Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Open Government and Open Aid

I have spent the last two weeks working with a government department in an African country that is charged with the responsibility of monitoring the progress with the country's Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). The PRS is meant to be a key government policy statement, which then becomes the focus of international donor support to poverty reduction efforts in that country.

Over the last few years donors have been supporting this department by funding the costs of producing annual and other progress reports on the government's implementation of the PRS. In the process of doing so they have obscured a useful signal of government commitment to the PRS: Are they will to invest their own scarce resources into monitoring the PRS? (This is a functioning government with an estimated GDP growth rate of 4.8% in 2003).

Another interesting signal is the government's willingness to publicise the PRS, and more importantly the progress reports on its implementation. There is a communications strategy, but it is not making much progress because of lack of resources (though they have been offered). Some reports have been printed and distributed but knowledge of their availability remains limited. They are not referred to on the departments website. In fact the department's existing website is notable for its invisibility. It is not linked to the government's main website, nor can it be found via search engine inquiries (But it is now being re-structured). Other reports have been produced and distributed within government, but because they have remained in draft status they have not been made publicly available. The focus has been on production of reports as mentioned in government agreements with donors, and much less on "dissemination" of those same reports.

Meanwhile donor support to the department is still coming through multiple individual donors, for multiple separate and overlapping activities. This does not encourage the development and implementation of a coherent and comprehensive plan by the department. Quite the reverse. There are clearly some perverse incentives at work. The department itself has been openly reluctant to share information about what others donors are doing, to individual donors, possibly because it gives the department more room to manoeuvre amongst the various donor agenda's and some freedom to pursue its own priorities (which remain out of sight). And individual donors are still being tempted to "cherry pick" specific activities for funding that could give them some influence on the PRS processes.

My current view is that this process needs to be radically changed. Instead of talking about "dissemination" of information about PRS plans, progress and revisions, the focus should be on developing and implementing a "disclosure" policy. Dissemination is a weasel word, a word that fails to say exactly what is meant. Dribbling out information, even within the government, could legitimately count as dissemination. But is that what is needed? No. A disclosure policy is different. It is a statement about what types of documents will automatically be made publicly available to anyone, without constraint. Printing 5,000 copies of a report may count as dissemination, but it does not count as disclosure. If those copies are available on a website, or information about their availability is made available via a website or public notice board or newspaper, then this does count as disclosure. What is crucial here is the extent to which there is handing over of control over access to information. Then anyone can theoretically participate in its use. This is quite different to various engineered "peoples participation" exercises being promoted by some donors as part of the PRS dissemination and revision process. These are by necessity limited in their scale and frequency, and much more expensive.

Disclosure policies need to be adopted by the supporting donors as well as the assisted department. They should commit donors to public disclosure to at least the following types of information: What government plans have they funded, what sort of support have the provided (including budgets) and what progress and financial reports have they received back? Ideally this information would be publicly accessible on the website of the government department being supported, where it can be seen in context. Not just on the donor's website. This is clearly ambitious. Right now the most immediate step that needs to be taken is to get the relevant donors to share this type of information amongst themselves, let alone with the public at large.

Some good examples of best practice need to be identified and promoted. One is the Government of Uganda website at Here the government of Uganda has provided access not only to PRS documents , but also to various draft forms of these documents. Along with plans and progress with the PRS revision process, along with contact information about the key people leading the process. Unfortunately there is no link to and from the government's main website at

Postscript: I have just noticed that PANOS are offering an award for writing on the subject of "Transparency, good governance and democracy:Do ICTs increase accountability?" Four awards of $1,000 each will be made for the best journalism on this topic produced by journalists in developing and transition countries.