The Aid Management Journey to Transparency and Open Data

December 13, 2012Wayan Vota

The open data and transparency revolution underway in international development is as much about culture change as it is about data, technology, and standards. I am Nancy Choi, Director of Operations, and recently I have been in the midst of these changes. With Development Gateway’s move to the Open GovHub, my colleagues and I traded our siloed offices and dark cubicles for an open office space shared with other organizations passionate about transparency and open government.

At the same time, DG’s largest program, through which we work with 25 governments that receive aid, has undergone its own progression towards transparency. The program centers around a system for managing aid flows called the Aid Management Platform (AMP). In the past, these were closed government systems, but today when we begin new work with partner governments we assume that the data generated will be publicly available and provide grist for citizen engagement too.

This presumption of openness is a sign of changing times and the evolution of our own beliefs about the centrality of transparency. Here are my reflections on the attitudes towards transparency in the early days of AMP, what changed, and where I think we go from here.

The Downside of Government Ownership

While today’s AMP is a mature offering with a footprint in 25 countries, when I joined DG in 2006, the program was a humble start-up with one lone software implementation in Ethiopia. A year earlier, 61 donors had signed the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, which outlined a new partnership model for government-donor relations anchored in the tenet of “government ownership”. This notion of putting governments in the driver’s seat resonated with us philosophically, and we designed the AMP program to strengthen government aid management institutions, improve the linkage between aid and government budgets, and empower governments with better information, tools, and analysis to control their own destinies.

Notably absent from our AMP program was any mention of making this aid information public. Sometimes, even the idea of sharing information within a government ministry was met with resistance—usually by the official who “owned” the ministry’s aid information in a database or Excel file on his own hard drive. Other times, we were challenged by donors insisting on access to the AMP they had funded, while the government refused or delayed on the grounds of “government ownership”.

At that time, our fallback position was that governments needed to drive their own aid management processes, which sometimes pitted ownership against transparency. These were—and occasionally still are—delicate issues, reflecting power relations, politics, institutional territorialism, and fears about the potential fallout from publishing imperfect data. I wonder whether the outcome would have been different if we had pushed harder for “open” AMPs early on—or whether we would have alienated some of our clients.

Transparency wasn’t on the menu for another key reason—we were focused on the basics. Just getting a handle on what donors were doing in a partner country was the top priority. Establishing data collection, validation, reporting and analytical processes took time, patience, and consensus. These changes were not trivial. They impacted the flow (and “control”) of information, how colleagues interacted, and the power dynamics within aid units and ministries. Small steps towards greater openness between an Aid Coordination Unit and a few local donors were a big deal.

Transparency’s Tipping Point

By 2008 the global aid effectiveness community collectively recognized the need for standards and transparent aid as a precursor to development effectiveness. The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) gave our teams an entry point into conversations locally with donors and governments on the benefits of open data and standards. Around that time, several of the high-level AMP champions were eager to talk about “public” AMPs. We made changes to the AMP technology to create attractive “public view” spaces within AMP since the platform was originally designed as a “closed” system.

The governments of Kosovo and Timor-Leste were among the first brave trailblazers to open their AMPs to the public. In each case, high-level champions recognized the benefits to government planning and donor coordination, and made it a personal mission to convince skeptics. As the Project Manager for AMP-Kosovo, I was simultaneously excited and anxious about opening the data. Several months in advance, we worked with the government to address data gaps and improve processes so that future data collection cycles would run smoothly. Nonetheless, I didn’t sleep much the night before the public launch.

We knew the data were good but imperfect, with varying levels of detail and rigor applied by Kosovo’s 20+ local donors. One particular challenge was in communicating the inevitable trade-off between data quality and timeliness. Any data on “projected” aid was particularly prone to fluctuations—donor projections that are key to government planning are inevitably subject to the future change of heart by donor parliaments.

We found that, in general, the awareness that the data were soon becoming public mobilized conscientious donors to triple check their data, and lit a fire under the rest to engage. The month following the public launch in Kosovo, the Government fielded dozens of phone calls from civil society organizations and citizens thanking them for providing this public good. In the case of Timor-Leste, AMP was integrated into a broader Government Transparency Portal, which has become a source of national pride.

An Open Data Future

Today, we address head-on the occasional conflicts that emerge between government ownership and aid transparency. With new AMP countries, we introduce the program in the context of open data and advocate a public launch within months. A new client has to make the case against opening their data. The most compelling arguments for transparency, however, do not come from our clichés that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” or “don’t let perfect data be the enemy of the good”, rather from listening to the experiences of the Kosovos and Timor-Lestes of the group who have already taken the plunge.

Amidst the widespread acceptance of IATI, the momentum of the open data movement, and the citizen protests of the Arab Spring, the tide is turning. Government ownership for many AMP countries now means pushing for open data. In the past, it took a high-level champion to muscle through a public AMP. Increasingly, openness is seen as the default—such is the mark of culture shift that is under way.