By George Ingram, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution and Sally Paxton, US Representative, Publish What You Fund
In a world where we are facing such dire news, we were delighted to see an outcome that shows that sometimes good government prevails. This concerns the resolution of an issue that we – and others – have devoted considerable ink and effort, which we coined “the dueling dashboards.”
Starting about six years ago, the State Department and USAID were publishing two separate official websites on U.S. foreign assistance data, ForeignAssistance.gov and the Foreign Aid Explorer, respectively. While originally begun with different mandates, the two websites started providing what looked like essentially the same data – except that the data was at times radically different. We found instances where the data was reporting the same thing but was off by as much as billions of dollars for the same fiscal year. The result is that the U.S. was providing duplicative, contradictory, and often incomplete data, adding extra expense for the taxpayers and confusion for users.
In 2016, Congress got involved and requested that State and USAID consolidate the databases in the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2016 (FATAA) by the end of fiscal year 2018. That deadline was missed. In an effort to add some constructive input into the process Publish What You Fund, along with the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, analyzed the respective dashboards and developed a set of seven principles for what a consolidated dashboard should contain.
With continued pressure from both Congress and interested stakeholders, the process finally resulted in the release of a single, consolidated dashboard that will be overseen by USAID, in consultation with State. This was the outcome we had worked toward for many years – keeping the functionality of USAID’s Foreign Aid Explorer and adding budget and appropriations datasets to it. USAID has shown that it has both the experience and expertise to publish better and verified data so housing the dashboard there makes the most sense.
So, what is next? We think there are two main next steps. The first is to provide complete and fully linked information at the project level. This should include not just financial information but also consistent results data. The second is to ensure active engagement of the data with a range of stakeholders, especially local stakeholders, a concept that we developed more fully here. USAID Administrator Samantha Power has put locally led development at the forefront of USAID’s development approach. Arming local stakeholders with robust data will empower them to have the voice that they want and need. Data can be a critical first step in this process.
But before we move onto more improvements, we want to congratulate those who worked so hard for this outcome. Getting this somewhat wonky topic onto a priority list was a sustained battle with lots of players. It took hard work by those in government to break through the bureaucratic silos and entrenched interests to produce a strong outcome. Too often this kind of positive, good government outcome, and the dedicated career government officials that make it happen, go unrecognized. We happily say goodbye to the dueling dashboards!