Reflecting on tracking COVID funds: what happened

By Courtney Tolmie, Jorge Florez, Erin Fletcher, Carlos Alberto Díaz, (External)

Civil society organizations and advocates for transparency and accountability predicted (accurately) that the COVID-19 pandemic would prove to create new spaces in which corruption, mismanagement, and misallocation of resources could occur.  In response, many organizations and activists tested innovative ways to analyze and share data to track public resources, uncovering mismanagement and corruption and advocating for changes in government response. Data trackers were a powerful tool in this response. So, we wonder, what can we learn from these experiences for future work tracking the use of public resources and strengthening preparedness for crises?

To answer this question, we revisited work we started in June 2021 looking at the use and usefulness of COVID trackers. Reviewing these trackers and then interviewing developers and partners, we sought to understand: (1) is there evidence that the tools are still being updated and used and (2) have the tools adapted to the changing needs of pandemic data, including tracking key data points on vaccines. 

What we found was a nuanced and interesting story that challenged some of our general assumptions about the use of trackers and, we think, can add value to efforts to use transparency, participation, and accountability to improve decision-making and service delivery.

Organizations have kept trackers alive and updated

Most trackers require significant effort to update data, even if no other changes to the structure or focus are made. We presumed that some of the trackers developed in 2020 to track pandemic spending and procurement may have been left without recent updates, especially as many countries and people began to consider COVID less of a pandemic and more endemic in early 2022.

However, our review rejected this hypothesis. The majority of tools reviewed had been updated in the 60 days prior to our online review, and several others had been updated within the previous six months. While the majority of trackers did not have any information on how the data had been or could be used on the sites, the fact that trackers contained updated data means that activists, civil society, and media who are interested in tracking gaps in spending and procurement at least have the raw materials to do so. An element that plays a part in this result seems to be that the majority of trackers reviewed built on the existing work of the organizations leading them, that is they either relied on some official or self-made data infrastructure which despite the challenges posed by the pandemic remained in place.   

Trackers are being used for advocacy, but the tools themselves do not tell this story

As noted above, the trackers themselves largely do not have information on use on the sites, which can leave visitors to these trackers believing that the tools may suffer from a “build it and they will come” mentality. Only one of the trackers we reviewed included any stories of use, and even these stories were from a year prior (“generations ago” in pandemic years).  

However, our interviews with the people and organizations that created the trackers highlight that there is more happening with the data than the websites themselves let on. While use varies across these tools, several respondents revealed a large and growing number of users. For example, “Auditores Ciudadanos” (Citizen Auditors) in Colombia has experienced a rapid expansion of its user base from the time that it was launched in 2020 to today, increasing from 500 total users in 2020 to over 1,200 in mid-2022.  

 What uses and results did we uncover in the process?

After establishing that trackers are being updated and used, the next questions we had were who is using the data and how.  Many of the tool developers with whom we spoke shared a range of potential and intended users for their trackers, ranging from NGOs and social movements to journalists to policymakers themselves. The experiences of how the trackers are being used across this diverse user group highlights the great - and sometimes unrealized - potential for COVID trackers to go beyond just tracking the data and to directly support more transparent and accountable pandemic policy.

Targeted partnerships for data use and impact:Compras Covid” (COVID Purchases) in Mexico helped to reveal early in the pandemic that only 2% of resources allocated to the pandemic were being published in the government’s official public database Compranet.  As such, PODER (the organization that developed “Compras Covid”) sought to make their tracker a resource for journalists and advocacy organizations who could use official data and information available on “Compras Covid” to investigate discrepancies in the data as well as publish and publicize these gaps to seek accountability from the government and suppliers that were circumventing accepted best practices in procurement. “Mapa Inversiones” (Investments Map) from SENAC in Paraguay worked directly with one organization (IDEA) to identify similar problems as those that Compras Covid revealed in Mexico. IDEA was able to use this tracker to verify 98 criminal complaints regarding conflicts of interest in spending and procurement related to COVID in Paraguay.

Leading by example: We also heard from tool developers who adapted their trackers to create new uses for the data as the pandemic evolved. In South Africa, the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) and Open Up developed the Vulekamali tracker in partnership with the government in the years before COVID to advance open budgeting in the country.  When the pandemic began, tool developers saw that government data regarding COVID-specific resources was not being shared in a consistent or usable format. In response, PSAM and Open Up developed a new tool - Keep the Receipts. This tracker shared government data on pandemic resources as well as data collected by journalists and activists. As a result of publicizing this data, the developers have been approached by CSOs, journalists, and even the auditor general to support advocacy and action for more accountable COVID spending.

Advocating for institutional reform: In Chile, Observatorio Fiscal developed a daily updated tracking of COVID procurement and in doing so identified that the lack of standardization of measurements and unit sizes hindered the ability of accountability agencies and citizens to oversee emergency procurement. Using this evidence in their engagement with the Chilean procurement agency they included a reform in procurement regulation that will address this challenge for COVID and other relevant government procurement in the future.

Efforts to promote transparency come from users who have used different channels available. In the case of the “Buenos Aires Compras” petitions were received through the Argentine Chamber of Commerce to improve the information published and also through the website and emails available from the General Directorate of Purchasing of the City of Buenos Aires. They have ​​also announced their initiative through press releases and their own media to inform. 

Strengthening citizen-led monitoring: In Colombia, the Citizen Auditors platform created a tracker for public procurement related to COVID to enable additional investigations at the local and national level. This approach built on the efforts to bring more citizens into the oversight of public resources (as mentioned above) and strengthen their monitoring efforts. Relatedly, the use and dissemination of this tracker has informed the creation of other trackers such as those for investments in gender-related issues and peace. The tool has proven useful for an incremental increase in citizen-led monitoring including the use of the data made available in combination with data from other official sources to provide a more complete view of local investments in the country.

Not everything critical to the pandemic has been tracked

A final finding from our review of trackers was that COVID tools may not be tracking some of the most critical resources in the fight against the pandemic - namely, vaccines.  In our initial online review of trackers, we observed that the majority did not include any information on vaccine procurement or distribution. Rather than being an oversight, our interviews revealed a more complicated and potentially concerning story. Tracker developers overwhelmingly shared with us that they had sought to include vaccines in their tools but faced challenges in doing so. One of the biggest challenges shared across many countries was that vaccines were being procured through different channels than other medical supplies, which in turn left them outside of standard government reporting.  In some countries, much of the COVID vaccine supply came through donations from high-income countries. The delivery of these vaccines from country to country was highly publicized in national and international media; however, because these donated supplies were not always entered into public databases, it became difficult if not impossible to track where these vaccines went next (see this Investigation about COVID vaccines in Mexico). 

Together, the ways in which COVID trackers evolved over the course of the pandemic - and the challenges that made this evolution difficult - reveal many lessons for the future of trackers in both emergency and non-emergency settings. In our next post, we unpack what we see as the implications of these findings and how they can be applied to open data initiatives. In our next blog we share some reflections and open questions that can be useful to inform future efforts to respond to emergencies and track the use of public resources and the results those investments deliver.

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