Why Transparency Matters: Part Two

This post was originally published by InterAction.

Why Transparency Matters Series Part 2: What does it mean to 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 second blog, we asked organizations to tell us about what it means to be transparent.

Since 2009, InterAction has been working on a tool that enables our members to collectively be more transparent about their work around the world in a standardized way: NGO Aid Map. To date, nearly 130 organizations have contributed data on more than 6,600 projects in around 140 countries. Being transparent means not looking for reasons not to share data, but asking what else it would be useful to share. It means thinking about the information people need and finding ways to make it available. Being transparent is a process; you start with what you have and then work to improve over time.

Read more on what others organizations think about what is needed to be transparent…

-------------

Samantha Custer (AidData): Being a transparent organization isn’t a destination; it’s a sustained commitment to sharing information as the rule, not the exception. Turning this commitment into action may happen all at once or in stages. It requires ensuring sufficient data architecture and incentives to change.

Donors, civil society and governments create vast stores of information on development projects and public services. Budgets and contracts can help us follow the money and track how development dollars are invested. Progress reports and evaluations can critically shed light on the impact of these investments relative to their intended outcomes.

Publishing aggregate financial information and country-level strategies is a starting point. Timely reporting of project-level documentation on specific development activities and locations of benefiting communities down to the district, village or street corner level is another crucial step. Opening up data on project results is also critical to monitor progress, evaluate performance, and plan future activities.

Joni Hillman (Development Initiatives): As the technical lead for the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), Development Initiatives supports actors ranging from governments and multilaterals to small NGOs to publish open data on their activities to the IATI Standard. This is resulting in an ever-increasing amount of information on a wide range of aid, development and humanitarian activities being publicly available in a comparable, machine-readable format. However, publishing open data is only the first step towards true transparency; we must also work to ensure people can use data as the basis for accessible and targeted information that can be used to inform decision-making, both internal and external, and influence to effect genuine change. This approach requires a shift in the culture of producing and sharing data, but also in how an organization then repurposes and uses both its own data (e.g. for internal decision-making or external communications) and uses others’ data (e.g. to inform advocacy or fundraising).

Janet Camarena (The Foundation Center): Transparency is, in a word, openness. A foundation that operates transparently is one that provides information about its work, operations and processes, and what it is learning in an open, accessible, and timely manner. For foundations operating in today’s digital age, transparency also really means having a virtual presence in addition to a physical one so anyone can quickly learn what you do, why and how you do it, and what difference it makes in the world. 

For foundations interested in learning more about the steps to transparency or how to define or improve foundation transparency practices, the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” assessment tool serves as a helpful road map of transparency practices assessing disclosures pertaining to governance, financial, staffing, grantmaking, and performance measurement.

Elizabeth Dodds (Open Aid Partnership): To be considered transparent very much depends on the degree of transparency and overall objective an organization or initiative aims to achieve. For us, transparency means going beyond publishing stores of data or documents, to helping users gather, access, analyze, and translate data into actionable information. Achieving this degree of transparency would require thoughtful consideration of, what is the “right” data to release – is it relevant, in what format, for whom, and how would they use it?

This is challenging because this degree of transparency is often a departure from the norm, and requires changing the culture of and incentives for information sharing within an organization or government. One way to establish transparency as a priority is by creating and committing to standards for publishing data, such as the IATI Standard or Open Contracting Standard. This not only encourages that certain data is published systematically, and is comparable, timely and comprehensive, but also creates incentives for compliance by collaborating with others to establish a norm of openness.

David Saldivar (Oxfam America): Transparency is like development – it’s both a quality, and an ongoing, active process. For an organization to be transparent, it has to embrace transparency as a value that is key to fulfilling the organization’s mission. For a development agency, this means adopting an approach to transparency rooted in the understanding that sharing information is essential to designing, implementing, and evaluating programs that will be successful in achieving better development outcomes.

But adopting transparency as a value in principle is not enough; an organization has to “do transparency” within its partnerships to realize the benefits, and that requires an ongoing dialogue about needs and interests. A truly transparent organization actively fosters this dialogue and engages with its peers, partners, and other audiences, to understand what information is most relevant and useful to share, and makes changes based on these expressed needs. 

Catalina Reyes (Publish What You Fund): Donors can make aid transparent by publishing their current information to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). An agency should publish their activities in a comparable format and include some basic information such as project names, descriptions, and beginning and end dates. Donors should also publish value added information such as results, evaluations, sub-national location, and conditions.

In order to meet their commitments on aid transparency, donors must develop and make their plan for implementation publicly available. This should include what resources will be allocated to deliver on aid transparency, by whom, and by when. For example, USAID is planning to develop a cost management plan as part of their agenda in the agency’s Open Government Plan.

When the information starts flowing it needs to be used. For that it needs to be promoted within agencies and with external partners. Donors’ current aid information can be valuable to their own staff and help managing the resources available. A transparent agency can also inform partners, other donors, CSOs, recipients of aid, etc. on current and future aid flows so all can manage and coordinate aid better. 

Want to learn more?

Join the discussion by following #TransparencyMatters on Twitter and tune in for a live discussion on October 6th from 12:00-1:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, to learn more and chat with the authors.

Tags: transparencyinteractionopengovernmentdataoxfam americadevelopment initiativesPublish What You FundOpen Aid PartnershipAidData