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Posts Tagged ‘international aid transparency initiative’

policy forum

This past Monday I had the opportunity to join Engineers without Borders (EWB) in Calgary, Canada, at their Annual Policy Forum on Global Development to discuss “How can open government contribute to community and economic development?”

Morning panels covered some examples of open government initiatives from Finland, Ghana and Canada. In the afternoon we heard about some of the challenges with open data, open government and the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Table discussions followed both of the panels. The group was a mix of Canadian and African government representatives, people from organizations and groups working in different countries on open government and open data initiatives, and young people who are connected with EWB. The session was under Chatham House Rule in order to encourage frank conversation.

Drawing from such documents as the Open Government Partnership’s Open Government Declaration, Harlan Yu and David G. Robinson’s “The New Ambiguity of “Open Government,” Beth Noveck’s What’s in a Name? Open Gov and Good Gov and Nathaniel Heller, A Working Definition of ‘Open Government’, the following definition of Open Government was used to frame the discussions.

EWB Definition of Open Government

Below (in a very-much-longer-than-you-are-supposed-to-write-in-a-blogpost summary) are the highlights and points I found interesting and useful as related to Open Development, Open Data, Open Government and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)

1.  Participation thresholds need to be as low as possible for people to participate and engage in open government or open data initiatives. You need to understand well what engagement tools are most useful or comfortable for different groups. In some places, to engage the public you can use tools such as etherpad, wiki platforms, google docs, open tools and online collaboration spaces. In other places and with other populations, regardless of what country, you may be more successful with face-to-face methods or with traditional media like television and radio, but these need to be enhanced with different types of feedback methods like phone calls or surveys or going house to house so that your information is not only traveling one way. Community organizing skills are key to this work, regardless of whether the tools are digital or not.

2.  Literacy remains a huge challenge hindering access to information and citizen engagement in holding government accountable in many countries. This is why face-to-face engagement is important, as well as radio and more popular or broad-based communication channels. One participant asked “how can you make open government a rural, rather than an urban only, phenomenon?” This question resonated for participants from all countries.

3.  Language is still a critical issue. Language poses a big challenge for these kinds of initiatives, from the grassroots level to the global level, within and among countries, for citizens, governments, and anyone trying to share or collect data or information. It was noted that all the countries who have published data to IATI are publishing in English. All the IATI Standards are in English, as is the entire support system for IATI. As one participant noted, this begs the question of who the information in IATI is actually designed for and serving, and who are the expected users of it. Open data initiatives should consider the implications of language they publish in, both politically and practically.

4.  Open data can serve to empower the already empowered. As one speaker noted, “the idea that everyone has the potential to make use of open data is simply not true.” Access to digital infrastructure and educational resource may be missing, meaning that many do not have the ability to access, interpret or use data for their own purposes. Governments can also manipulate data and selectively release data that serves their own interests. Some questioned government motives, citing the example of a government that released “data” saying its unemployment rate was 10% when “everyone knew this to be false, and people grumbled but we did not feel empowered to challenge that statement.” Concern was expressed over the lack of an independent body or commission in some countries to oversee open data and open government processes. Some did not trust the government bodies who were currently in charge of collecting and opening information, saying that due to politics, they would never release any information that made their party or their government look bad.

5.  Privacy rights can be exploited if data is opened without data protection laws and effort to build capacity around how to make certain data anonymous. Citizens may also not be aware of what rights are being violated, so this should also be addressed.

6.  Too much open data discussion takes place without a power analysis, as one participant commented, making some of the ideas around open data and open government somewhat naïve. “Those who have the greatest stake will be the most determined to push their point of view and to make sure it prevails.”

7.  Open data needs to become open data 2.0. According to one participant, open data is still mostly one-way information delivery. In some cases there isn’t even any delivery – information is opened on a portal but no one knows it’s there or what it refers to or why it would be useful. When will open data, open government and open aid become more of a dialogue? When will data be released that answers questions that citizens have rather than the government deciding what it will release? The importance of working with community groups to strengthen their capacity to ask questions and build critical consciousness to question the data was emphasized. A counter point was that government is not necessarily there to start collecting information or creating data sets according to public demand. Governments collect certain data to help them function.

8.  Intermediaries working on open government should be careful of real or perceived bias. Non-profits have their own agendas, and ‘open data’ and ‘open information’ is not immune to being interpreted in non-objective ways. Those working on civic engagement initiatives need to be careful that they are not biased in their support for citizen initiatives. One presenter who works on a platform that encourages citizens to be involved in petitioning new laws for contemplation in Parliament said “Our software is open source so that anyone can set up a similar process to compete with us if they feel we are biased towards one or another type of agenda.”

9.  Technology-based engagement tools change who is participating. Whether in Finland, Canada, Ghana or Malawi, it’s critical to think about reaching those who are not active already online, those who are not the typical early adopters. To reach a broader public, one speaker noted “We are going to remote places, doing events in smaller towns and cities to see how people want to influence and take part in this. Making sure the website is accessible and understandable.”

10. Technological platforms are modifying how political parties and democratic processes operate. This may or may not be a good thing. Normally priorities arise and are discussed within political parties. Will people now bypass the party process and use ‘direct democracy’ channels if they are passionate about an issue but do not want to enter into negotiation around it? Will this weaken political processes or longer standing democratic processes? One speaker considered this change to be positive. People are not happy with being able to vote every 4 years and they want opportunities to participate in between elections cycles and direct voice in how priorities are decided. Others questioned whether bypassing official processes can lead to less participation and more apathy overall on national issues. Some questioned whether within fairly long-standing democracies, open data will have any real impact, considering existing levels of apathy and the lack of political participation.

11. Strong information, statistical, monitoring and evaluation systems are critical for open data and open government processes and to ensure more effective management of development results. This is still a challenge for some countries that need to review their mechanisms and improve their tools and processes for data collection and dissemination. If there is no data, or no current data, there is not much point in opening it. In addition, there are capacity and technical competency challenges within institutions in some countries. One participant mentioned a lack of current government geological information about gold and oil deposits that weakens government capacity to negotiate with the private sector extraction industry and ensure partnerships and earnings will contribute to national development. In addition more evidence is needed on the impact, use, and outcomes of open data. At the moment it’s quite difficult to say with any real authority what the outcomes and impact of open data and open government have been.

12. IATI (International Aid Transparency Initiative) needs more partners. Government representatives noted that they are opening their data, but they can only open the data they possess. In order for data on aid to be useful, more data is needed, especially that of NGOs who are implementing programs. Not many NGOs have published their information to the IATI standard at this point. “The really interesting thing will be when we can start mashing up and mapping out the different kinds of information,” as one speaker noted, “for example, this is the goal of the Open Aid Partnership. It will involve combining information from the donor, development indicators from the World Bank, and country information, and this will open up amazing possibilities once this is all geo-coded.” There are reporting challenges related to IATI and open government data, however, because at times countries and NGOs do not see the benefits of reporting – it feels like just one more top-down administrative burden. There are also issues with donor governments reporting their committed intentions and amounts, recipient governments reporting back, and communications with citizens on both sides (donor and recipient countries). One example that was reported to be enjoying some success was the multi-donor budget support initiative in Ghana, where development partners and government work together to establish development indicators and commitments. If the government delivers on the indicators, the development partners will then provide them with the funding. Development partners can also earmark funding to particular areas if there is government agreement.

13. We need more accountability towards ‘beneficiaries’.Currently many of these initiatives are perceived as being focused on donors and donor publics. As one participant noted, “the interesting thing is less about government and more about getting regular people involved in these processes. When you engage the public you’ll engage government leaders in thinking they will need to change to respond to what citizens are asking for.” Another noted that the essential issue is the link between transparency/accountability and citizens and their own governments. In addition, as one participant asked, “How can you strengthen capacity among citizens to ask the right questions about the data that’s being opened?” For example, citizens may ask about the number of schools being built, but not ask about the quality of education being provided. Public education was a strong focus of discussions around citizen engagement during the policy forum.

14. Should citizens be consulted on everything? however, was one big question. The public at large may not understand the ramifications of its own deep misunderstandings on particular issues and may be inputting from a viewpoint that lacks scientific evidence or fact. “It’s one thing to have an opinion about whether your child should be able to drink energy drinks before age 16, it’s another to input about technical programs like the best policy for green energy,” commented one group.

15. Can citizens really have greater participation if government is still in control of data? was another big question. An example was given of an open consultative process that became unwieldy for a local government, which then shut down the consultation process and changed the nature of the documents to ‘administrative’ and therefore no longer open. Others asked why governments pat themselves on the back over being part of the Open Government Partnership yet they do not have Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) or they prosecute those who open data in alternative ways, such as Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz.

16. If citizens don’t get a response from government (or if they don’t like the response, or feel it’s biased or manipulated), apathy and cynicism will increase. It’s important to make sure that ‘open government’ is not just a box that gets ticked off, but rather a long-term change in mentality of those in power and deeper expectations and efforts by citizens for openness and participation in conversations of national importance.

The conclusion was that Open Government is somewhat of a paradox, rooted in aims that are not necessarily new. Open Government strives to enable leaders in their communities to create change and transform their lives and those of people in their communities. It is a complex process that involves many actors and multiple conflicting goals and interests. It’s also something new that we are all learning about and experimenting with, but we are very impatient to know what works and what the impact is. In the room, the feeling was one of ‘radical pragmatism,’ as one participant put it. Open Government is a big idea that represents a big change. It’s something that can transform communities at the global level and there is a great deal of hope and excitement around it. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the challenges associated with it in order to address them and move things forward.

I’ll do a follow up post with the points I made during the panel as this post is clearly way too too long already. Kudos if you are still reading, and a huge thanks to the organizers and participants in the EWB policy forum.

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The Technology Salon (TSNYC) on the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), held April 13th, offered an overview of IATI as a coming-together point for aid transparency. It also stimulated discussion on opportunities and challenges for organizations and institutions when publishing information within the IATI standard and shared some available tools to support publishing NGO data.
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IATI Background
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Simon Parrish from Aid Info explained that IATI aims to provide information that meets the needs of a number of diverse groups, is timely, is ‘compilable’ and comparable, improves efficiency and reduces duplication. Simon explained that IATI arose from the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and was launched as part of the Accra Agenda for Action in 2008 due to a strong call from civil society to donors, multilaterals and northern NGOs for greater transparency.
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Organizations felt they were already working hard to be transparent; however governments, journalists, tax payers and others looking for information were not able to find what they needed. Rather than each organization creating its own improved transparency and accountability system, the idea was to use an open data approach, and this is where IATI came in. Since Accra, transparency and accountability have gained global traction and IATI has been a key part of this movement for the aid sector.
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Donor agencies, the World Bank, the EU, the US Government and others have already signed on to IATI and have started to publish basic information. INGOs are also starting to come on board and schedule their dates for publication to the IATI standard. It is hoped that over time the quality and amount of information published will improve and expand. For example, ‘traceability’ needs to be improved so that aid can be followed down the supply chain. Information from international and local NGOs is critical in this because the closer to the ground the information is, the better it can be used for accountability purposes.
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Opportunities and Questions around IATI
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To complement Simon’s overview, I shared ideas on some of the opportunities that IATI can offer, and some common questions that may arise within INGOs who are considering publishing their information to IATI.
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For example, IATI can help catalyze:
  • transparency and accountability as core values
  • better coordination and program planning (internally and externally)
  • reduced reporting burden (if donors agree to use IATI as a common tool)
  • improved aid effectiveness
  • collective learning in the aid sector
  • improved legitimacy for aid agencies
  • an opportunity to educate the donor public on how aid/development really works
  • ‘moral ground’ for IATI compliant aid organizations to pressure governments and private sector to be more transparent
  • space for communities and ‘beneficiaries’ to hold aid agencies more accountable for their work
  • space for engaging communities and the public in identifying what information about aid is useful to them
  • concrete ways for communities to contest, validate and discuss aid information, intentions, budgets, actions, results.
Concerns and questions that may arise within NGOs / CSOs around IATI include:
  • Is IATI the right way to achieve the goal of transparency and accountability?
  • Is the cost in time, money, systems, and potential risk of exposure worth the individual and collective gain?
  • Is IATI the flavor of the month, to be replaced in 2-4 years?
  • What is the burden for staff? Will it increase overhead? Will it take funds and efforts away from programs on the ground?
  • What is the position of the US Government/USAID? Will implementing agencies have to report in yet another format (financial, narrative)?
  • Much internal project documentation at NGOs/INGOs has not been written with the idea of it being published. There may be confidential information or poorly written internal documents. How will aid agencies manage this?
  • What if other agencies ‘steal’ ideas, approaches or donors?
  • What security/risks might be caused for sexual or political minority groups or vulnerable groups if activities are openly published?
  • Isn’t IATI too focused on ‘upward’ accountability to donors and tax payers? How will it improve accountability to local program participants and ’beneficiaries’? How can we improve and mandate feedback loops for participants in the same way we are doing for donors?
  • Does IATI offer ‘supplied data’ rather than offer a response to data demands from different sectors?
ICT Tools to support NGOs with IATI
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Ruth Del Campo discussed some of the different tools that are available to support INGOs and smaller organizations with IATI reporting, including Open Aid Register (OAR) which she created to support smaller organizations to comply with IATI. The Foundation Center has created a tool to support Foundations to enter their information into the IATI Standard also. Aid Stream is being used by many UK organizations to convert their data to the IATI Standard. Geo-visualization tools include CartoDB, AidView.
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IATI awareness in the US
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Although tools exist and awareness around IATI is growing elsewhere, Ruth noted that in the US many organizations do not know what IATI is, and this is a problem. Another issue Ruth brought up is that most existing charity raters do not rate program effectiveness or program transparency. Instead, charities are judged based on overhead rates, growth, financial statements, and whether they are publishing certain information on their websites. These measures do not tell what an organization’s program impact or overall transparency are, and they do not trace funds far enough along the chain. Linking charity rating systems with IATI standards could encourage greater transparency and accountability and help the public make decisions based on program accountability in addition to financial accountability. (For background on INGO overhead, see Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s “Lies, White Lies, and Accounting Practices”).
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Because many INGOs are not familiar with IATI, a greater dissemination effort is needed for IATI to be of optimal use. If only 20% of the aid picture is available, it will not be very helpful for coordination and decision making. Many INGOs feel that they are already transparent because they are publishing their annual reports as a .pdf file on their websites and they have an overhead rate within a certain percentage, but this is not enough. Much more needs to be done to gain awareness and buy-in from US INGOs, government, charity rating systems, donors, media and the public on transparency and IATI.
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Discussion…
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Following the 3 discussants, TSNYC participants jumped in for a good debate around key points:
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Carrot or stick approach?
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NGOs place great importance on their Charity Navigator rankings and Better Business Bureau reviews, and many donors select charities based on these rankings, so it will be important to link these with IATI. The Publish What You Fund index, which tracks the transparency of different organizations, has been helpful in getting countries and institutions on board. The Foundation Center lists transparency indicators on their site GlassPockets as well. The Brookings and CGD QuODA report was mentioned as a key reason that the US Government signed onto IATI at Busan last November, since the US was ranked very low on transparency and saw that they could bring their ranking up by signing on.
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Consensus at the Technology Salon was that it is not likely that the US Government or USAID will make IATI compliance mandatory for their grantees and implementing partners as DFID has done. Rather, the existing dashboard for collecting information would be used to report into IATI, so the dashboard needs to be improved and regularly updated by US agencies. One concern was whether in this scenario, the information published by USAID would be useful for developing country governments or would only be of use to USAID Missions. On the bright side, it was felt that movement within the US Government over the past few years towards greater openness and transparency has been massive. TSNYC participants noted that there seems to be a fundamental mindset change in the current administration around transparency, but it’s still difficult to make change happen quickly.
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Some members of the US Congress have latched onto the idea and are pushing for greater transparency and this could impact whether the IATI profile increases. Transparency and accountability are of interest to both major US parties. Liberals tend to be interested in the idea of being more open and sharing information; and conservatives tend to focus on value for money and stamping out corruption and lowering inefficient aid spending and waste. IATI can support with both and be a win for everyone.
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Making IATI mandatory could, some cautioned, backfire. For example there are foundations and corporations that for a variety of reasons do not openly share information about their giving. If pressured, the tendency may be to shut down totally.
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Showing what positive things can be done with IATI and how it can benefit CSO information management and coordination internally as well as externally was thought to be a better approach than positioning IATI as “we are being audited by everyone now.” IATI should be emphasized as an opportunity to join data together to know what everyone is doing, visualize the data using new technologies, and use it to make better program decisions and improve coordination as well as accountability. Some examples of vibrant and informative uses of IATI data include Mapping for Results, Interaction’s Haiti Aid Map and the Foundation Center’s comparison of Foundation giving and World Bank funding.
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Transparency as a ‘norm’
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Many organizations are investing in transparency for reasons that go far beyond IATI compliance. Three kinds or organizations were identified at the Salon session: those who comply because it is mandatory; those who comply because it’s inevitable; and those who comply because they believe in the inherent value of transparency as a core principle. Even within organizations, some teams such as Democracy and Governance, may be much more interested in IATI than, say, Education, Health, or Arts teams, simply because of the themes they work on and their competing priorities. It is hoped that in 5 years’ time, it is no longer a question of mandatory or inevitable compliance, but rather transparency becomes the norm and it starts to feel strange to work in a space that is not transparent. Leadership is important to get an organization on board.
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Challenges and opportunities in IATI compliance
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Challenges to IATI compliance were discussed in depth at the Salon, including questions around the amount of resources needed to report to IATI. It was noted that the biggest challenges are organization, coordination, and change of attitudes internally. Some of the core obstacles that Salon participants noted include:
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Time and resources
Some pushback might be seen around IATI because investment in IATI compliance may not be seen as providing an immediate return to individual organizations. TSNYC participants felt that rather than a constraint, IATI provided an opportunity for organizations to better manage their own information for internal sharing and use. IATI can help improve program planning, reduce time spent gathering program information from colleagues and across countries, and support better internal coordination among offices and partners. It was noted that when governments started publishing open data, the people who most used it were government employees for their own work. IATI can be seen as an investment in better internal coordination and information management. Once the information is available in an open format it can be used for a number of data visualizations that can show an organization’s reach and impact, or help a number of organizations share their joint work and impact, such as in the case of coalitions and thematic or sectoral networks.
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Project document quality
Concerns may be raised in some organizations regarding the state of project documents that were not originally written with publication in mind. Organizations will have to decide if they want to work retroactively, invest in quality control, and/or change processes over time so that documentation is ready for publication.
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Losing the competitive edge
TSNYC participants worried that without USAID mandatory compliance, some INGOs, and contractors especially, would not be motivated to publish information for fear of losing their competitive edge. It is feared that getting contractors to report to any level of detail will be difficult. This, the group discussed, makes peer pressure and public pressure important, and mechanisms to encourage broader transparency will need to be found. One idea was to create a ‘5 star system’ of IATI compliance so that organizations with full compliance get a higher star rating (something that Aid Info is already working on). Another angle is the hope that IATI reporting could replace some other mandatory reporting mechanisms, and this may be another entry point.
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Accountability to whom?  
It was recognized that IATI was initiated as a top-down approach to accountability. The question remains how to make IATI information more useful for ‘beneficiaries’ and program participants to track aid flows, and to contest and validate the information. What complaints mechanisms exist for communities where aid has not been effectively implemented? One point was that IATI is designed to do exactly that and that when it is more populated with information, then this more exciting part that involves playing with the data and seeing what communities have to say about it will start to happen.
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Simon noted that there is a huge emerging civic hacker and ICT for social change movement. Access to aid information can be hugely liberating for people. At some aid transparency workshops the focus has been on what national NGOs and governments are doing. Young people are often angry that they don’t know about this. They often find the idea that the information is available to them very exciting. Much of the conversation at these meetings has been about ways to reach communities and about who can be involved as intermediaries.
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IATI is still top down and the information that people need is bottom up. However the conversation is starting to happen. Infomediaries need to be multiple and varied so that there is not only one source of IATI data interpretation, but rather a variety of interpretations of the data. Social accountability processes like community score cards and social audits can be brought into the equation to extend the value of IATI information and bring in community opinion on aid projects and their effectiveness. Platforms like Huduma are examples of making open data more accessible and useful to communities.
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* * * * *
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A huge thanks to our discussants Ruth Del Campo and Simon Parrish and to all those who participated in this 3rd Technology Salon NYC!
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Contact me if you’d like to get on the list for future TSNYC invitations.
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The Technology Salon™ is an intimate, informal, and in person, discussion between information and communication technology experts and international development professionals, with a focus on both:
  • technology’s impact on donor-sponsored technical assistance delivery, and
  • private enterprise driven economic development, facilitated by technology.

Our meetings are lively conversations, not boring presentations – PowerPoint is banned and attendance is capped at 15 people – and frank participation with ideas, opinions, and predictions is actively encouraged through our key attributes. The Technology Salon is sponsored by Inveneo and a consortium of sponsors as a way to increase the discussion and dissemination of information and communication technology’s role in expanding solutions to long-standing international development challenges.

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