Radar ‘change’ website: transparent accountability?

Tuesday November 19 2013

A bold attempt: Even though the PESP site is

A bold attempt: Even though the PESP site is far from being perfect, it shows that transparency is possible, and that it doesn’t have to be expensive. PHOTO | COURTESY 

By Ben Taylor,The citizen

Chenji ya rada imetolewa!” – “The radar change has been released.” So said Reginald Mengi early last year when British defence company, BAE Systems, finally paid £29.5m towards education projects in Tanzania.

It was not a fine, there was no admission of guilt (beyond a minor accounting irregularity), certainly no admission of corruption. But it was, at least, a settlement that channelled some funds into Tanzania’s education system. BAE were concerned both that “their” funds should be used effectively and that this effectiveness should be seen as clearly as possible. So they worked closely with the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Tanzanian government to come up with a project to distribute desks and textbooks to primary schools throughout the country – the Primary Education Support Project (PESP).

Every primary school will get text books, and desks will be delivered to primary schools in every district.The project has been up and running for some time, and books are arriving in schools in many parts of the country. We know this because earlier this week a new website (pesptz.org) was launched that shows which books have been distributed by which companies to which schools, all across the country. You can search by region, district, ward or school, or using a map. Details of books and schools are then displayed as a table or a chart, showing how many books (and which ones) are planned for each school and how many have already been delivered. And there are plenty of opportunities to provide feedback.

There is a lot to like about this attempt towards transparency. In many ways it’s a model for the kind of open government that could do so much to improve management of public services and aid projects in Tanzania.

First, the site has details. Attempts at open government, particularly open aid (which is arguably where this site fits), often fall down because they do not provide a level of details that make it possible for “beneficiaries” to see what is supposed to be happening in their village, their community, their school.

This site has that detail, right down to the precise number of particular textbooks being delivered to individual schools.

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Second, the site is designed to encourage feedback and comments. A teacher, a pupil or a parent (or a local councillor, journalist) can report back, to confirm that books have indeed been delivered or raise a red flag if they have not.

Details and a feedback mechanism are a potentially powerful combination: together, they make “closing the loop” possible.

Consider, in contrast, a budget transparency initiative that publishes aggregated data on all projects at district level.

That information is only really useful to people who have access to a more detailed breakdown of the district budget.

Without that extra detail, how can anyone check whether those projects are really happening? And many open budget / open aid initiatives don’t even get as far down as district level.

Third, the cost of developing the website was under $20,000, including costs for some field monitoring. This is less than 0.05 per cent of the total PESP budget. This kind of transparency can easily pay for itself 10 times over through efficiency savings and better outcomes, and probably a lot more than that.

Twaweza is planning to check around 150 schools later this month, to see whether the reports on the website of books that have been delivered are accurate.

Perhaps others will do the same – journalists, civil society organisations, teachers, MPs. This kind of independent monitoring is only possible because of this site. That’s why it’s a model.

 

Faults

On the other hand, the PESP site is far from perfect. There are errors in the basic data – just a five-minute check on the data found plenty of schools listed under the wrong district.

That doesn’t inspire confidence in the site’s more important data. Nor does the fact that the map is out of date, using old regions (though the rest of the site uses the new regions).

Some aspects of the site’s design are not at all user-friendly – there is a lack of links between different parts of the site, for example, which makes navigation cumbersome and confusing. It’s not at all easy to find some of the more interesting parts of the site – the district-level charts, for example.

But these are relatively minor issues.

More importantly, for a site that’s all about transparency, there is a worrying lack of information on some of the bigger picture issues. Nowhere on the site is there anything that explains what has been budgeted and/or spent on project administration, for example, or a copy of the MoU between BAE, DFID and the government of Tanzania.

From the site, there’s no way of knowing whether BAE has effectively contracted DFID and the Tanzanian government to administer the project on their behalf, or whether DFID and the government of Tanzania are using UK and Tanzanian taxpayers’ money to effectively subsidise BAE’s reputation-cleaning “charitable contribution to Tanzania.”

DFID Tanzania confirmed that BAE have provided a small part of the £29.5m (plus interest) to cover admin costs for DFID Tanzania (£150,000) and for an audit of the project by the Tanzanian Controller and Auditor General (£150,000), leaving over £29.2m for books, desks and admin by the Tanzanian government. But surely this information should be on the website, available to everyone.

Nor does the site say whether books are being physically delivered to schools, or whether they are simply left in piles at the district education department for schools to pick up (at whose expense?) at a later date.

But let’s just focus on what this site represents. Despite its weaknesses, pesptz.org is an excellent model for others to follow.

It is hard to think of a better example of transparency in any Tanzanian development project.

The Medical Stores Department could do the same.

The Ministry of Education could do it for capitation grant disbursements, Parliament for the Constituency Development Catalyst Fund and TAMISEMI for local government projects. Subsidised agricultural inputs, rural water supply projects, TASAF projects. The list is long.

The PESP site shows that transparency is possible, and that it doesn’t have to be expensive. Will others follow the example?

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