Enhance the Use of U.S. Foreign Assistance Information (US0085)
Greater transparency and quality of foreign aid data promotes effective and sustainable development by helping recipient governments manage their aid flows and by empowering citizens to hold governments accountable for the use of assistance. Increased transparency also supports evidence-based, data-driven approaches to foreign aid. The first two NAPs called for agencies administering foreign assistance to publish their aid information in line with the internationally agreed-upon standard. Agencies have published information and data to ForeignAssistance.gov, with plans for incremental progress to address the quality and completeness of the data. However, producing additional, higher-quality data does not address the capacity of stakeholders to use the data, nor does it ensure that stakeholders know the data even exists.
IRM Midterm Status Summary
For details of these commitments, see the report: https://www.opengovpartnership.org/documents/united-states-mid-term-report-2015-2017/
IRM End of Term Status Summary
Commitment 33. Improve the Quality and Use of US Foreign Assistance Information
Improve the Quality and Enhance the Use of U.S. Foreign Assistance Information
Greater transparency and quality of foreign aid data promotes effective and sustainable development by helping recipient governments manage their aid flows and by empowering citizens to hold governments accountable for the use of assistance. Increased transparency also supports evidence-based, data-driven approaches to foreign aid. The first two NAPs called for agencies administering foreign assistance to publish their aid information in line with the internationally agreed-upon standard. Agencies have published information and data to ForeignAssistance.gov, with plans for incremental progress to address the quality and completeness of the data. However, producing additional, higher-quality data does not address the capacity of stakeholders to use the data, nor does it ensure that stakeholders know the data even exists. To raise awareness, increase accessibility, and build demand for foreign assistance data, the United States will:
- Improve the Quality, Comprehensiveness, and Completeness of Foreign Assistance Data. S. agencies will substantially improve the quality and increase the comprehensiveness and completeness of the data reported in accordance with the internationally recognized Busan common standard, emphasizing the reporting of commonly established subnational geographic information, project documents and information, results, and sector codes as priority data needs for users.
- Build Capacity to Use Data. The Administration will support selective capacity-development efforts in partner countries to make it easier to use U.S. foreign assistance data for effective decision-making, including in pursuit of achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The United States will explore ways to promote and increase data accessibility and the dissemination of data to stakeholders through offline methods and will promote existing foreign assistance information sources and raise awareness for aid transparency efforts to contribute to increased data use by U.S. Government and civil society and the international community.
Responsible Institutions: Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), Department of State, United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
Supporting Institutions: Agencies that have foreign assistance funds in their portfolio and civil society organizations
Start Date: Not Specified End Date: Not Specified
This commitment aimed to improve the quality of US Foreign Assistance Information and enhance the accessibility and usage of that information by:
- Improving the quality and comprehensiveness of foreign aid data reporting by federal agencies administering foreign assistance, with reported data using the Busan common standard; and
- Supporting capacity-development programs in partner countries to enhance partners’ ability to use US foreign aid data.
The ultimate goal of the commitment is to promote effective and sustainable development, empower citizens to hold governments accountable for the use of assistance, and support evidence-based, data-driven approaches to foreign aid. However, the commitment activities focus, at least in the short term, on improving the quality, dissemination, and usage of information.
At the midterm, the government had made limited progress on this commitment:
- With respect to data quality and comprehensiveness, and as described in the government’s midterm self-assessment report, in November 2016 the US State Department released an onboarding toolkit and coaching sessions directed at agencies that had not yet begun to report their aid data on ForeignAssistance.gov, resulting in the onboarding of several additional federal agencies by mid-2016.  However, by the close of the midterm reporting period (June 2016), no additional agencies had begun reporting data on ForeignAssistance.gov relative to the start of the evaluation period (October 2015).  Completion on Milestone 33.1 was therefore limited at the midterm.
- With respect to capacity-building program to facilitate aid data usage in partner countries, the US State Department, alongside the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, engaged in a variety of public-facing activities to raise awareness and usage of aid data (including through the use of ForeignAssistance.gov), such as through blog posts,  hackathons organized as part of the National Day for Civic Hacking,  and working with university-level students through the State Department’s Diplomacy Lab Program.  The government also launched an Application Programming Interface (API) for ForeignAssistance.gov.  In light of these activities, Milestone 33.2 was assessed as substantially complete at the midterm. The milestone was not complete because there was no evidence of capacity-building programs in partner countries, as stipulated in the commitment text.
End of term: Substantial
At the end of term, the government had made substantial progress on this commitment.
With the exception of the Department of Commerce, all other agencies that completed the onboarding process at the midterm (the Departments of Energy, Labor, Transportation, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation) had begun reporting data to ForeignAssistance.gov by the close of the end-of-term evaluation period, for a total of 18 reporting agencies (Milestone 33.1).  Overall, this represents a substantial increase relative to the close of the midterm evaluation period (June 2016), when only 10 agencies reported data to the site.  The other federal agencies that are engaged in foreign assistance but that do not yet report data to ForeignAssistance.gov are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Trade Commission, and the US Trade Development Agency. 
At the end of term, the government had made less progress in enhancing the quality and comprehensiveness of the aid data available on the site. In particular, for fiscal year 2016—the most recently completed year covered by the evaluation period—the 18 agencies reporting aid data were each responsible for reporting data on four types of financial information (planned data, obligations, disbursements, and individual transactions), for a total of 72 data points.  However, at the time of writing, complete data was only available for 29 of 72 data points across all reporting agencies for 2016, covering only 40% of the requested data. Agencies reported partial data for 24 of 72 data points, covering roughly 33.5% of the requested data, and reported no data for 19 of 72 data points, indicating that data was lacking for roughly 26.5% of the requested data.  Through the first three quarters of 2017, data was fully available for 28 of 72 data points (39%), partially available for 17 of 72 data points (23.5%), and unavailable for 27 of 72 data points (37.5%).  These figures should be interpreted cautiously relative to 2016, as several months of data reporting remained in 2017 as of the time of writing.
In addition, the State Department has made an effort to improve the quality and availability of foreign assistance information through the Foreign Assistance Data Review (FADR). In December 2015, an interagency FADR working group proposed recommendations to improve the State Department’s ability to monitor and report on foreign assistance activities.  In 2016, the working group also announced a new Data Element Index.  Nonetheless, according to a June 2017 report by the Office of Inspector General, the working group “had made limited progress in meeting its goal of developing a comprehensive plan to improve the Department’s foreign assistance data tracking and reporting” and “lacked executive guidance and support.”  According to the State Department, since June 2017, the agency has been implementing a new solution for reporting and maintaining foreign assistance data in accordance with FADR recommendations. The State Department further noted that these efforts had led to increased transaction data and improved data reporting on ForeignAssistance.gov as of March 2018, after the close of the action plan. 
Relatedly, on 15 July 2016, President Obama signed into law the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2016.  Under Section 4 of the act, federal agencies that administer covered US federal assistance must provide the Secretary of State with “comprehensive information” on their foreign assistance programs, to be subsequently published on ForeignAssistance.gov. Agencies are required to begin reporting this information on a quarterly basis no later than two years after the act’s enactment (i.e. by 15 July 2018).  In this regard, the act’s passage reinforces the data reporting efforts being carried out under this commitment. In light of the increased number of agencies reporting data to ForeignAssistance.gov, the IRM researcher assesses that Milestone 33.1 is substantially complete.
With respect to capacity-building programs involving partner countries (Milestone 33.2), the State Department informed the IRM that the ForeignAssistance.gov team traveled to Indonesia, Thailand, and Malawi to raise awareness of foreign assistance data and encourage data use.  A State Department blog post provides additional details on the Malawi trip.  For example, the one-week-long trip focused on understanding the demand for and use of foreign assistance data, as well as raising awareness of the data. The State Department further noted that the ForeignAssistance.gov team discussed with Malawi’s Ministry of Finance how data from ForeignAssistance.gov could be incorporated into Malawi’s Aid Management System. 
While these visits represent concrete efforts to promote data usage, the text of Milestone 33.2 is too vague for the IRM to determine that these visits fulfill the milestone completely. For instance, the milestone does not specify how many “capacity-development efforts in partner countries” the US government will undertake, nor if these “efforts” constitute trips like that to Malawi, or something else entirely. In light of this ambiguity, the IRM considers that Milestone 33.2 remained substantially complete at the end of term.
Nonetheless, the trips aimed at raising awareness of foreign assistance data are important initiatives. According to Oxfam America, it “and others in the advocacy community urged the US to incorporate this data use commitment with a specific focus on efforts to promote awareness and use of data about US foreign aid programs in the countries where those programs take place… this local use of the information is part of the point of aid transparency.” 
Did It Open Government?
Access to Information: Marginal
This commitment has marginally opened government with respect to access to information. While the number of federal agencies reporting data to ForeignAssistance.gov has roughly doubled over the course of the evaluation period, there are ongoing gaps in data availability at the end of term, as described above.
In addition, there are still issues of data quality and standardization. For example, a November 2017 analysis by Publish What You Fund highlighted major inconsistencies between foreign assistance data platforms, such as USAID’s Foreign Aid Explorer and ForeignAssistance.gov.  While the author noted the usefulness of being able to download the latest planned data from the latter site, she also pointed out that “having such vast differences in the data seriously undermines credibility and discourages use.”  A September 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office similarly noted that the data on ForeignAssistance.gov was incomplete and lacked verified annual data.  While the government also launched the ForeignAssistance.gov API and carried out capacity-building efforts as part of this commitment, more significant improvements to data availability and quality are needed to achieve a major change in the level of public access to foreign assistance information.
At the time of writing, the US government had not published its fourth national action plan, so it is unclear if this commitment will be carried forward. The government should nevertheless continue to improve the scope and quality of foreign assistance data reported to ForeignAssistance.gov, with the goal of having all federal agencies engaged in covered foreign assistance report full data to the platform by mid-July 2018.
The Foreign Aid Accountability and Transparency Act of 2016 has the potential to reinforce and invigorate agencies’ reporting efforts substantially over the next two years, including by streamlining different platforms, and is a necessary regulatory complement to ForeignAssistance.gov in light of agencies’ partially-incomplete reporting efforts thus far.
 Open Government Partnership. “United States of America Midterm Self-Assessment Report for the Open Government Partnership: Third Open Government National Action Plan, 2015–2017.” p. 35 September 2016. https://www.opengovpartnership.org/sites/default/files/USA_NAP3_self-assessment-report_20160916.pdf. Consulted 9 October 2017.
 Based on archived versions of ForeignAssistance.gov from 30 October 2015 (available here: http://bit.ly/2hcOEuC) and 1 July 2016 (available here: http://bit.ly/2walmPQ), the number of agencies submitting data to ForeignAssistance.gov remained the same (10).
 Vega, Dennis.. “Call to Action: Drive Demand For Open Foreign Assistance Information.” InterAction. 26 May 2016 https://www.interaction.org/newsroom/blog/call-action-drive-demand-open-foreign-assistance-information. Consulted 9 October 2017.
 Code for America. “National Day of Civic Hacking, Challenge: Open Foreign Assistance.” 4 June 2016. https://www.codeforamerica.org/events/national-day-2016/challenge-open-foreign-assistance. Consulted 9 October 2017.
 International Development in Practice. “Assessing and Developing Usability For Foreign Aid Data Diplomacy Lab.” 2 January 2016. http://intdev.squarespace.com/dat-projects/2016/1/2/assessing-and-developing-usability-for-foreign-aid-data-diplomacy-lab-fall-2015. Consulted 9 October 2017.
 Assessed using the Wayback Machine to assess the number of reporting agencies as of 1 July 2016 as indicated on the ForeignAssistance.gov homepage from that date. For the Wayback Machine, see https://web.archive.org/. Consulted 24 September 2017.
 This assessment was carried out by comparing the list of reporting agencies appearing on the homepage of ForeignAssistance.gov to a list of US government agencies managing foreign assistance funds and programs on the “About ForeignAssistance.gov” page of that website. See ForeignAssistance.gov. “Homepage.” https://foreignassistance.gov/. Consulted 24 September 2017. See also ForeignAssistance.gov. “About ForeignAssistance.gov.” https://foreignassistance.gov/. Consulted 24 September 2017.
 As indicated on ForeignAssistance.gov, the 18 agencies reporting aid data were each responsible for reporting data on four different types of financial information: planned data, obligations, disbursements, and individual transactions. See ForeignAssistance.gov. “Understanding the Data.” https://foreignassistance.gov/learn/understanding-the-data. Consulted 24 September 2017.
 “Findings Report,” US Department of State, Foreign Assistance Data Review, December 2015, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/250931.pdf, consulted 7 May 2018.
 “Phase Two – Data Element Index,” US State Department, Foreign Assistance Data Review, Winter 2016, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/267146.pdf, consulted 7 May 2018.
 “Compliance Follow-up Review: Department of State is Still Unable to Accurately Track and Report on Foreign Assistance Funds,” US Department of State, Office of Inspector General, June 2017, https://oig.state.gov/system/files/isp-c-17-27.pdf, consulted 7 May 2018, 1-3.
 The IRM first received this information from the State Department on 30 April 2018 in a comment submitted as part of the pre-publication review of this report. The information was later clarified on 21 May 2018 in a comment submitted as part of the public commenting period of this report. All information was received via e-mail correspondence.
 Congress.gov. “H.R.3766 - Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2016.” https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/3766/text. Consulted 24 September 2017.
 Ibid. Section 4.
 The State Department submitted this information to the IRM in a comment during the pre-publication review of this report. The IRM received the comment via e-mail on 30 April 2018.
 Dennis Vega, “Dispatches from the Field: Exploring Aid Transparency in Malawi,” 13 January 2017, http://2007-2017-blogs.state.gov/stories/2017/01/13/dispatches-field-exploring-aid-transparency-malawi.html, consulted 7 May 2018.
 The State Department submitted this information to the IRM in a comment during the pre-publication review of this report. The IRM received the comment via e-mail on 30 April 2018.
 Comments submitted to the IRM researcher during the drafting of the report.
 Paxton, Sally. “US Data on Foreign Assistance: What to know and what to use,” Publish What You Fund, 13 November 2017, http://www.publishwhatyoufund.org/us-data-foreign-assistance/