We recently talked to Daniel Miranda, an associate at the Instituto de Comunicación y Desarrollo (ICD) in Uruguay. With thirty years of experience working with CSOs in Uruguay and the region, Daniel has also served as a member of the Board of Directors of Uruguay’s National Association of NGOs (ANONG). In this interview, Daniel shares ICD’s experience supporting the review of the proactive transparency situation of five CSOs, as part of their efforts for implementing the Global Standard for CSO Accountability.
EG: How does accountability get promoted among civil society organizations in Uruguay?
DM: In 2019, ICD promoted a self-assessment exercise with a group of Uruguayan organizations around the Global Standard for CSO Accountability, through which a set of common topics were identified -in particular, connected to the Global Standard’s commitments on gender, on healthy planet as well as on open organizations- that needed to be strengthened. Later, in 2020, ICD provided targeted coaching to 5 of these CSOs around the topics identified, and an improvement plan for each organization was developed.
Concerning the Global Standard’s commitment #8 on open organizations, ICD support consisted of assessing CSOs’ proactive transparency situation with regards to available information on their webpages on issues such as their own management, decision-making processes and results and achievements. Proactive transparency gaps in the case of the participating CSOs can be explained, partly, due to the lack of sufficient time allocated for this task, thus information becoming quickly outdated; to the CSOs communications units’ own weaknesses, which often lack communications professionals as part of their staff; and to the CSOs moving away from websites towards social networks as their most frequent means of information and communication. In conclusion, the updating of information on CSOs’ websites might have been neglected, for instance, regarding the public disclosure of CSO’s financial reports, as some of which were published, but the most recent ones were missing or not available to the public.
EG: What methodology did ICD use to conduct CSOs’ proactive transparency reviews?
DM: ICD helped assess the CSOs proactive transparency by reviewing the information made available on their websites. For the design of our methodology, we relied upon the online proactive transparency index (ITAeL), created by the Centro de Archivos y Acceso a la Información (CAinfo) and applied by the Catholic University of Uruguay. The ITAeL is aimed at measuring compliance on proactive transparency by public institutions mandated by Uruguay’s Access to Information Law. In Uruguay, the Access to Information Law stipulates that public institutions must disclose a set of categories of information on their websites, which it is called ‘online proactive transparency’ due to the fact that there is no need for an individual to file an information request.
Currently, CSOs are not mandated by the national Access to Public Information Law – although there have been some debates of including those CSOs that receive and manage public funds. For this review, some ITAeL indicators most relevant to civil society were selected, encompassing a final list of 22 indicators for the evaluation of CSO online proactive transparency. Three options were provided for evaluating each indicator: a) whether the published information on the web is complete and updated; b) whether the published information is incomplete or outdated; or c) if it is not published at all. The websites of the 5 CSOs were accordingly reviewed and, by the end of 2020, a report was then prepared with specific findings and recommendations for each CSO.
The ICD team also provided recommendations for each CSO on the accessibility of specific information on its website since, in a few cases, it was challenging to get hold of it, requiring a few clicks to search and find it. During 2021, ICD will follow up with each CSO on its own report to understand the extent to which changes are made. In the case of the CSO América Solidaria Uruguay (ASUY), it has already published a bulletin on the relevance of this topic for the organization itself and disseminated with the public.
EG: Could you share any findings or conclusions based on the reviews of CSOs’ online proactive transparency measures?
DM: I would like to highlight three main findings. First, as mentioned, while some information may be available online, it is not always easy to access. For example, some specific information can be consulted in the organization´s annual report; yet a person may not intuitively assume that basic information of an organization is only available in its annual report.
Secondly, Uruguayan CSOs that are a chapter of a larger international CSO may tend to rely on the CSO headquarters’ website for online dissemination of information, creating challenges in terms of accessing information. For instance, a visitor or reader may need to go through the annual report prepared by the CSO headquarters to access information specific to the work of the local chapter in Uruguay. In such cases, the country webpages of an international CSO usually provide quite limited information about the work of its local offices. Thus, decisions of what and how gets communicated lie with the headquarters office of an international CSO, raising questions about power relations within civil society (which are connected to the debate on ‘Shifting power’). In other words, the dissemination of an annual global report by CSO headquarters may not necessarily contain the most relevant information for the local public (volunteers, donors, partners) in a given country. This approach can even affect the extent of the local CSO chapter’ accountability to its own constituents.
Finally, CSOs have embraced extensively the use of social media channels as a means of communication -for example, for news or updates-, thus, neglecting the dissemination of updated information on their websites. This poses a challenge for web visitors searching for latest information. Indeed, CSO websites and social media channels are two different channels for communication, which should complement each other.
EG: Can you share some of the recommendations made to strengthen the availability of online information by CSOs?
DM: The new ICT developments make it easier and less costly for CSOs to provide online information, yet it is essential that potential information users get engaged and can provide feedback, so CSO can publish timely, relevant and useful information. Also, a group of CSOs can also pool resources and for instance jointly hire a part-time communications officer to strengthen their online proactive transparency work. The National Association of NGOs of Uruguay (ANONG) could even support such efforts. Last but not least, support to CSO proactive transparency can also be explored as part of a future Open Government Partnership (OGP) action plan in Uruguay.