Earlier this month I headed over to Whitehall to run an aid transparency workshop for the UK Government, alongside Publish What You Fund’s Advocacy Director, Catherine Turner. The workshop was the official launch of our UK Aid Transparency Review, which will use the Aid Transparency Index methodology to score UK government departments that spend Official Development Assistance (ODA) funds in terms of their transparency levels.
Catherine and I spoke to a full room, including representatives from nine government departments and two cross-government funds. The levels of participation and engagement were encouraging, and we expect this to continue during the review process over the next five months.
We outlined the Index scoring methodology and highlighted the importance of transparency in international aid. Access to quality information on all development flows is the foundation for better aid and better outcomes – in order to provide a full picture of where aid is being spent and on what, we need to close data gaps and increase transparency across funders. A complete picture of the aid landscape is needed so that funders can coordinate programming and stakeholders can monitor aid projects in their country or region. In the UK, it means that the UK Government’s ODA-spending can also be better scrutinised by Parliament, civil society and taxpayers.
A significant challenge
As the UK Government disburses an increasing proportion of ODA through a spread of government departments, it is important to maintain high transparency standards. The UK Government recognises this and in 2015 committed to improve the transparency of ODA-spending departments by 2020, using a “good” or “very good” score in the Index as a benchmark. However, the 2018 Aid Transparency Index saw a mixed picture: DFID scored in the “very good” category, but, disappointingly, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) only managed to rank as “poor”.
As well as DFID and the FCO, the other departments to be included in the UK review will be:
- Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)
- The Home Office
- Health and Social Care (DHSC)
- Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
- Work and Pensions (DWP)
- Education (DfE)
- Defence (MoD)
- Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)
International aid is not core to the mandates of these departments and many are facing the challenges of making information about their projects and departments available for the first time. In our experience the most effective way donors have achieved high transparency levels is through changes to organisational culture and a “whole organisation” response. This includes high-level political buy-in, proper allocation of resources to operationalise transparency and a cross-organisational commitment to making information public. This is reflected in those organisations that perform best in the Aid Transparency Index.
An iterative process
One of the central messages of the workshop was how the iterative nature of the review process in itself should help those departments which engage with it to become more transparent. Publish What You Fund will be meeting with government departments over the next two months to clarify aspects of the methodology and make suggestions for improvements. We will be particularly looking for departments to publish high-quality data, avoiding some of the common issues we see of incomplete or incomprehensible project data that make life more difficult for audiences who want to access this information.
The formal part of the review, the data collection and assessment process, will also involve some iteration. Just as we do with the main Index we will review UK government departments’ data at the start and end of the process and share the preliminary results with them after the first round of analysis. This provides them with an opportunity to improve data and fix problems or systematic issues with the way their data is being published. In previous Index processes, this has enabled donor agencies to make significant improvements in transparency levels between the first and second round of data collection.
Importance of performance data
We also emphasised the importance of publishing performance data – that is: project objectives and results, pre-project impact appraisals and evaluations. These are particularly important for data users, especially implementers, who have told us that they help them to learn from previous projects and adapt future programming, monitor ongoing projects and assess the likely impacts of development interventions.
Cross-government funds – where do they fit?
As well as government departments we will also be looking at two cross government funds – the Prosperity Fund and the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). These are pools of ODA and non-ODA funds that are disbursed to government departments for sector-specific projects. The CSSF focuses on security, justice and human rights in conflict-affected states, while the Prosperity Fund aims to support economic growth in middle income countries, with a private sector focus. The proportion of funds channelled through these funds is significant: the 2019/20 ODA budget for the CSSF is £625 million, while the Prosperity Fund is budgeted to disburse £290 million.
The funds have already come under scrutiny. The House of Commons International Development Select Committee inquiry into Definition and Administration of ODA strongly criticised both government departments and cross-government funds for their lack of transparency. The CSSF in particular came under fire for extensive redactions to their data:
“Without access to this information, the taxpayer cannot see examples of well-spent money on well targeted programmes, nor identify poorly targeted programmes. This lack of clarity undermines trust in the fund.”
We are currently working with the funds to see how we will assess them as part of the review.
We look forward to a positive period of engagement with government departments in the coming months, to identify key areas for improvement and see those departments and funds set out a path for greater transparency in 2020 and beyond. The results of the review will be made public in November.