Follow the Money: A Few Insights and Inspirations from Three Days in Berlin

It was a privilege to help plan and host January’s “Follow the Money Workshop” in Berlin, convened by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (T/AI) and deftly facilitated by co-organizers Aspiration. Almost half the participants in the T/AI event also had the chance to continue the discussion one day later in a separate gathering of the informal Follow the Money Network.

FTM group picI saw a community of loosely affiliated groups coalesce around their shared values for the use of public resources, and begin to think together about collaborations to further shared goals.

It was also great simply to talk in person (a first for many of us) and to benefit from the serendipity of new ideas that intensive conversation makes possible. Several participants have already posted their own impressions, as you can see on our blog and at the links below.

What follows here are personal reflections on themes from the Workshop conversations, and a few hopes for how this loose network of “money followers” can take what we’ve learned so far and carry the work forward together:

We are following more than money. Financial data, like oil, is produced, distributed and used in a cycle that depends on pre-existing conditions and reaches beyond usage to downstream outcomes. So to understand the bigger picture we need to track not just finances, but the laws and processes that harvest financial data (see Workshop participant Transparency International on the G20’s new principles for disclosure), and the public services and impacts that result from spending (see Workshop participant IBP Kenya’s recommendations for following spending outcomes). To extend the oil industry metaphor, we must be geologists and biologists, not just drillers.

The “big picture” will take many forms. Nearly everyone gathered agreed that we can learn valuable lessons about the “Follow the Money” (FTM) landscape by pooling our knowledge, but our views differed on what the most useful map would be. Some seek a visualization that captures the types of financial flows we are following (something like this, or this, perhaps). Others hope to road test the idea of following money across data sets by joining up many data types in a single country. Another popular suggestion was to create a master timeline of the new disclosure standards coming into effect and currently under debate. This variety of tools with a variety of purposes can strengthen our work.

Citizens have essential data. If public services and other impacts of spending are part of the data chain, then we need good data collection at the “point of impact”: in the lives of citizens. And while budgeting, taxation, accounting, even tracking corruption, all have well-established methodologies, the norms of crowdsourcing and citizen science are still developing. Kevin Bohrer of the Hewlett Foundation—a longtime funder of T/AI and in the wider transparency field—raised this simple but important point during the Workshop. As we wrestle with the challenges of multiple data sets and data interoperability, we must also find ways to ground-truth countries’ fiscal policies using real-world, real-time data from citizens. (See Feedback Labs, for instance, or Project Pulse from Workshop participant AidData, which seeks to add more citizen data to the development “feedback loop.”)

We come from diverse disciplines, but that’s a good thing. Some of us are experts in fiscal governance for international development. Others campaign for our countries’ local wealth and well-being. Others turn financial data into transparency tools. If you ask an Access to Information activist and a corruption fighter what “Follow the Money” means, you’ll get very different answers. So we didn’t ask. Instead, we asked, What do you need to follow the money?, and, How might the world look if you succeeded? The net result was a community more unified in purpose, though still diverse in tools.

We’re only a network, not a team, so we’re seeking a balance between realism and ambition. We are eager for more collaborators and more ideas for collaboration, but with a wide range of interests amid a room of busy people already steeped in projects back home, we wrestled candidly with the question of how much time anyone can commit to an informal network. Alan Hudson, Global Integrity Executive Director and a lead organizer of the Follow the Money Network, had very practical suggestions about dividing between easier, lower-cost collaborations that draw on groups’ existing programs and deeper network collaborations that are more likely to require additional resources from members or organizers. The network needs a few groups who are ready to work, not a melee of working groups that do too little.

It’s daunting to think about the interlaced problems of policy, technology and effective collaboration facing each of us as we return from the brainstorms in Berlin to our daily responsibilities. But those few days of real-time collaboration left me excited about several things I heard from my expert colleagues. Here are a few of the ideas I think can move us forward, with focus, shared lessons, and realism in mind:

Let’s produce stories about our work as a regular source of insight. Samantha Custer of AidData was one of several Workshop participants to remind us that as we advocate sharing of data by governments we must remember to share our own progress and lessons regularly, and in compelling ways. We need to publish stories, not just reports or spreadsheets.

Let’s be both rigorous and idealistic in our activism. Robert Palmer of Global Witness spoke from the campaigner’s perspective about the difference between advocacy and evidence-based advocacy. The NGO and policy communities may believe that transparency equals sound economic policy, but to persuade governments or corporations about new disclosure standards, we must buttress principled arguments with concrete examples of how better data helps regulators, citizens and investors.

Let’s build tools that will be used, not just tweeted. Everyone in Berlin wanted a better way to learn about each other’s work, so the idea of an online “catalogue of Follow the Money projects” was naturally appealing. But web developer and OpenSpending creator Friedrich Lindenburg spoke a hard truth aloud when he said, “I love catalogues. I just never use them.”

As we plan new digital tools to help “follow the money,” we need to remember that many cool-sounding projects offer little in substance or utility. With limited time to build or collaborate on new technology, our network should steer clear of “shiny” tools and work out what we “need and don’t need,” to quote the TABridge Guide to tech fundamentals. (For a deeper dive on the perils of tech “solutionism” in open government, see Alex Howard on “openwashing.”)

Finally, the two-day Workshop and the FTM meeting afterward left me thinking about the even less “followable” money: the funds moving beneath official flows through criminal and illicit channels, and outside policy processes through lobbying and other forms of influence. These different streams remain part of the same ecosystem, and money moves between them like hydrogen between air, water and land. (For a deeper dive on the illicit money “maze,” see the inspiring work of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.)

My colleagues at T/AI and in the wider Follow the Money network will be publishing more findings from the Berlin meetings and more ways to get involved in the days and weeks to come. In the meantime, I hope you’ll check out the blog posts below from our fellow organizers and other gifted Workhop participants.

Note: We conducted our Berlin conversations under a Chatham House approach, so all citations here have been made with explicit permission from colleagues.

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