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U.S. Foreign Assistance Dashboard: Show Me the Data!

November 22, 2011
Yesterday, I was happy to see the MCC finally publish aid data to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, the government’s one-stop-shop for foreign assistance budget and appropriations information. But upon further examination of the website, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated when I noticed the dearth of new data available in the tool. Nearly a year has passed since the Dashboard was launched in December 2010, and the U.S. government has yet to come up with the majority of its promised haul of agency data. Rolled out a day after the QDDR, Dashboard was a response to calls for greater transparency and accountability in government and development agencies. It aims to incorporate all U.S. government foreign assistance budget planning, financial program, and performance data in an easily accessible web format, allowing users to track, analyze, and monitor aid investments overtime. The website’s user-friendly graphics allow viewers to peruse through data displayed by country, sector, and year and generate their own tables through manual queries as well as download machine-readable data sets. Inspired by principles embraced in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, the Accra Agenda for Action, and President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, the Dashboard was widely heralded as an important step toward establishing a new system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration for monitoring U.S. foreign assistance. Based on what it sets out to provide, the website is an impressively ambitious tool, and the government should be applauded for moving quickly to get in line with international standards on aid transparency (see IATI). Nevertheless, the tool is only as useful as the information it stores, and currently, it stores very little. Sure it includes both State and USAID foreign assistance request and appropriations data, but this information was made available at the original release of the Dashboard nearly a year ago, and both agencies have yet to publish data for obligations and spent resources. The recent release of MCC information is certainly a plus, but since that information was already readily available on the MCC’s website, it hardly counts as progress.

So what doesn’t the Dashboard include? Take a look at the matrix below, provided on the Dashboard’s “What’s Coming” section of the website. X’s indicate data that is publically available on the site. Todd Moss

This is the short list of the 20+ agencies which the government intends to include data on in the complete version of Dashboard. The addition of other agencies and more detailed data is to be released in phases over time, but over how much time is the question. Principle 3 of 7[1] listed as a core principle guiding the Dashboard calls for data to be “published with the level of detail, quality, and speed needed to enhance government development planning and empower citizens to hold their government accountable.” But how much time constitutes the “speed” necessary to empower citizens? I’d say less than 12 months. The Dashboard has the mandate to be a powerful conveyor of information, a tool to help ensure programs and agencies are more accountable to Congress and the American public. It has the potential to provide key stakeholders with the information they need to analyze aid expenditures, shut down ineffective programs, and focus resources in areas where assistance can be most effective. If updated with project information and performance data, it can help advocates push the government to remarry evidence to resource allocations and spending to successful programs. Before its birthday on December 16th, let’s see the government fulfill its promises and make more data available on the Dashboard. What else would you like included in the Dashboard? As always, the Rethink team is eager to hear your suggestions on how to make this tool even more effective. Please feel free to add your comments below.
[1] Another area for concern is principle 7 which calls for the government to institutionalize a process that facilitates the collection and dissemination of data on foreign assistance across agencies. There is no mention on the Dashboard of any progress on creating such a process.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.