Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The full text of the decision notice from the ICO is now available for those who are interested.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Decision time

Yesterday I received the Decision Notice from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) about my FOI request for the project information in DfID's ARIES database.

Almost 2 years after I originally made the request, the ICO has found partly in my favour: DfID must publish 64 fields relating to the 8,000 projects in the database.

However, 6 of the fields - those which contain comments relating to project performance - have been withheld under the argument that their disclosure would be likely to inhibit civil servants' ability to freely and frankly exchange views and advice.

According to the letter (which will be published on the ICO's website), DfID must publish the information within '35 calendar days' of 23 June 2011.

What's going to be released? The Decision Notice only shares the titles of the fields but together with this user guide to the ARIES database (PDF), we can guess at what is likely to be most interesting:
  • 'Total impact score' - a measure of how effectively the project achieved each of its outputs
  • 'Output risk' - a measure of the risk of project failure
  • 'Disbursement suspended' - information relating to the suspension of disbursement
  • 'Method of scoring' - whether reviews were conducted by DfID staff, consultants, etc
It is really exciting that so much information will be released and I look forward to examining it and mashing it up with other datasets. Hopefully the data publication won't be a one-off: it would be great if the fields were regularly published on DfID's website.

What's been refused? The fields which won't be released contain comments made by DFID staff and partners in relation to the projects under review. The ICO argues (para 88) that because some of these comments "could potentially embarrass foreign governments", their disclosure could make civil servants "more circumspect in expressing their views about the performance of a project" - and that this would therefore make them less able to provide free and frank advice.

This makes sense. But here's a question: wouldn't it be possible for each of the records to be assessed to determine which records are sensitive and which are not? Not according to the Decision Notice: DfID explained to the ICO that doing so would place "an impossible burden on the department", particularly since the expertise required to do such a review is spread right across the organisation. It is obviously not right to place such a burden on DfID and I accept the Commissioner's decision on this.

Stepping back from this particular FOI request, we are still left with the problem that rich information about what works (and doesn't work) in development will still be withheld from the public domain. Perhaps the problem could be approached in a different way? Rather than attempting to review the entire dataset at one fell swoop, a team from DfID or ICAI could annually review a subset of the comments (say, for projects completed 1 year previously) and determine which information could be released and what should be redacted. At least then there would be a mechanism for releasing the raw data - and ensuring it isn't lost to the sands of time.

It is clear that a lot of people worked hard to respond to this request. My thanks go to everyone at DfID and the ICO who were involved.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

DfID's muscle

According to this FOI response I received from DfID, from next financial year NGOs which are funded through a Programme Partnership Arrangement (PPA) will be required to publish information about DfID-funded projects in line with IATI standards.

The requirement to publish data in the IATI standard by 2012/13 forms part of the Memorandum of Understanding between DfID and the organisations (para 19).

According to the accompanying letter:

"Each PPA partner is required to submit an annual report to DFID for appraisal. The format of this report has still to be finalised but it is intended that it will include a requirement for all PPA partners to show the progress they are making towards becoming IATI compliant."
DfID should publish these annual reports automatically (but if they don't I expect they'll be obtainable under FOI).

About 40 of the largest development NGOs receive funds from DfID through the PPA. Once each NGO has set up the mechanisms for publishing DfID-funded projects in IATI format, there won't be any excuse for not publishing information about all their other projects too.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Make Aid Transparent

Great video from Publish What You Fund to launch their new Make Aid Transparent campaign.

Their website encourages people to sign a petition asking governments to provide better information about the aid they distribute.

The recent AidWatch 2011 report scored European donor countries according to their transparency. As a rough calculation, if we divide each country's aid spend by its transparency score then we can identify the countries where improvements would have the greatest effect.

France and Germany come bottom of the list. They are each responsible for about €9 billion of aid (2009 ODA figures) but scored dreadfully on transparency across the board.

Let's hope this campaign concentrates on these two laggards.