THE BLOG
11/04/2014 11:18 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

Using the Data Revolution for Mutual Accountability & Transparency in the Era of Sustainable Development

Co-authored by Biraj Swain & Paul Zeitz, Co-Chairs of Action/2015* Team on Mutual Accountability and Transparency Creates High Impact Today (#MATCHIT)

Recognizing that we as global citizens, are, at a critical inflection point in global sustainable development, in the design and implementation of data revolution 2.0, to ensure better data for better programming, delivery and mutual accountability. Looking back, the MDGs increased attention to the need for strengthening statistical capacity on development indicators, and improved coordination within countries statistical systems. But data quality, frequency of collection and disclosure, was a major weakness -- and this contributed to foster discrepancies between national level and international statistical data. Programming decisions require disaggregated data to allow a focus on the last mile delivery of service and to track performance for the most vulnerable.

Looking forward, to credibly track the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires investments in new metrics, increases in the quality and regularity of data collection, getting rid of bad data and an agreement on the tradeoffs between technical robustness and frequency of collection and disclosure. Technology affords new opportunities to do this on a scale never realized before. Before celebrating the data revolution for sustainable development and technical innovations like digitization and visualization, we feel that it is imperative for all stakeholders to ensure that the data revolution is designed and implemented based on transparency, freedom of speech, mutual accountability, including authentic participation of the public, especially the most marginalized. The elderly, children and young people's priorities should be the foundation and bedrock of the data revolution for sustainable development.

Our vision is based on the principles of advancing mutual accountability and transparency as more than words, but a new culture and a new way of interacting and doing business. By transparency, we mean that governments must enact pro-disclosure laws (freedom of information bills) that citizens' participation in disclosure processes are mainstreamed, formalized and celebrated and harnessed. Public institutions and all institutional beneficiaries of public processes and resources should be subjected to sunshine laws without any discrimination or prejudice. By mutual accountability, we mean that holding all stakeholders accountable, requires a creative collaboration between government, citizens, local and global institutions, the private sector. We believe in the potential and possibilities of going beyond adversarial standoffs and we believe in our ability to participate in meaningful collaborations.

The oft-used "Data Revolution for Sustainable Development (DR-SD)" calls for new rules, data standards, new roles, new alliances, breaking old barriers and a new language. Hence, the arcane statistical language needs to be made more accessible with alignment of national statistical data collection efforts, with development surveys and ensuring that methods and metrics are clearly spelt out for public understanding. International standard definitions and alignment of data collection methods to decision making and mutual accountability is a critical priority.

The multiplicity of data collection efforts that are unaligned, duplicative, burdensome and expensive is harming progress towards reaching sustainable development. It is time build an inventory and take stock of those pluralistic demystifying practices! The lack of harmonization of methods and standards, and a donor-driven sector-specific focus does not give stakeholders policy makers the full range of information on which to act. A framework is needed for prioritizing essential investments in data collection based on the policy priorities of each country.

We believe that linking data with citizens' experiences and action research with people living with hunger (PLWHs) and people living in poverty (PILPs), would provide greater insight and improved public policy and programming possibilities. Linking qualitative and quantitative data collections is a first step. Additionally it is critical to involve people living with hunger and in poverty in the governance and decision-making processes, so their perspectives are used to improve policies, programs and mutual accountability.

Governments and international institutions are uncomfortable with bad news data and/or surveys. When bad news is expected, many surveys are stopped or questions are changed to get a more favorable outcome. These manipulations prevent comparability of data over time and tracking of trends. Hence, we call for independence and autonomy of the statistical agencies and disclosure of their findings and mechanisms to independent peer review and audit on a periodic basis, so that the public can be assured that essential data needed for policy and programming is collected and used without bias or governmental manipulation. We recommend that stakeholders consider forming a new funding mechanism which developing countries can draw on to implement recommendations of peer reviews.

We find there is a lack of political leadership to invest in and use statistics, including a lack of stable funding and lack of independence of statistical authorities. Therefore, we recommend that Statistical authorities should be autonomous or semi-autonomous and receive optimal financing as a necessity. Creating a financing mechanism for building the much needed in-country capacity and independent systems is crucial.

Better finance for better data with complete transparency on methodology, findings, dis-aggregations (especially of the marginalized groups and identities) for equity-based tracking of policy and programming performance, citizen engagement and mutual accountability is our call! We also call for investments in building civil society, media and academic capacity to monitor, read and consume data.

The private corporate sector must be mobilized to be transparent, open and participate in mutual accountability processes as part of the DR-SD. While there is no replacement for public-funded data for public programming and mutual accountability, all stakeholders must ensure that the private sector complies with new data revolution standards, so that data ownership and usage continues to be for public good and not for setting up anti-trust activities, monopolies or ownership and profiteering.

Finally, we are proposing that all stakeholders create "Mutual Accountability Partnerships" (MAPs) to catalyze bold and transformative SDG action. New institutional platforms (from local, sub-national, till international and global) are needed to realize "mutual accountability." MAPs can be created in communities, counties/districts, regions, countries, continents, and globally. We feel communities/citizens and public officials should be prioritized and so their votes/voices are given significant value. MAPs should go beyond simple accountability rhetoric and move to a "commitments-to-action" approach.

Shared and joint commitments by partners from governments, civil society and the private sector can inspire faster and bolder action, can garner enhanced citizen and media attention; and can contribute to the mobilization of resources from internal and external sources. Sharing of best practices, innovation, leveraging of new opportunities (citizens-led, market-based and otherwise), and the application of new technologies can also be stimulated by these collaborative and commitment-based approaches. This critical feature will be embedded with designs to equalize power and enable all stakeholders, rich or poor, to be equally responsible for action. Commitments-to-action must be paired with "Independent Review Mechanisms" or IRMs. IRM would allow local, regional, and global experts to objectively assess technical soundness, ambition, and assess progress towards the "commitments to action." IRMs would require the independent perspectives of the public, the elderly, children and young people, to be heard.

Widespread and authentic citizen engagement in Mutual Accountability Partnerships (MAPs) can transform policy, mobilize resources, empower bolder action, catalyzing major political transformations. Local children, youth- and citizen-driven monitoring and accountability mechanisms are essential for improving budget transparency and service delivery outcomes. If citizens are enabled to pay attention, respond, engage, and take responsibility and action, then everyone can be empowered to foster an enabling environment for mutual accountability and transparency, and that includes the media too.

Ensuring that data is to the public a top priority for the data revolution for sustainable development paradigm. It is critical to acknowledge that the digital divide is still a reality and the data revolution should bridge that divide than further the gap, especially data for the good of the bottom billion. We believe that an open-sourced data platform that ensures inter-operability of both quantitative and qualitative data from multiple sources and institutions across the SDG agenda is now possible. Robust use and visualization of open data will provide the basis for transparent measurement and tracking systems to monitor progress of the "commitments to action" and the SDG targets and goals.

Data for data's sake is not our call. Actionable data, transparently provided from all sources, will enable better planning and delivery to the most marginalized and will foster an atmosphere and culture of mutual accountability. Let's work together to make this new way of doing business a reality in 2015 and beyond. Mutual Accountability and Transparency can Create a High Impact Today! (#MATCHIT).

*Action/2015 is a non-denominational, inclusive, progressive, pro-people campaign calling for a transformative and equitable world post-2015.