Saturday 29 August 2009

The light bulb ban rage - just a symptom of the EU communication disaster [updated]

At the beginning, I just wanted to shortly comment on the latest blog post of EU Commissioner Andris Piebalgs where he defends the coming EU-wide EU light bulb ban - reacting to the rising "rage" all over the Union.

I wanted to ask why the Commissioner waited until now, three days before the directive starts entering into force until he writes a blog post about the topic. I wanted to ask why he doesn't link the the technical briefing on the topic that is available since December. I wanted to mock about the fact that Piebalgs announces that there will be a website explaining the ban - now, and not six months ago...!

I even wanted to link a EurActiv article from December, and a German language blog article from February where you learn that the Environment Committee of the European Parliament apparently rejected to discuss the issue of the light bulb ban in the plenary by 44 to 14 votes on 17 February 2009.

But then I tried to find this vote of the Environment Committee in original documents. I spent over 30 minutes on the EP's website to find the meeting, the respective documents, and the votes. I found the press release, some documents, even a draft agenda of the 17 February meeting, but not what I was looking for.

I cried out my anger on Twitter. Tayebot from the EP webeditors reacted on Twitter, giving me the link to all the meeting documents.

But even though Thibault from the EP webeditors worked on a Saturday to calm down a disappointed blogger - honestly, an impressive work ethic! - this blogger didn't find any hint to the votes in the documents, especially not the one in which the deputies decided not to decide the light bulb ban in the plenary.

And he finds that the presentation of the documents, the style of the documents, the search function regarding such documents on the EP's website are all quite catastrophic.

I imagine I was a journalist who gets the task from his editors to write a good story on the light bulb ban. He reads some other stories already written by his colleagues. He is a professional and wants to double check what his colleagues from other news sources wrote or said.

Opening the EP website, he tries to find an information on the process, he tries to get the original documents, the voting results, the MEPs involved etc. He is less experienced with EU documents than I am, and I am just a motivated beginner. He spends 20 minutes searching, without getting what he wants.

The consequences:
A) The story is not written.
B) The story is hearsay, it's negative, or biased at best.

It's the same with all EU institution sites. You don't find what is important when you look for it. Whether you are a citizen, a blogger, a journalist, a scientist or somebody else. Press releases don't link all the relevant documents, if they link them at all. The search functions are hidden, they are complicated, confusing, and they don't produce results that are helpful.

I spend hours searching for the right information, it's eating my time, just because I am interested in writing about the EU. I am a political European, and so I am ready to invest the time, but how many are as crazy as this?

The link between Piebalgs' late blog post and this conclusion is the general communication disaster of the European Union. The Union is strong and big in big communication efforts - and in defending them.

But why are millions spent on campaigns, if no individual looking for information on its own finds what it wants on the websites of the Parliament, the Commission, the Council?

Why are the institutions surprised if rumours spread in the Union, about the Union, its policies, its processes, if no one is able to check the stories, the rumours, etc. because you never find the original information?

Why all the the nerve-wrecking abbreviations, the COD 1774/77994 ENVI TYPO documents names that confuse everyone outside Brussels?

If there is a light bulb "rage" these days (and more and more articles are appearing in the news), this is not just because of the light bulb itself, but because it was impossible to follow the decision-making process that led to the decision outside Brussels - and it is still impossible without spending hours of research on poorly designed institutional websites!


PS.: And I don't want anyone to blame the EP webeditors, or any other webeditor of EU websites. I want that those deciding about money and other things to give these editors all the freedom and the time to make these sites better, not in a year, but now!

Update: Thanks to reader and commentator Daniel, the document proving the voting result has been found here (Word Document). The vote is documented under Agenda Item 19. But to get there, you have do really be an EU-expert!

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Brussels Blogger said...

I wanted to write about the exact same topic on my blog. The EU administrations doesn't seem to understand that the light bulbs topic is (will be) one where hundreds of thousands define their opinion of the EU. People don't think about internal market or road safety standards in their daily life. But most people change or buy light bulbs every now and then.

Lighthouse said...

Glad more people are noticing the madness of this ban - also for environmental reasons,
since power stations, not light bulbs, give out the gases.

More specifically on the politics you mention, for more on the strange EU bulb ban process inside and outside EU Parliament

- which also subseqently goes into why the ban is wrong and why the savings arguments don't hold up as supposed, with official research references

Ralf Grahn said...

Few people have any idea why they are forced to buy more expensive light bulbs, so they feel as alienated as the French before 1789. This is, perhaps, the subliminal message.

Anonymous said...

Thomas Edison
Invented the lightbulb. Without it he couldn't see how to work his phonograph.

Mrs Edison was very, very cross at the amount of time her husband was spending in the outhouse.

What Mr Edison's marriage hung by.

Electric current
Early attempts to fit dried fruit with a plug failed to produce much illumination.

You have to be over 18 to buy a bulb.

Screw fitting
We advise you to ignore this advice and use your hands instead.

more at

french derek said...

As you indicate, this is not just about light bulbs. This is about the lack of true openness in the EU bureaucracy.

Barroso gave a speech in Barcelona lately, outlining what he sees as his priorities for action (don't bother searching, there's nothing new, or exciting). If he really wants to be President of the Commission (where the bureaucrats live), then maybe he might have made a case for more transparency?

Lighthouse said...

Re my previous comment

Saw your own comment now on

- I wrote a long comment there, which moderators have hopefully allowed by the time you read this :-)

Anonymous said...

Check EP Register of documents
> By document type
> 1.4.5. Finalised minutes
after a few pages of scrolling you find the .doc
"Minutes of ENVI 16-17 Feb 2009"
in which #19 indicates:
"19. Ecodesign requirements for non-directional household lamps
- Exchange of views and vote on the draft motion for a resolution (Comitology/ regulatory procedure with scrutiny)
Roll call vote requested
The draft motion for resolution was rejected: in favour: 14; against: 44; abstention: 1."

No, it's not straightforward and Committee minutes take a long while to get approved.

In practical terms, my number one transparency request would be for compromise amendments to be published before the vote in committee.


Julien Frisch said...

Wow, Daniel, thanks for digging this up, that is much appreciated!

I wasn't even aware of this "Register of Documents", and even less of the possibility to find Committee minutes.

Lighthouse said...

RE the ban
commissioner Piebalgs blog comment

Re the Environment committtee minutes in comment above:
Yes that was all part of the committee goings on, but there was a lot more than that - actually mainly by the German participants, as it turns out, though I chose not to identify them in my description of some of the ban pathway proceedings

Eurosocialiste said...

I share your pain. I cannot count the times when I swore in front of my computer after more than half an hour spent searching for an EU document that should be found easily. Usually a google search is much more efficient than a search on the Europa server, which is a shame. What I've noticed professionals of EU affairs do is that first they spend half an hour looking for the document on the relevant EU institution website, then when they give up they go to the EU staff directory, find the number of a person who might be in charge of the issue and call her up. If you multiply that time by the number of people trying to do just the same thing, it's a massive loss of time for humanity.