Filipe Pinto, Universidade Católica Portuguesa (UCP)
The creation of Universidade Católica Portuguesa (UCP) in 1967 constitutes a milestone in modern higher education in Portugal, as for the first time the State was neither directly involved in nor responsible for administering a university. Thus, the UCP enjoys a large degree of autonomy in the design and running of new campuses and courses which has helped adjust its activities according to the evolving changes and needs from the external environment.
As part of UCP commitment to the larger community and the common good was the creation of the Department on Social Economy in 2011, at the UCP campus in Porto. This academic department seeks to contribute to strengthening the capacities of the social economy sector (including organizations, practitioners and volunteers), by providing training, conducting research and offering technical assistance in topics such as management of non-profit organizations, project management, local development and human rights.
Over the past 30 years, social economy organizations (SEO) have grown in number and visibility around the world. This phenomenon was accompanied by an increasing scrutiny on the management practices adopted by civic organizations, and the extent to which accountability is promoted. A 2015 study entitled “Assessment of Social Economy Organizations in Portugal” carried out by UCP – Porto examined Portuguese SEOs in terms of their governance and management practices, in which the need for strengthening their competencies in the areas of transparency and accountability was identified. For example, in relation to CSOs’ online presence, the study found that many organizations have their own websites, yet they are often not up to date and have few channels for interaction with the public. The study also highlighted that there is a lack of appropriate mechanisms for being accountable to their own beneficiaries – as proposed by the Global Standard for CSO Accountability.
While SEOs accountability has been acknowledged as an important matter in public debates, the literature on the country’s social economy sector is very scarce in Portuguese. Likewise, there are still few training opportunities offered on this topic and tailored-made to the specific needs of SEOs. Thus, the limited literature on this sector, as well as insufficient training opportunity on accountability for CSOs, becomes a constraint on the efforts to promote SEO’s accountability, which is crucial to enhance their legitimacy.
For the last five years, the Department on Social Economy at UCP has been working on the subject of accountability, mainly through its graduate programs. Nonetheless, a year ago, the project on “Transparency in Portuguese social economy organizations – promoting alternative accountability practices” was launched, whose goal is to raise awareness and strengthen the effectiveness of the Portuguese SEOs related to the issues of organizational transparency and accountability.
Within the scope of this project, a transparency committee made up of practitioners and SEO representatives was set up to critically address the accountability practices of the Portuguese social economy sector, as well as the challenges of transparency in organizational management and performance. Furthermore, a survey on SEO accountability practices is being carried out among approx.150 Portuguese SEOs, whose results will inform the design of an online, cost-effective and user-friendly accountability tool in Portuguese, adapted to the reality of the Portuguese social economy sector.
In addition, a national seminar will be organized to present, discuss and validate the proposed accountability tool, therefore, fostering a participatory process of collective learning. This project, in turn, will inform the design of three regional trainings on transparency and accountability targeted to SEO’s staff members, as well as of an Advanced Training Program on Transparency and Accountability.
We believe that SEO accountability is fundamental, not only because of the intrinsic benefit to help achieve an organization’s mission, but also because of its potential to contribute to the reconfiguration of relationships between various sectors in search of shared values. In this regard, the academic sector can play a key role in enhancing CSO accountability capacities and practices through conceptual and practical contributions.