Thursday 3 December 2009

Margot Wallström and the future of European Communication

Since still-EU Commissioner Margot Wallström, responsible for Communication, has mentioned me personally in her latest blog post, reacting to a comment I made to her previous post, I'd like to use the opportunity to re-react openly to her full post to show that we can actually have open dialogues between the European level and European citizens.

So let's start with Margot's first point:
- a number of people have asked what will happen to my blog when I leave the Commission and whether other Commissioners will blog during the next mandate. Well, I will write again on this topic before I leave but I will say at this stage that blogging is very much an individual choice and takes a lot of time. I will be recommending to future Commissioners that they should certainly think positively about it.
I think that indeed blogging is a good way for officials to communicate with the public, because it can a) show their human side and they can b) transmit messages and subtexts that might not pass a traditional media filter but that are actually important to understand their point.

But it is true that blogging, if taken seriously, is time consuming, because it actually means interaction both within your blog but also with discussions outside your blog. And knowing the time constraints of top officials I understand if they don't blog (although Carl Bildt is the best example that it is possible). And better not to blog than to let your PR people blog in your name or to use your blog as another means to send out quasi-press releases (which some Commission blogs definitely do).

My compromise proposal would be: Allow the "lower ranks", people working in the Commissioners' cabinets or within the DGs to blog or to use Twitter or other means of web 2.0 communication, and to use them in their own name, with their own personalities, not pretending to actually be the Commission. You still get a personal view on the Commissioner's work, without forcing her or him to engage in all the nerve-wracking activities that come with the use of social media.
- on what will happen to the communication portfolio: President Barroso announced last week that Viviane Reding would be responsible for communication and citizenship as well as justice, fundamental rights and gender equality. Putting communication and citizenship together makes sense, it is something I have argued for before and I am pleased the President acted on it.
In my personal opinion, communication does not need to have a particular portfolio or DG. It is important that communication is seen as a true horizontal task, not something delegated to a specific portfolio.

What the Commission and other EU institutions lack is the ability to communicate among themselves, and you might better employ a communication coordinator than having a bureaucratic structure in the form of a full portfolio. External communication could be coordinated by the Commission President's communication service and executed by the PR people of the individual portfolios or DGs.
- there were a number of comments on the Citizens Initiative, many of which indicate precisely why we are having a public consultation – there are a lot of details to be sorted out. Some of you had very sensible suggestions – please make sure you contribute to the consultation! For the rest, yes the Commission will be obliged to make a proposal which will be put to the Parliament and Council. But no, petitions relating to the location of the seat of the Parliament or the UK leaving the EU are not issues on which the Commission can act.
This a good reminder that we all can contribute to the consultation procedure on the European Citizens' Initiative until the end of January.
- on the so-called ‘climate gate’ affair: I think the best replies came from George Mountbiot and George Marshall in the Guardian:
I leave that to you to judge.
- Finally, Julien Frisch criticises the procedures for choosing top posts in the EU and I agree with him. I think horsetrading behind closed doors does the EU no favours. I see no reason why candidates should not declare themselves publicly and be questioned, whether by the public or by parliament. Why should candidates for the post of Commissioner, for example, not have a public hearing first in their national parliaments?
First, the particular comment Margot is referring to was on the fact that Ashton was not presented earlier, making a public debate on her qualities impossible, and thus damaging the idea of promoting qualified women into top posts. My questions were: If the Socialist leaders had been convinced of her qualities, why not proposing her earlier? If even Ashton was surprised, how can the public be be convinced? And it gets even worse if you read the backgrounds provide by Jean Quatremer.

Second, regarding the proposal to present candidates for EU Commissioner to national parliaments I am not sure. It could be that this raises transparency, but it could also be that it raises national elements to the debate although Commissioners should be chosen according to merit and European orientation and not to internal national criteria. Having the candidates present themselves to the national public might put even more pressure on them to "represent" their nation.

Yet, since this European choice criteria still look like fiction, having national parliament hearings would at least reduce the impression that member states send unqualified Commissioners, people national leaders want to get rid of or that they want to provide with a last top post before retirement. The candidates would at least need to go through a public selection procedure that anyone could comment on, reducing the ability to send "anyone".

Another proposal I have read elsewhere (don't remember where) was that member states could openly propose two or three candidates so that the Commission President could balance her/his Commission according to qualification and gender and also forcing the Commission President to publicly explain why s/he picked certain persons. Now, Barroso can only explain why he put someone into a specific portfolio but he can always say that the person itself was sent to him.

In a choice situation, these choices could be publicly debated, and the European Parliament also had a basis for its deliberations when hearing the Commissioners.

And since democracy is all about choice and about public debate, putting forward candidates for all top posts ahead of their (s)election will be a crucial element in raising awareness for European democracy, a democracy that doesn't just present its results but that confronts the public debate, a debate that will hopefully become transnational and pan-European instead of being limited to a small number of European enthusiasts dancing on the head of a pin.

Well, this has become a long post, but since we don't know whether any new Commissioner will actually blog, we should use these opportunities for an open debate - hoping that this will not remain unheard but will be taken up by the European institutions to make European communication more open, more direct, and with a stronger will to interact.


Nikola Richter said...

Hey Julien, I really like your idea, that lower-level employees should communicate more via web 2.0 tools. Although this would, of course, even out hierarchies... your employee might write more interesting posts than you and might get more attention than his boss. And engaging directly with commissioners via blogging (as you did with Margot Walström) could be a great opportunity. Although not many people know about their possibilities yet. If every country presents 2 or 3 candidates (with blogs!), European debates might increase, who knows.

Ralf Grahn said...


I agree about officials participating in public discussion, as citizens. Given the number working in the EU institutions and national administrations handling EU affairs, only tiny fractions participate as human beings, with thoughts, experience and feelings.

Something should be done about this culture of omertà.

A (generally) positive example: The Swedish EU Council presidency has set a benchmark for the following trio.

President Sarkozy has done enough to undermine trust that the European Commission stands for the general European interest, to last for a good while.

Media reports on Commission portfolios have mimicked, if not war reports, at least international matches between national teams.

Hearing potential Commissioners in national parliaments would further strengthen pressure for candidates to defend "national interests".

The only sound solution seems to be to turn the European Parliament elections into the event, which sets the course for European level government, although it may take a while before our national leaders come around to the simple view that an effective and legitimate European Union has to be based on European level democracy.

At European level we are still in the year "1848".

Jean-Yves Huwart said...

Maybe it is no relief, but te discussion about horizontal communication, "do we allow employees to blog and express themselves on social networks" and so forth is today a sensitive and painful within big private organisations.
If the EU is not in a top position regarding the web 2.0 field, the EU does not lag behind the others... yet.

Dick Nieuwenhuis said...

Officials such as me can and do participate in public discussions but there are plenty of areas where I am not competent to talk about. I know nothing about Jazz so why should I comment on that? I don't know much about transport issues , so why to engage in a discussion on that? And in my area of work, foreign policy, I don't see why my personal opinion on let's say the middle east peace process is relevant.
I rather see my contribution in explaining certain things or reacting on clear misunderstanding.
So to mention one, I disagree with Ralph about this culture of omèrta. First because we are not a maffiosi orgsanisation, second because it is not on purpose that we don't shout things from the roofs.
Julie has seen when he was in Brussels how easily you can talk to people.
We are supposed to work on a lot of different things (like myself) rather than spent my days on blogs. A lot of these things are useful and good for european citizens but it's often a long and slow process to get to something that everyone can agree upon. And therefore it is not simple to communicate about it. Believe me on this, I have been involved for the last 15 years.
And a lot is specialised stuff. Do you want your garage to explain everything about how they organise the work rather than fixing the problem with your car? Our work is rather similar.
Finally, are you really interested to see all 25,000 officials blogging and twittering around?
In te meantime, keep asking and keep poking into us. It means what we do makes sense!

Julien Frisch said...


The difference between private organisations and state organisations is that the latter have been created to work for citizens, and the only question to ask is whether we as citizens have a disadvantage when their work happens transparently.


You mention an important problem and I think the solution will be: Change. Institutions today are rather organised in a way that makes them more effective/efficient when they don't interact too much with the outside world.

The main reason for this is that the job descriptions do not include external communication for most individuals in organisations, and that the internal working structures are focused on internal communication and self-reference.

The concept behind this is that technical experts among themselves will find solutions that are best suitable for citizens, citizen organisations or society. But this society is in change, and I know you know this very well.

We are slowly moving from a society held together by organisation to a society held together by communication. Until today, organisations had to get persons into their organisations that held a specific expertise to be able to use that knowledge in favour of society. But this is changing, and in the future the institutions will have to structure communication that helps to transform and transmit knowledge of parts of the society to other parts of the society or to society as a whole. And to be able to do so, these institutions will need re-organisation.

To become more concrete:

I don't want that every civil servant/official/politician blogs. But the institutions have to create more access points between their internal work and the external world. Blogging, Twitter, Facebook are just means, not religions, and they are differently appropriate for different needs.

What we need and what the institutions need are brokers who explain what is really going on inside the institutions, and who can explain inside the institutions what society (parts of the society) thinks about what is going on within the institution or about what is coming out of the institution.

Depending on the institution, on the policy area, on the abilities and resources, every department, every directorate, every directorate-general might have such a person or such a group of persons able of simplifying technical explanations for external target groups, connecting to multipliers who will help spread important information, or to reduce/summarise the multitude of external sources existing in social media and to filter relevant information/discussions/trends and make them available for the work of the institutions.

In the end, a Commissioner doesn't need to blog and doesn't need to react to anything going on in the net. But the Commissioner needs to be aware of the fact that society is discussing about her/him or her/his policies - and that these discussions are shaping the conditions in which her/his policies can and will be executed. So even though s/he doesn't need to blog, s/he needs to have somebody who can help to shape discussions, help to interact in a way that creates trust, that convinces peer groups, that shows that the institution (and the person speaking in the name of the institution) are actually doing their work in a way that reflects and respects the ideas floating around, that takes account of legitimate concerns, reasonable criticism or intelligent advice.

In short: If the institutions want to be able to help and to positively influence society, they will need to adapt to the way society functions. And if society and societal communication change - and they do so rapidly - institutions will have to change, too. If they want or not.

Dick Nieuwenhuis said...

Julien, thanks for your comments. I largely agree and I think a lot of my colleagues active in communication do think about all this in a similar ànd serious manner. We in Relex have put "external communication" in a lot of people's job decriptions. But this needs time. I wasn't trained for communicating (remember I was a biochemist in another life) and so aren't my colleagues that are lawyers, economists and political scientists. The Commission is now changing quite dramatically the way it recruits new staff. I think these aspects are becoming important.
More, there is now a group of Commission people from a wide range of activities looking at social media and discussing how to use it and when and for what. Soerensen (DG COMM) gave us a free mandate.
This will be input for the briefings for V. Reding.
The webmaster/internet editors community will soon post an open letter to Barroso asking for a change of culture and mentality towards more open communication (outside ànd inside).
And last but not least, in the near future we will include blogs and other social media in our standard procedures for media monitoring.
De doors are opening up, don't worry! But allow all of us a bit of time! :-)

Anonymous said...

I am not posting this comment to sound my own trumpet, Julien (though that's what it will look like), but the absence of comments on my own post (though I deliberately chose to allow comments) has, with certain honourable exceptions, not been encouraging. The most probable explanation is that my blog is crap and I don't do enough to publicize it but, still, as you know, keeping up a blog is a considerable effort. I chose to blog also to humanize my position vis-à-vis my own employees. I know I have a regular and frequent readership so that part of the equation is probably working. But as to the debate that you and your commentators would like to encourage, for me it hasn't happened, and that I regret. In any case, if I were in the Private Office of an extremely busy Commissioner I, with regrets, would not put a blog high on the list of priorities. Martin

Julien Frisch said...

Dear Martin - I suppose you are Martin Westlake (?) -

this is actually not sounding your own trumpet - this is the kind of interventions that makes the difference between sending out messages on a blog and blogging. This is the difference that brings not only readers to your blog but readers who might be willing to interact because they realise you interact, too.

This is what I talk about when I say that the institutions need to learn to use the web 2.0 - because the web 2.0 is about interaction, about fostering and participating in debates, by introducing new arguments, new perspectives.

And people like you or Dick have incredible insights into processes and realities within your institutions and beyond, and your contributions can add so much added-value to the debates, more than you might be aware of, that every comment you leave on a blog or in other public fora makes the EU more understandable and more human at the same time.

And I agree that somebody working in a private office of a Commissioner today might not have the time to blog or to interact with blogs - but if the private offices would adapt to 21st century communication, they would have, in the nearest future, somebody in their teams who would do this as naturally as they have a press officer trying to get interviews with the press or trying to sell press releases nobody wants to read. :-)