So, what should we take from trackers’ experience moving forward? (Part 2)

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

In our previous post we reported on our follow up of covid trackers. The main findings from this exercise were:

  • Most of the trackers have continued to work, and the way in which they were designed and integrated into each organizations’ strategy played and important role in this continuity.
  • The focus of these tools remains limited, and there are important gaps on how we understand and track the use of the information provided by these trackers. Tracker design and implementation was based on current data availability and organization’s relationships, entering into new areas or the delivery of results from investments proved very hard. 
  • The actual deployment of the tracker and the results each one was able to achieve in their contexts vary widely. The success of the trackers was hard to assess based on commonly used metrics such as site visits and widespread use, and depended heavily on contextual factors and the strategies of each organization.  

We see these findings as an opportunity to review how the use and impact of these - and other - trackers is thought about and assessed. In this blog we share reflections and questions opened by the stories related to the deployment and use of these trackers and try to make sense of the implications of our findings for future work related to the publication and use of data. We think these implications are relevant both for those tracking the use of public resources and the global organizations that aim to support these efforts.

  1. Investing in data availability and the capacity of key stakeholders to use the data pays off. Trackers are only as good as the underlying data. Investments in efforts to increase data publication and strengthen the capacity of CSOs to demand and use this data provided the ground needed by organizations that developed the trackers. Either if the trackers were led by government or civil society, their data capacities and existing infrastructure enabled them to react quickly and to rely on their existing networks and allies to promote the use of the tools and deliver results. 
  2. Continued support for collaboration and capacity to navigate political dynamics is needed for successful data use and emergency response. The pandemic showed clearly that data availability and use of these data for advocacy is not just a technical issue but also a political matter. Developing the capacities of Government champions and advocates to engage the political dynamics – and collaborate with other relevant stakeholders – required to sustain and increase data publication and to devise ingenious ways to prevent backlash is needed, both in regular times and in those of crisis. Most of the trackers we reviewed relied on existing collaborations that existed before the pandemic and enabled in-country reformers to navigate issues related to lack of transparency, challenges in existing transparency and accountability frameworks, and engagement with those stakeholders best placed to use the data to uncover corruption risks and use those findings to demand government response. 
  3. Innovation is needed to increase the usability, use, and value of data. Beyond the innovation of the trackers themselves, tracker developers and users need to think creatively about how to ensure that the data that live on trackers does not get stagnant. Existing data infrastructure (both by government and by civil society) and capacity to advance transparency and accountability were very useful for setting up the trackers and achieving results. However, our review also showed that there are important remaining gaps and opportunities for improving data availability, usability, and use. Most of the gaps relate to the capacity of users to “follow the money” across the budget and spending processes, as well as across boundaries in the government pertaining to different institutions and to the inconsistent use of unit prices. In all of the cases reviewed users could see the allocation and planned disbursement of resources, but going beyond that level of analysis still requires in-depth investigations and a high level of capacity. 
  4. Progress in data availability is uneven, within and across jurisdictions, which limits the capacity of in-country stakeholders for engagement in decision making and oversight. In several of the cases reviewed there was some level of data that enabled the development of trackers but there was often a lack of additional information to carry out comprehensive assessments. Reformers faced efforts by governments to avoid the publication of key data such as vaccine procurement and the distribution of palliatives and subsidies. These data gaps paired with limited opportunities for the use of evidence to engage in decision making – and in several places practices to restrict civic space – led to devising alternative ways of demanding access to data and craft campaigns to demand accountability from government. In several places, these strategies paid off, but they required significant investments.
  5. We all need to do a better job at identifying, measuring, and understanding the impact of data trackers and data use, as well as at providing lean tools and methods for organizations to track and document this.  Our interviews revealed that the use of the trackers and the data in them has taken different forms ranging from journalistic investigations, to complaints presented to authorities, and to advocacy to increase transparency or generate opportunities for participation in decision making and oversight. These multiple uses are striking, especially because mHowever, most trackers were ad-hoc projects with little to no funding and quite limited incentives to invest overstretched resources in documenting and sharing these instances of use and results. This situation, paired with overreliance on common metrics such as site visits and social media (retweets) limits the capacity of organizations leading the trackers and those supporting the development of such tools to learn from their experience, to adapt and improve project design and implementation, and to share these lessons and insights widely with others. Which leads to a final conclusion …
  6. More funding is needed to help trackers reach their potential. While we observed herculean efforts by developers to create resources with very limited (or no) resources, thes tools cannot be sustainable and achieve their maximum impact without support. During the pandemic, there were encouraging examples of funders that had not previously been involved in support transparency and open data starting to invest in fiscal monitoring.  But more is needed to prepare for the next global crisis.

In our view, these findings have important implications for those developing data trackers and promoting the use of data to improve public decision making and oversight. As many organizations are developing plans and funds to prepare and respond to the next global health emergency (such as the World Bank’s new Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response Fund), our work reveals several concrete recommendations for how supporting open data and tracking of fiscal resources should be included in these plans:

  • Provide support for collaboration across different types of organizations tracking the use of public money – government, civil society, media and academia – and across the different government processes through which public resources are allocated, spent, disbursed, and assessed.     
  • Design trackers and oversight tools now (before the next emergency) and in such as way that they are responsive to the existing context dynamics – technical, logistical, and political. 
  • Promote wide dialogue about the impact we are trying to achieve through efforts to increase data availability and use and how it can be better achieved and measured.
  • Generate and disseminate monitoring, evaluation, and learning tools, methods, and support that take into account the different scales of programming and the different types of goals pursued by in-country reformers.

Our review found that existing work in the development of data trackers and the use of this information provided a useful starting point for in-country reformers to react to COVID pandemic. This finding is important as it shows that investing in data availability and the promotion of data use is important, not only in relation to current events but also to ensure that societies are better prepared for any type of emergency. We would love to continue exploring the dynamics and impact of efforts to increase data availability and use, if any of these findings and recommendations resonate with you please do not hesitate to reach out and follow up on the conversation.  

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