3 years after new law, where do US aid transparency efforts stand?

A man carries bednets provided by US aid in Madagascar. Photo by: Anne Daugherty / USAID

WASHINGTON — Three years ago, the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act became law, requiring greater reporting and improved monitoring and evaluation.

So how has the U.S. government done? There’s certainly been some progress, but there’s still space to grow, according to development experts and recent government reports.

Some 22 U.S. government agencies deliver foreign aid, but 95% of the spending comes from just six — the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the U.S. Departments of State, Agriculture, Defense, and Health and Human Services.

As of this week, all those agencies will be publicly reporting on foreign aid spending. But that isn’t the only benefit of FATAA — it has also helped by elevating the importance of the work, from agency policy to a legislative requirement, and has enabled stronger interagency collaboration by creating a standard set of requirements, according to a senior USAID official, who declined to be identified.

“On balance I think there’s a positive track record of moving in the right direction on the implementation of FATAA,” said George Ingram, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The narrative from development experts and government officials alike seems to be that progress is being made, but it’s sometimes moving slowly. There are a few areas that need improvement moving forward, including finally merging the U.S. government’s competing aid data dashboards, making data more user-friendly, and incorporating evaluations and information gathered into future planning.

A report card

There have been two government reviews — one by the Office of Management and Budget and one by the Government Accountability Office — looking to evaluate foreign aid transparency efforts and compliance with FATAA.

In February, OMB released a compliance review mandated by the legislation. It found that while USAID was fully compliant with FATAA, most of the other agencies were not.

The OMB report found that the State Department was significantly delayed in updating data sets, and that the data was of low quality and incomplete. The GAO report, released in July, found that the agency still has work to do to comply with the law’s requirements.

The GAO report also evaluated the OMB monitoring and evaluation guidelines issued in 2018, one of the FATAA requirements, and found that they don’t incorporate all the best practices. The report said the OMB guidelines fail to include requirements about developing monitoring plans that are based on risk, ensuring that staff is qualified, establishing close out procedures for programs, and following up on evaluation recommendations.  

The report recommended that OMB update the guidelines and that the Department of Defense and the Department of State update some of their policies and practices as well.

A defense of progress

Despite the reviews that pointed to shortcomings, the State Department is proud of the changes it has made and the work it continues to do, a top official told Devex.

FATAA has spurred the State Department to make improvements in the quality of its data, transparency, and learning, said Jim Richardson, the director of the department’s Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources. He added that he’s focused on how to improve the department’s systems and programs to have a better impact on the ground.

Q&A: What exactly does the State Department's 'F' bureau do?

Devex sat down with Richardson to talk about the office’s priorities, his goals in the job, and what the office’s role is in a turbulent budget environment.  

“I believe deeply in data. Obviously data for data sake means nothing. This idea that we’re just going to have a bunch of data and it’s not going to do anything — that’s ridiculous. So why do we need data? We need data to make better decisions,” Richardson told Devex in an interview.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also a big believer in data, and he’s constantly using the agency’s dashboards in his decision-making, Richardson said.

While the State Department has made improvements, it’s a new way of operating for the agency, so it is taking time, he said.

“Some of this is systems process changes, some of this is culture,” Richardson said. “Ultimately first and foremost for both of those things, we have to offer something better. We need to give people a better solution and then you have to train them to the better solution.”  

A turf battle

Under the law, the secretary of state and the USAID administrator were required to work together to consolidate ForeignAssistance.gov and Explorer.USAID.gov by the end of fiscal year 2018 — but that hasn’t happened.

The differences between the two databases are vast, said Sally Paxton, the U.S. representative at Publish What You Fund, an organization that campaigns for aid transparency. In fiscal year 2016, for example, the numbers in the State and USAID databases differed by some $20 billion. Such a disparity calls into question the reliability of the information on foreignassistance.gov, she said.

“Data should be accurate and if the U.S. government is saying two different things through two different websites, it gets confusing.”

— Jim Richardson, director, U.S. State Department’s Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources 

The concern is not only that the information presented is sometimes vastly different, but also that having these two platforms is a waste of resources. Ingram said the issue hasn’t been resolved due to a “turf battle” between USAID and State.

USAID has been required by law to collect data and report it to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which it has been doing for several decades. The State Department’s Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance — known as the “F bureau” — began collecting data on its own when it was created, but is not “doing so in a professional way,” according to Ingram.

The State Department and USAID are working to combine the sites, with representatives from both agencies talking and trying to find different solutions and options “to meet the unique needs of both agencies and make sure we do this smartly,” Richardson said.

“It is a big concern and we need to make sure that we have common data,” he said. “Data should be accurate and if the U.S. government is saying two different things through two different websites, it gets confusing.” 

The State Department is trying to make sure they sync the data without losing anything, Richardson added. He didn’t commit to any timelines, so it’s unclear when the issue might be resolved, but he said that they’ve heard from Congress on the issue and want to be sure they are not hasty, are careful, and get it right.

Room for improvement

There is room for improvement at the various agencies, although development experts repeatedly came back to the need for the growing pool of data to be put to use.

In some ways the legislation has been a success. More details about projects and allocations are now available publicly — “but has it changed how information is used for different outcomes? It’s too soon to say,” said Aria Grabowski, senior policy advisor at Oxfam America.

Some of what the legislation asks is “really complicated,” especially when it comes to learning from the evaluation and data that is gathered, she said, adding that it is difficult to do that across one agency, let alone all of the agencies working on foreign aid.

Challenges for the agencies include the technical system that doesn’t allow for easily sharing and using evaluations, and a lack of uniform terminology, which makes it hard to find the relevant information, Grabowski said.

“I think we are justifiably proud of the work that we do in this area,” another senior USAID official said. “What we’re looking to improve upon is some of the questions on utilization, getting better at organizational-wide learning, and knowledge management — which in part because we’re so decentralized, I think it’s universally recognized as a challenge and an area where we want to improve.”

USAID is looking at multiple ways to address the issue of utilizing the data and evaluations that are now available, the official said. One way is by creating an agency-wide learning agenda and establishing a function to do agency-wide learning and project management. The goal is to take learning to an organizational level and inform larger strategic visions and influence funding and projects, the second senior USAID official said.

“I also feel like we need to improve utilization at the project and activity level,” he said, adding that it is important to pull together people who work on the program cycle from strategy to project activity design and implementation to ensure that evaluations are designed early on so that they can be aligned with decision-making.

Now that there are more robust evaluations and accessible data, agencies such as USAID should not only be using evaluations to make better decisions internally, but it should also be telling more stories about programs that are working, said Lori Rowley, the director of global food security and aid effectiveness at the Lugar Center.

Especially in a difficult foreign aid funding environment, “they need to be more vocal about telling those stories … [to] demonstrate with data why programs shouldn’t be cut and are effective,” Rowley said.

In some cases, data needs to be presented in a usable fashion where it is not; in other cases, the systems for learning have not yet been developed or incorporated into agency and project workflows, several experts told Devex.

It is essential that evaluations are published and that they are read, she said. While USAID has a learning agenda, which is well intentioned, Paxton said that she doesn’t see the data being circulated or impacting policies.

About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.