As easy as 1,2,3? Lessons from publishing to the IATI standard

Aid, Governance

How does aid money get spent? The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) is a data standard designed to make this question easier to answer. Here, Alison Peacock shares her lessons of making Oxfam’s internal data IATI-compliant.

This is Oxfam GB’s fourth year of publishing our project details to the IATI information standard, the open, international standard for publishing more, and better, information about aid. It’s the third year I’ve been involved and the first year that it has been quite so complex. 

Here are the top three things I’ve learnt along the way.

IATI logo

1. Use the advice available from the IATI team

Mapping our data to the IATI standard involved simple questions like “how do we map our region Central and South America into the IATI regions of North and Central America or South America?” Then there were definitions to clarify such as “what is the difference between a Budget and a Commitment?” Finally, we needed to understand a whole new set of terms to answer questions such as “is Oxfam GB the Accountable Participating Organisation?” (answer: No). Fortunately I had very good help from the team at IATI. 

So far, so simple, but the next stage would prove more complex…

2. There is no such thing as an easy IT development 

We needed to make the system changes to automate the extraction of the data into the IATI format. It’s no surprise that IT development is difficult, but I underestimated it. For the first three years, we used an excellent tool suggested by IATI https://csvconverter.aidinfolabs.org/ plus some spreadsheet work by our resident Excel genius and it was reasonably straight forward. So, automating it should be simple, I thought. We needed to move to an automated extraction and conversion tool because we wanted to expand the categories of
data that we published – to include donors, partners and documentation – and the existing tool didn’t have that range. I thought my model was clear… then followed a very iterative process of development and enhancements. We built a dozen individually simple queries, and then patched them together like a jigsaw.

3. Get programme staff on board as early as possible

The most complicated part of the whole process was trying to reach the dozens of programme staff whose help we needed to talk to the partners, donors and document owners to ensure there were no issues around publication. Initially we said we would do blanket communications, wait for a response, proactively sample, and then assume that silence was acceptance. All the responses we received were good ones, but when we sampled we found that the blanket communications hadn’t reached as far as needed. So, we turned our assumption over and only published when we had a positive
response.

The most powerful lesson from the process has been how strongly people believe in transparency.

We knew this would be difficult, so we phased the process. The first publication names half the donors and partners for the year, but this equates to 93% of donors and 65% of partners by value. We will keep communicating until we know that silence is acceptance for future publications. This is a part of the move to a transparency culture, where staff know that everything can be published, unless there are good reasons to do otherwise. 

The most powerful lesson from the process has been how strongly people believe in transparency. My colleagues seem to understand intrinsically that being open brings benefits. It’s not just that it increases the power of beneficiaries to influence aid flows, but it also changes the way we behave. An increase in visibility, increases accountability and the value of the data, and that brings increases in programme quality which is an outcome we all want.

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Author: Alison Peacock
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.