded data revolution will be a pretty gradual affair. There have been huge strides in some sectors but others are barely off the starting blocks. Transparency advocates will need to keep the pressure on so that the unglamorous spadework of implementing better systems and standards can be swiftly followed by better use of higher quality public information. But we shouldn’t underestimate the value of that implementation work itself, in helping to change attitudes and ways of working.

I’m excited about taking up a position in January on the Government Transparency team at the Omidyar Network. I hope to continue fantastic partnerships with organisations like IBP, Transparency International, ONE and Development Initiatives, and of course with Publish What You Fund. But also with those transparency champions in big bureaucracies around the world.

There’s lots to be done, so see you in 2014!

Andrew Clarke

Andrew is the Advocacy Manager at Publish What You Fund. You can reach him at andrew.clarke@publishwhatyoufund.org.
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