So, farewell thematic portals on EUROPA

Constructive discussions generally require good discussion documents. One of the Commission’s major contributions to any European online space should therefore be a EUROPA that supports the conversations – setting out What it (and the EU) does, Why and How it does it to the ‘interested public’, in their language. A pilot project explored one way forward.

Disclosure: I was the chief architect of this project, while working at DG INFSO. This means being one of the project’s advocates within the Commission, which I left 2 years ago. Some people could therefore be forgiven for thinking that I am a hopeless case, still banging on an old drum after all these years…

The truth is that when I left INFSO kindly allowed me to share a slidecast with my new colleagues via our company’s training extranet, and have now permitted me to share it with a wider audience. Given that EUROPA will have a major role to play in the emerging online European community, here is that slidecast.

First, some background

The genesis of this project was the “EUROPA 2nd Generation” Communication of 2001, which tasked INFSO with leading a cross-EC pilot project to create a thematic portal, which would provide (my emphases):

“an integrated & unique entry point … to a complete range of information and services on the Information Society policies and activities of the Commission … without the need to know the organisational complexity behind the scene

Like any pilot project, the idea was to explore possibilities and report back. In this case, we were looking to see if and how EUROPA could be improved using a thematic, cross-EC approach. Eventually, the hope was, the thematic approach would be extended to other Institutions, but the priority was to ‘get the Commission’s house in order’.

So we assembled a cross-EC Editorial Board, bringing together the DGs most concerned with ICT policy, figured out how to meet the above mission statement, and implemented it.

The resulting approach and the site is set out in this slidecast, but please note that this short film was originally made last year for publication on our company’s training extranet, so don’t expect anything slick:

Running notes:

  • 0 – 01:55: introduction, problem statement
  • 01:55 – 02:45: the thin layer of cross-EC thematic portals
  • 02:45 – 04:43: a theme page dissected: explaining EU added value to interested non-specialists; improved navigation; Newsroom Items by theme from across the EC.
  • 04:43 – 06:30: a theme page dissected (cont): feasible multilingualism
  • 06:30 – 09:23: results in summary, see below. (with my son, William, calling me to dinner halfway through!)
  • 09:23 – 10:37: a brief tour of the portal’s home page and a detailed look at its Transport theme page

As you’ll see from the slidecast, the main outcomes included an editorial architecture aimed squarely at the ‘interested general public’ (e.g., in this case, interested in the field of Information Society).

Crucially, this editorial approach was feasibly multilingual. I don’t think I can stress enough how important that was.

We also figured out the required organisational approach and developed some technology which was – for the Commission – reasonably innovative. Despite being rather limited in our choice of technologies, for example, we were the first in the EC to use RSS and XML syndication, and introduced the first (and still the only???) completely decentralised, cross-EC publication workflows. And, of course, we launched the site itself.

I don’t think I’d surprise anyone by mentioning that the key problem was organisational, aggravated by both inter-DG competition and resource scarcity (this was before the No votes in France and the Netherlands, when communications were not the priority they are today). Even then, we got more support from the other involved DGs than you’d have thought. It all boiled down to the individuals we could enthuse, really.

Underpinning the conversation

It should be noted that this was never meant to be the full solution for EUROPA, just one piece of the puzzle. But I’m more exercised by what we didn;t achieve, rather than what we did.

Back in 2001, for example, I saw thematic portals as the natural home for interactivity and discussion with non-specialist audiences – the idea was that once the basic portals described above were in place, we’d add forums, polls, etc.

By the time we got the site up, however, it was clear that the Institutions needed to go where the discussions are. However, I still think that they – and everyone else – need something like a suite of thematic portals to back up these discussions.

I mean by this that anyone involved in social media discussions on EU affairs should have somewhere to link to whenever they need to explain to (frequently sceptical) non-specialised audiences:

  • why the EU is active in the area being discussed – i.e., explain the logic of EU added value in the field (aka ‘answering the subsidiarity question’) – and provide examples
  • what the EU is doing – i.e., provide rich links to everything the Institutions do in the field, as well as latest news, events, publications, etc,
  • and do this in as many languages as possible.

First in, first out

The Information Society Thematic Portal was the first, but several more followed, all with a different approach as teams experimented with the same problems we encountered and found different solutions.

Not all actually constituted formal cross-EC Editorial Boards, for example, while some (to be frank) called themselves portals but were in fact nothing more than just another DG website. The ones which did the job properly improved the ant colony of EUROPA subsites.

But EUROPA didn’t become thematic, and now INFSO tells me that they’re replacing the thematic layer with something else. It is 5 years old, after all.

That’s the life of a pilot project. I’d say that the project had a reasonable impact on the internal debate on EUROPA’s future, with the basic multilingualism strategy being endorsed, central concepts such as ‘thin thematic layer’ entering the general EUROPA lexicon, and several DGs adopting the Newsroom.

But the project set out an ambitious vision in organisational terms, with cross-EC editorial boards, interlinked centralised and decentralised publication systems, and so on. Possibly too ambitious.

A new top level of EUROPA is on its way. I saw a preview earlier this year, and it looks like an improvement on what they have today, which is (in fairness) better than it was in 2002, when I started out. Watch this space …

10 Responses to So, farewell thematic portals on EUROPA »»

  1. Comment by Julien Frisch | 2009/09/06 at 01:54:14

    That is amazingly interesting, thanks for writing it down and sharing both the video and the background discussions. It’ll be interesting to see how this will translate into the major re-launch of EUROPA that I’ve already been hearing of…

  2. Comment by Mathew | 2009/09/06 at 12:12:29

    Thanks for the comment. I’m sure the relaunched EUROPA will be an improvement (difficult to see how it could be otherwise).

    For me, the real issue is whether they manage to connect the upper layer to the DGs’ plethora of sites, seamlessly. This requires building connections across the three challenges I outlined (cf triple challenge):
    - technologically, i.e., hooking up CMS in various ways;
    - editorially, obviously
    - organisationally

    (Did I mention the massive economies of scale and bonuses for internal communications that this would bring?)

    Anyway, the pilot project’s approach was to have cross-EC teams co-authoring these portals, but I wouldn’t hold you breath for that. The argument was that there are just not enough resources.

    To which the proper answer, of course, is that the pilot project created a multilingual, highly innovative portal with a tiny in-house, part-time team, which had to figure everything out as we went.

    However, the key problem with the organisational model we used was that it might not be scalable – i.e., once you go from one thematic portal to many, the resource issue could grow non-linearly, and the internal negotiations would become horrendous.

    That’s the sort of thing pilot projects are supposed to discover, I guess. If they can achieve half of what we foresaw with the resources they do have, I’ll be happy.

  3. Comment by Hugh Barton-Smith | 2009/09/06 at 15:16:04

    This is a very important piece of history – so glad that Mathew is so willing to and capable of articulating it. When he and his INFSO team tuned up at DG Enterprise back in 2004, it seemed they were from another planet. I was quick to think that, however alien, this was the way to go. But back then I’d only been at the Commission for a few months and had yet to see the monstrous proportions that internal negotiations can adopt whenever inter-DG initiatives are on the table.

    The scheme could only have succeeded by similar teams of the scale established at INFSO coming into being at other DGs and all ‘getting it’, so that without organizing everything top down each would evolve their communication to occupy the space cooperatively. However, this goes against Commission culture in two ways: one it is severely top-down in structure and outlook. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, communication in each DG is basically driven by the need to give weight to their respective portfolio, pushing their products relative to others rather than contributing to the collective effort.

    Revolutions take a long, long time (after all, it is said that the jury is still out on the French one). Thanks again Mathew, for documenting one of its upheavals!

  4. Comment by Dick Nieuwenhuis | 2009/09/06 at 17:09:04

    Matthew, most of what you tell is correct. I would need more time than I have now to give more insight on the revamp of the upper layers of EUROPA. But a few quick comments (so you don’t think I didn’t dare to react, haha!).
    The revamp is about the europa.eu and the ec.europa.eu layers. The first is a collaborative effort from the institutions with the Commission (DG COMM) in the lead. The second is mostly DG COMM’s responsibility but the revamp was the outcome of series of discussions with the newly setup network of internet editors and fine work by an outside contractor. The revamp is led by the idea of the user-centric website whereas EUROPA was/is an organisation -centric site. And the build up was task-oriented, who is our audience, what are they looking for and what do they need and how can we help them to find it quickly. A formidable task for such an enormous elephant as EUROPA is!!
    The fact that the discusison took place with the editors already shows that the web is no longer something for webmasters (as I used to be called for a long time) by run by editors (which I am now, called “had of section electronic information”). And thanks to the webcontent management system most of my/our time in DG RELEX indeed goes into editorial issues. We do realise more and more that garbage is garbage out. We very carefully tag our news so that it appears everywhere where it fits. This tagging holds interesting and useful info (we think). We will soon show that extra info, and you can follow not only the news but also the tags.
    We twitter, just a little but someone should start and find out what it is, no?
    And for now: you forget to mention the “EU in the world” portal (http://ec.europa.eu/world/). I think this is the only real portal as foreseen in 2001. Cross DG, subject-driven, few or no links to DGs or Commissioners. I say this because I was deeply involved in writing that document and do re-read it from time to time. Just to see that so much is still true and not done.
    One file secret for now: a small team from within the editors is writing a note addressed to the new college and its president (whomever) where we give our view. Much as the US administration webmasters did vis-à-vis Obama.
    More to come….
    (when I am back from Paris for a technical discussion on the Shanghai Expo online).

  5. Comment by Mathew | 2009/09/06 at 19:48:26

    Thanks for the comments.

    @Hugh, there were in fact several ways of rolling out a thematic layer – we didn’t necessarily need teams in each DG (btw, my ‘team’ was one essentially developer, one assistant and myself, all working at well under 50% of our time).

    The problems would have arisen at the inter-DG discussions on what the thematic portals should be, as that would have completely changed the face of the Commission to the outside world, forcing it to define what it actualy stood for in clear, uncomplicated messages. A tough task!

    @Dick, we all look forward to the new-look, user-centric EUROPA. It’s been a long time coming.

    I remember when EU in the world was launched and one of your colleagues grandly proclaimed it as the first thematic portal on EUROPA. It was the third, actually!

    It is one of the portals I was referring to which I think adds value, although I do remember thinking that it didn’t really explain ‘EU added value’ that much. I’ll go have another look.

    One thing you had going for you was that you were working with a smaller set of DGs that were used to working together (the ‘RELEX Group’) and had clearly defined roles vis a vis the outside world.

    I was trying to link together the work of 14 DGs and tell a coherent story from their work, which is difficult because whenever 2 DGs were touched by the same theme, those DGs were more often than not rivals in that space (I won’t use any examples for rick of offending people…). Hence the abovementioned difficulties with inter-DG discussions!


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Mathew Lowry’s Tagsmanian Devil rss

The European online public space, online communications, communities and the EU, semantic technologies plus whatever else catches my eye. more.



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