What happened to aid transparency under Labor?

TransparencyOne of the first things that occured with the merger of AusAID and DFAT was the disappearance of links to the Transparency Charter–the commitment of the aid program to be open with information–from the front page of the Australian aid website. (The charter is still available but only via a web search.) No reason has been given for this move, which seems at odds with the Minister’s assurance that under the Coalition aid transparency, openness and effectiveness would all be increased.

But how well did AusAID implement its Transparency Charter, which it introduced in 2011? This is of more than historical interest. It sets a benchmark against which future progress (or regress) can be judged.

To answer this question, we examined project information available from the AusAID website in September 2013.

We surveyed all AusAID projects listed on the web in the Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Pacific country and regional programs. We found a total of 225 projects with at least some basic information on the web (a title and project description). All of them gave some indication of planned start and finish dates and current status (typically, under implementation). About half reported an overall project budget. Virtually all projects gave annual budget information, but this information was only up-to-date (with 2012/13 spending) for just under half of the projects; for just over half of the projects the information was out-of-date, referring instead to 2011/12 spending.

The way the project documentation is set up (and this hasn’t changed on the aid program’s new DFAT site), each project provides information under up to four headings: direction-setting documents (such as the country strategy), design documents, project implementation reports and project reviews (such as independent completion or progress reports). The percentages with at least one document under each are shown below.

Availability of project level documentation*Only projects that commenced in 2011 or before were included in the analysis. Annual plans and country-level reports were sometimes found but not counted in the ‘project reports’ category. Likewise, project reports were not counted in the ‘project review’ category.

Most projects provided direction-setting documents. But only two-thirds had a design document. And just over one-third had a project report, even though in this area we only counted projects that started in 2011 or earlier (later projects might not have had a project report). Just one-fifth had a project review.

We also looked at the timeliness of the data provided. The average year of writing for project reports and project reviews, when they were available, was 2011. That is, at the time of writing, the latest reports were roughly two years old.

There was considerable variation in the extent of project documentation available across countries. We created an index that gave equal weight to each of the four categories of documents listed in the table above. Vanuatu, Fiji and Indonesia displayed higher levels of transparency, with average project documentation availabilities above 60%. Tokelau, Niue, Regional Pacific and Solomon Islands were at the other end of the spectrum, with average project documentation availabilities below 40%.

Figure 1: Average project documentation availability by country

Average project documentation availability

When looking at transparency across different types of projects there is little variation except that there was less public information about humanitarian projects.

Figure 2: Average project documentation availability by sector

Average project documentation availability by sector

Overall, the record of transparency under the previous government is not that impressive, despite the fact that aid stakeholders viewed transparency to be one of the greatest strengths of the aid program. There is no doubt that transparency improved under Labor. But it was a one-off rather than a sustained effort. What this analysis of the AusAID website shows is that there was a substantial data dump in 2011 when the Transparency Charter was introduced, but much less by way of subsequent effort to fill holes or add new information. The end-result was a patchy and out-of-date public information base for Australia’s aid projects.

If the Coalition wants to do better than Labor in relation to aid transparency, it wouldn’t be hard. A good way to start would be to resubscribe the aid program to the Transparency Charter. A more important change would be to institutionalise a culture of transparency so that the timeliness and comprehensiveness of publicly-available data improve over time. We will be carrying out this audit again in the second half of 2014 to see whether aid transparency has indeed improved or worsened under DFAT’s watch.

This research is based on Hanna Gillies’ research project undertaken while she was an intern at Devpolicy in the second semester of 2013.

Hanna Gillies was an intern at the Development Policy Centre, Jonathan Pryke is a Research Officer at the Centre and Stephen Howes is Director of the Centre.

Hanna Gillies

Wilma Gillies is an intern at the Development Policy Centre.

Jonathan Pryke

Jonathan Pryke worked at the Development Policy Centre from 2011 as a Research Officer and Blog Editor, and left in mid-2015 to take up the position of Melanesia Fellow at the Lowy Institute. He has a Master of Public Policy/Master of Diplomacy from Crawford School of Public Policy and the College of Diplomacy, ANU.

Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is the Director of the Development Policy Centre and a Professor of Economics at the Crawford School. Stephen served in senior economic positions for a decade at the World Bank before becoming AusAID’s first Chief Economist. In 2011 he was a member of Australia’s Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness.

3 Comments

  • Just a quick comment from outside looking back in. I was previously employed by AusAID when the charter was first talked about. Interestingly in your results, Vanuatu comes out with the most impressive record. This is not surprising given that it was one of the three priority countries to pilot the information roll-out (in addition to Philippines and another I can’t remember). To give AusAID a little credit, it is not easy to simply collect and dump materials online. The government has posting protocols (disability requirements) and materials have to be prepared. There is no doubt that the process was slow and cumbersome, but the intention and policy was good and the three pilot countries had pretty impressive information available. I am not sure where this will go given recent changes, but I hope it is not dropped as I continue to use Australian aid materials in my work and was happy to champion the transparency charter amongst colleagues here in Washington. I think this kind of analysis is great, but I also think understanding ‘process’ can shine a light on the legitimacy of the data. I am also pretty sure that discussing this is the kind of conversation that public servants are still allowed to have with researchers – as it certainly was in my day! Keep up the good work. (Chris Nelson – World Bank DC)

  • I was interested to read about the work you’ve been doing on checking document availability. This complements our work at Publish What You Fund on assessing the transparency of the world’s largest donors, including Australia. Our annual Aid Transparency Index includes an overall score, analysis and recommendations for each donor assessed based on what current information items we can find, both for the organisation in general but also for individual projects. In 2013, Australia scored 43%, ranking 24th out of 69, placing it towards the bottom of the ‘fair’ category. The analysis and recommendations are available here.

    We’re interested to see if Australia’s score will improve this year (we’ll be assessing DFAT for the first time, rather than AusAID). We’re looking for researchers to help us with assessing the data we collect so please get in touch if you’re interested.

  • Thank you for examining this very important issue of transparency. I think your summary effectively shows that the Australian aid program is only around half the way to meeting its transparency charter.

    However I would not characterise it as a “a one-off rather than a sustained effort”. In addition to the web pages that you reviewed, AusAID reestablished the Statistical Summary (Green Book), provided this information in Excel form, and was, at least in my experience, much more open to meeting information requests. In addition AusAID uploaded detailed activity level data to the IATI database – the last upload was in April 2013. Certainly not the comprehensive quarterly upload required, and provided by some other donors, but more than a one-off effort.

    The Australian aid program has come a long way in the last few years in improving transparency but it clearly has further to go. Hopefully the Government’s concern about greater accountability will expedite this effort.

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