Saturday 5 June 2010

Footsoldiers & Generals in European Communication

Martin Westlake, the Secretary General of the European Economic and Social Committee, has written a blog post titled "Young communicators and the shape of future communication".

We have met earlier this week in his office to talk about this topic, and so it is great to see that he continues the discussion online and connects it to projects like "The Hub" here in Brussels.

Martin is, to my knowledge, the only high-ranking EU official who writes a true personal blog, one that is set up not on an EU platform and one that connects his reflections on work-related issues with stories of cultural events he has participated in or more personal issues that he comes across in his life outside the (usually black) box of EU bureaucracy.

Here is what Martin finds in his article on young communicators (my highlights):
"I have often written about the decline in the paradigm of mass membership party politics in our democracies but increasingly I realise that those democratic forces are still ‘out there’ – they just express themselves in different ways, ways made possible in large part by rapidly evolving net-based applications.

What I find fascinating about these developments is that they are ‘messy’ – by which I mean that they are organic and their evolution is unpredictable and uncontrollable (think of ‘viral’ videos).

They are thus the antithesis of what public administrations like.
And this brings him to one question:
"Young, committed Europeans like Julien and Jon and Polly are the footsoldiers of the European ideal but, the thought occurs to me; in such a world, is there any place or role for generals?"
I think there is a role for generals. There is a role for generals because, without proper co-ordination, our societies, whether manifested offline or online, will not be able to keep up social achievements and social structures that are worth protecting, worth preserving.

We need generals who can channel good ideas. We need experts who are good in what they do and who can guide others to make the right choices in order sustain what is existing, to re-construct what has been destroyed by accidents or to build new what can change the world for the better.

We need trusted people and institutions who can take responsibility for certain tasks, e.g. European institutions - not necessarily governmental - to keep up or to foster European conversations on topics that would otherwise be ignored or that would be held in separate spheres although they concern all of us.

The major change might be to ask how we chose these persons, how we build these institutions, what democratic or popular, organised or viral mechanisms we can accept to let certain persons or groups of persons to be our generals, generals for a day, for a month or for 10 years depending on the task they fulfil in our society's communication(s).

The question is rather: Do we need all the majors, the captains, the lieutenants and all the other middlemen and middlewomen who often don't add value to our society?

Do we need command chains that take days for what direct communication can do in an hour? Do we need committees full of highly-paid experts discussing solutions for a problem for one year who then just come up with the conclusion that there is a problem but that one cannot agree on the means to solve it?

Do we need people who co-ordinate the co-ordination of co-ordinated efforts to solve a small problem where one direct question to the right person - which is made possible by modern communication - could bring the solution without delay and with much less costs for society?

The problem of European communication as organised by the EU institutions today is that these chains of commands don't work at the speed of 21st century communication.

Our European "generals" are eaten up by co-ordinating the co-ordination of the co-ordination and the chains of command have evolved into circles of command in which no one needs to feel responsible for failure, where the circle of communication has become the true nature of daily activity, not the question how to identify problems and to solve them.

Those who are experts in solving problems are forced to spend their life talking to hierarchies about the fact that the problem exists instead of actually being allowed to spend the same time in building solutions. They could be our generals, but they are made wheels of a machinery that is best in building more wheels, but not in moving the machine forward.

"Young communicators" as Martin has called us cannot stand this kind of machinery and we use modern communication to circumvent the hierarchies.

We are not necessarily the ones who would be good generals. We are even ready to let ourselves guide by generals who have our trust as long as we have the feeling that we are trusted by our generals, too.

But as long as we have the feeling that we need to talk to a lieutenant who will then talk to his captain who in a month might address a major who later on will maybe write a letter to the general to ask whether the lieutenant should be allowed to talk more in detail with us, we prefer spending our precious footsoldier's lifetime with different activities than waiting for the general to give an order that would probably just make us walk in circles.

Modern communication has allowed us to directly find like-minded people and to live an important share of our lives without generals and their hierarchies. We try to solve little problems on our own or through small, self-coordinated efforts, and we have more fun spending our time like this.

But there will be the day when we will need the generals again to co-ordinate the solution of the big problems of our societies - and either the present generals and their institutions have changed until then and are ready to actually support us, or we will replace them, including their bureaucracies.

And since the EU's institutional system uniting European and national bureaucracies is the archetype of a "modern", command-cycle bureaucracy that slows us down more than it makes us move forward, it may be the one we will start with if it doesn't change very soon...

Picture: © gilderic / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0