Last month, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) posted 53,000 transaction records—updated through June 30, 2013—online.

Now, anyone with an internet connection can see that the agency spent $569,650 to Pathfinder International to strengthen health systems for family planning in Angola, $198,209 to Save the Children for their Maternal and Child Health program in Malawi, and $1,634,318 to EngenderHealth’s fistula care program in Ethiopia.

But why do we need to know this?

Government transparency matters because it allows budget advocates to monitor how public funds are being spent.

Government transparency matters because it allows budget advocates to monitor how public funds are being spent.

Transparency among governments matters because this data is critical for monitoring spending of public funds. When a government prioritizes fiscal transparency, budget advocates are able to assess critical information on allocations and spending to better inform their analysis and advocacy efforts.

When a government does not, it creates yet another obstacle for advocates to overcome in their work and can often derail their efforts. Instead of spending time thinking of ways to improve public spending, advocates must concentrate their efforts navigating a hostile environment before they can even begin to gain traction in their critical work.

How Transparent is the U.S.?

So, how is the U.S. government doing?

The recent USAID data-dump is just the latest step in a years-long push for greater transparency in both government and foreign aid. Obama signed the Memo on Transparency and Open Government on his first day in office and soon after the U.S. launched of the Open Government Directive which has since been followed by the reintroduction of the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (FATA).

Out of this shift came the Foreign Assistance Dashboard—an online portal hosted by the Department of State that is intended to make all U.S. foreign assistance investments accessible and easily available to the public. USAID—a key funder and implementer of family planning and reproductive health programs globally—was one of the first to release a detailed financial data set to the Dashboard.

Among similar government agencies, it places USAID on the forefront of the shift towards a more open government. There are 22 government entities that spend and/or manage foreign aid. Of these 22, only five currently provide data to the Dashboard (USAID, Department of State, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Department of Treasury and Department of Defense). Of these five, only USAID provides transaction data.

A Closer Look: What We Know and What We Don’t

The need for more data from more agencies is clear, but even for the agencies that have stepped up the need for better data is equally as pressing.

With this new update, users can be download transaction level data to see how much foreign assistance funds were allocated by USAID and spent by various vendors for the first three quarters of FY2013. So if you pulled up transactions in the FP/RH sector you would get a breakdown like this:USAIDdata

This is a pretty big deal. The information is timely and provides access to USAID’s funding at a level of detail that hasn’t been seen before.

But, it is far from perfect. The deeper one digs in to the new dataset, the more some major flaws become clear. From gaps in information to a lack of substantive detail, the Dashboard provides the numbers and vendors without any real context for what these transactions mean. Though a handful of transactions have descriptive titles that give users a sense of their general purpose (like the projects mentioned in the beginning of this post), the overwhelming majority provide vague titles or none at all (like those in the Dashboard screenshot). So, the U.S. government gave $2,340,611 to the Government of India. For what? Right now, from looking just at the Dashboard, we have no way of knowing.

Without being tied to project descriptions, the information becomes yet another jargon-filled data set that will sit unused. If this Dashboard is meant to really inform the public about how US foreign assistance being spent, it has to present data in a way that the broader public can better understand.

For a good example of what this type of high-quality transparency could look like, I turn to USAID’s UK counterpart—the Department for International Development (DFID) Development Tracker. Though only in its beta stage, a few minutes playing around on DFID’s Tracker highlights some glaring gaps in the U.S. Dashboard – with a few clicks a user can see how much is spent and where, link to project descriptions, and information about implementing organizations and reporting structures. This is the type of transparency in action that is both innovative and effective.

USAID is making important progress, but more is needed for the agency to be truly transparent about its spending. When governments are more open, civil society can be more informed and better able to keep both donors and national governments accountable. This allows for the type of effective budget advocacy that can lead to reforms. With better tracking, advocates can push to cut back on inappropriate spending and fulfill commitments to funding the health programs that keep clinics open, pay health worker salaries and stock contraception for the women and girls who need it most.

This is the fourth post in our series on budget advocacy. To read the previous post, click here.