Why Transparency Matters: Part Three

This post was originally published by InterAction.

Why Transparency Matters Series Part 3: How does one be transparent? 

Moderator: Julie Montgomery, Director of Innovation and Learning, InterAction

“Why Transparency Matters” is a six-part blog series featuring AidData, Development Initiatives, Foundation Center, Open Aid Partnership, Oxfam America, and Publish What You Fund. These organizations are coming together with InterAction to discuss transparency – why it matters, what it means to be transparent, what impact transparency has on aid effectiveness, and more. In this third blog, we asked contributors to share their ideas on what has to be in place for an organization to mainstream transparency.

In our experience with NGO Aid Map, InterAction found that the process of developing this tool was just as important as the tool itself. Building buy-in, gaining trust, and slowly leading members down the road of transparency have been key factors for success. Transparency requires a change in thinking and doing – having change agents throughout an organization, especially at the leadership level, can help ensure that transparency becomes an integral part of doing business.

Read more on what others think…

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Samantha Custer (AidData): “We underestimate the risks…and overestimate [the] benefits of closed systems”, James Boyle of Creative Commons once said. Change is threatening when we see more risks than rewards. Transparency initiatives are no exception and success depends upon getting the incentives right.

Government ministries, NGO departments or donor offices may view transparency initiatives as creating additional burden for overworked staff. Taxpayers or investors may misinterpret publicly available information and lose confidence. Fear of competition has also been cited as a deterrent, particularly by NGOs concerned about losing out on contracts to less transparent organizations.

Working with an organization, like AidData, to process a backlog of historical data lowers barriers to getting started. Visualization tools and supporting documentation help the public responsibly analyze your data. Donors can mandate a common disclosure standard by contractors and remove the perceived penalty for sharing information. Tying transparency metrics into performance plans increases the rewards for compliance.

Joni Hillman (Development Initiatives): Transparency is not about a quick fix, but signaling that your organization wants to work in a way that is accountable and responsive to its partners, beneficiaries and funders. For this reason, it is vital to secure commitment and buy-in from staff throughout the organization as to why it is important and what it can help you achieve. As well as improving external engagement, increasing your transparency through implementing IATI can also be really helpful internally – improving data capture and management processes, and enabling better monitoring and coordination of your own activities. The task of publishing your activity data to the IATI Standard might seem daunting, but the IATI technical team at Development Initiatives has worked to create tools and guidance materials that smooth the process, even for organizations with low capacity and resources for data capture and management. Aidstream is just one of these tools that support organizations to publish data, and we’ve recently published a series of videos that walk you through the process of publishing, step by step.

Janet Camarena (The Foundation Center): True transparency comes down to a mindset, one in which funders and practitioners believe they are most effective when they approach all aspects of their work by saying “Why not share this?” instead of the usual default, “Why share this?” Because transparency is so connected to organizational culture, priority setting, and ongoing reflective practice, having the support of the institution’s leadership is a critical factor in achieving greater openness.

Chief among the common objections to calls for increased transparency is that it takes too much time away from the “real” work of the organization.  However, as greater numbers of institutions openly communicate information about their governance, procedures, programs and achievements, we are learning about the many efficiencies and benefits that result from increased transparency. Specifically, greater transparency:

  • Is a net time saver since it means less time repeatedly explaining goals and strategies to grantees and the public
  • Strengthens institutional credibility and public trust
  • Reduces duplication of effort among peers
  • Facilitates greater collaboration and collective problem solving
  • Cultivates a community of shared learning

The Demystifying Funder Transparency guide from GrantCraft and Glasspockets, both services of the Foundation Center, provides practical advice for funders to publicly share various aspects of their operations, work, and knowledge.

Elizabeth Dodds (Open Aid Partnership): Beyond committing to transparency, “being transparent” in terms of embedding openness in the culture and operations of an organization will usually take a significant investment in capacity, especially in developing countries. We’ve seen that particularly when data standards are in place, it is important for organizations and governments to focus resources on building the capacity of data suppliers to collect, manage, and publish high quality data on an ongoing basis, and the capacity of users to access, analyze, and apply the data.

This is challenging because it means considerable costs in the short-term while the benefits of openness might take time to realize, leaving room for doubt that the changes are worth it. There will inevitably be those who resist becoming more open, and overcoming this internal resistance may take external pressure. In addition to establishing standards, having in place a policy or legal framework for openness – such as an Access to Information law or policy – can allow the public to demand compliance and help to ensure transparency efforts are more robust and sustainable. External support can also help overcome challenges, such as forming partnerships with like-minded organizations and governments – like the Open Government Partnership – to share lessons learned, offer advice, and track and communicate progress. From our experience, we have also seen the need to demonstrate the value of published information, to form an evidence base that justifies the effort and expense, and strengthens support for transparency going forward. 

David Saldivar (Oxfam America): Transparency does not just happen – it takes work, and the intentional and sustained dedication of time and resources that could be used for other things.  Like any other activity, the decision to be transparent has to be supported by the necessary commitment from the people in the organization who will do the work. For transparency to stick, it has to be recognized as critical to an agency’s mission, not an add-on task, or external mandate.

The organization must make the case that resources spent on transparency will not interfere with other priorities, and will in fact help achieve the organization’s other goals. In development, that case rests on the ground that clear, effective communication about goals, plans, and resources is essential to coordinating the various actors that each play a role in improving people’s lives. Communication is what enables people to work together effectively, and that cannot happen without transparency.

Catalina Reyes (Publish What You Fund): Aid transparency starts with an agency’s commitment to publish to the International Aid Transparency Initiative Registry. The commitments made by donors in Busan to implement IATI have a specific deadline – December 2015. In order to deliver on this deadline, donors must lay out a plan for implementation, allocate the necessary resources to deliver on the plan, and make an initial investment to see it to fruition. The initial investments are offset by the ability to better manage resources using published information.

Donor agencies will likely face systems and cultural challenges when implementing IATI. Development agencies were not always designed to make information on their activities available and transparent. Staff and agencies’ leadership must therefore create a culture of open and transparent information management, but also of proactive disclosure. Agencies’ internal systems (financial, procurement and others) will likely need to be upgraded in order to respond to the need of users, fill in data gaps, address quality issues, etc. This means ensuring that information produced originates from the agencies’ own systems and making it comparable with IATI with little or no manipulation. 

Want to learn more?

Join the discussion by following #TransparencyMatters on Twitter and tune in for a live discussion on October 6th from 12:00-1:00 PM, Eastern Standard Time, to learn more and chat with the authors.

Tags: transparencyinteractionopengovernmentdataoxfam americadevelopment initiativesPublish What You FundOpen Aid PartnershipAidData