Sweden is publishing graphs and simplified budgets reflecting all government aid expenditure through an open source online portal. The platform, OpenAid, is accessible to everyone and allows users to monitor when and where money has been spent, which agencies oversaw the project and what it achieved. The platform has significantly improved monitoring and accountability standards and has been estimated to save up to $7 million each year.
Results & Impact
OpenAid could be saving Sweden up to $7 million annually by making its aid distribution more efficient, according to a GovLab report. The project has helped Sweden reach the top of global transparency rankings: in 2016 it was fourth in the Corruption Perceptions Index and ninth in the Aid Transparency Index. OpenAid has reduced data duplication and allowed aid to be reallocated to more effective projects.
Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Swedish International Cooperation Agency
In 2010, the Swedish government issued a "transparency guarantee," pledging to make all aid-related public documents available online. The Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swedish International Cooperation Agency partnered to create OpenAid, which draws on data from government agencies and 16 civil society organisations that work with government to disburse aid. Information is automatically collected from aid groups on a daily basis and the platform data is updated every month. Data is logged from the time the decision to launch a project is made through to its completion, allowing users to track funding through policy formulation and implementation. Information can also be downloaded via Excel and a report function allows users to alert government officials to flag anything suspicious.
Cost & Value
Running since 2011
Some budgetary and technical terms and descriptions can be difficult to understand for people not involved in the project, and have sometimes proved difficult to simplify. A more complex problem was Sweden's historic freedom of information laws, which date back 250 years. Under the system, documents were only classified once they had been requested. However, this system was unworkable when pre-emptively publishing large volumes of material. Many aid documents were also not digitised; embassies, in particular, used a predominantly paper-based system for tracking aid payments and so the information could not be included in OpenAid. The data entry process could also be problematic: if agencies made a mistake in the way they catalogued information in Excel, it could break the import of the file into the OpenAid data warehouse, or leave incorrect information in the system.
The success of Sweden's portal inspired Denmark to launch Danida Open Aid, a similar aid-tracking platform.
Sweden could be saving up to $7 million each year through reduced inefficiencies, according to a GovLab report, by publishing breakdowns of all public aid spending through an online portal, OpenAid.
OpenAid is accessible to everyone and allows users to monitor when and where money has been spent, which agencies oversaw the project and what it achieved. The platform has also helped bring about a cultural change within government agencies that has driven up standards of data collection and analysis.
“It has become a lot quicker to get that overview of aid spending,” said Carl Elmstam, Transparency Manager at the Swedish International Cooperation Agency (Sida). “A few years ago officials would typically have to ask someone who would ask someone else. That person would get something from the internal system as an Excel file and someone would turn that into a Powerpoint, and it would be emailed back up the chain. But now that person could just log on there themselves and play around a bit with the visualisation tools, and get a better understanding.”
The International Aid Transparency Initiative estimates that around $18 billion worth of aid is lost every year due to corruption. Analyses have suggested as much as $1.6 billion of this could be saved through improving transparency of distribution and spending processes.
OpenAid is designed to make information easy to use and engage with. OpenAid data sets can be downloaded and used to develop new applications, while charts and graphs provide visual representations of numeric values. The platform itself is built on WordPress to make it easier for other aid donors to insert their own tracking tools. Users can alert the government to instances of corruption or misuse through a whistle-blower function that facilitates anonymous reporting.
The Swedish government launched the project in 2011, recognising that greater transparency would improve collaboration with external partners and increase the value of their aid spending.
“Transparency was a growing trend and seen as an integral part of aid efficiency,” said Elmstam. “This was a dominant theme at a couple of big international aid meetings in Accra in 2008 and Busan in 2011 where many different parts of the aid world came together.”
This growing emphasis on openness manifested itself in a “transparency guarantee”, which came into force in January 2010, committing the Swedish government to place all aid-related public documents online. This applies to any public body involved in distributing finances and requires the publication of information from the point a policy decision is made through to implementation, accounting for all financial transfers and the project’s end results.
The platform is a partnership between the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and Sida, the country’s main aid disbursal body. Data is drawn both from public agencies and the 16 civil society organisations that work with the Swedish government in overseas development, while the platform is updated each month.
At the heart of the process is a data warehouse which stores electronic aid information. Although MFA data is automatically on the system because their aid payments are disbursed through Sida, other organisations upload their records by manually logging onto the server. Data is typically shared through Excel sheets, PDFs or Word files. Once information has been uploaded, key pieces of data are extracted from the submitted files and logged in the database, creating a single format.
OpenAid allows users to track public spending by agency, location, partner, sector or year. At the most granular level, the portal outlines the project and the amount spent on it, along with a full description of how the project is overseen and decisions are made. The granting agency is also listed, as well as the relationship between the Swedish government and the body delivering the project. For example, if a project is implemented by an agency outside government, the delivery channel will be listed as bilateral. Time series graphs allow users to easily view changes in funding to any organisation, project or territory. As such, the platform provides one of the most extensive overviews of public aid spending in the world.
Sweden relaunched OpenAid in 2014 according to International Aid Transparency Initiative frameworks, with the aim of making all data conform to international aid accounting standards. This led to all OpenAid data being published in the IATI format. Developed by the International Aid Transparency Initiative, IATI provides a schema for cataloguing data, and requires it to be published in specific file formats: XML, JSON or CSV. In Sweden’s case, all data is published in XML files. One of the main advantages of the XML format is that it makes data much easier to visualise and enables more detailed information to be displayed.
“In aid payments, you first have a budget, then commitments, and then disbursements, once the money has been paid out,” said Elmstam. “Traditional statistics contain commitments but do not contain budgets – and budgets are often more forward-looking. Traditional statistics don’t necessarily provide the same granular breakdown as does IATI data. So it’s simply more comprehensive.”
In the initial version of OpenAid, data was not displayed according to a single, universal standard, limiting its value. The re-launch reflects the project’s objective of stimulating its widespread use and encouraging international users to engage with the platform.
Converting all aid data into the IATI format and using a single data warehouse has greatly simplified Sweden’s process of reporting aid expenditure to the OECD Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC), helping to deliver efficiency savings and eliminating data duplication.
“We are reusing those data sources, both the internal ones at Sida and the ones we import through Excel files,” said Elsmtam. “We use the same process for reporting to the OECD DAC, so it is now one system and one flow of information. At the end, it separates into the OpenAid IATI Data and OECD DAC reporting. But up until the very last point really they’re one and the same flow of information.”
OpenAid also provides much more forward looking data than conventional statistics because it is updated on a monthly basis, rather than being released months after the fact.
“The data that will soon be published by the OECD DAC, that will describe what happened in 2016,” said Elmstam. “It will only be for commitments and payments for the activities that happened up until the last day of December 2016. So it’s backwards-looking, rather than forward-looking.”
OpenAid has helped to bring about a cultural shift within government agencies. During the design stage, regular meetings conducted by MFA and Sida officials were necessary to overcome opposition within government. Six years on, the exposure of data has improved tracking systems, the efficiency of aid distribution and project targeting. Some aid has been redirected to focus on improving governance practices in target countries due to inefficiencies identified through the reporting system.”
“I think it was about two and a half years after we had launched OpenAid, we had a meeting with the CSOs and they were asking questions like ‘Why do you only update monthly?’ or ‘Why can’t we see more far-reaching budgets?'” said Elmstam. “It’s a huge improvement that you can see something that someone entered a week ago, because for the last 40 years, you’ve only been able to see the past.”
Nevertheless, some challenges still remain for OpenAid. Technical terms and descriptions can be difficult to understand for people not involved in the project, and have sometimes proved hard to simplify.
The platform’s success has helped push Sweden to the top of world transparency indices and has spurred Denmark to adopt a similar reporting system. In 2016, Sweden ranked fourth in the Corruption Perceptions Index and ninth in the Aid Transparency Index.
(Picture credit: Pixabay/tpsdave)