Mathew Lowry

As we approach a new Commission, expect to see a lot of recommendations for them from all and sundry. Rather than add my voice to the cacophony by making up my own, I’ll content myself with picking over everyone else’s, using anything I find relevant to communications as a springboard for reflection.

First off the line: Lisbon Council executive director Ann Mettler’s A New Dawn: 10 Recommendations for the New European Commission, covering everything from the internal market to … communications. They’re all worth a read. I tweeted some of these, but it’s now time to revisit four of them in depth:

I) Position the Internal Market Firmly in Citizen-Centric, Consumer-Oriented Policies and Politics

The first of the Lisbon Council’s recommendations has, ostensibly, nothing to do with communications, until you realise that the internal market is probably one of the EU’s most under-sold achievements. They point out:

A better … way of making the case for the internal market is to point out that violations harm consumers first and foremost … Commissioners Viviane Reding (information society and media) and Neelie Kroes (competition) arguably did more to defend the internal market than the internal market commissioner himself … arguing on behalf of Europe’s consumers – to much popular acclaim.

An excellent point which strikes a chord with me. I have already posted about how I was involved in a previous life in Reding’s roaming campaign, and saw firsthand the intense and positive interest generated by this piece of EU regulation.

Today, among other things, my company is helping the Commission’s Your Europe – Business portal. In the process I’ve seen firsthand how a practical and non-promotional guide to helping Europeans get the most out of an EU achievement (in this case, the Single Market) provides a significant communications boost as a side effect.

(disclosure & clarifications: yep, my day job involves promoting Your Europe. Nope, I’m not being paid to blog about it here – I mention it only because it’s relevant. I’m not involved in the portal’s design or content.)

I suspect many other EU achievements could be better communicated by focusing on helping people get practical benefits out of them, rather than by publishing brochureware websites and oversexed YouTube videos.

V. Close the Gap Between Substance and Communication

Point I, above, segues neatly into their fifth recommendation.

While characterising the appointment of a Vice-President for Communication Strategy as “a modest success”, it’s clear that the Lisbon Council thinks that more could have been done by someone else:

A communications commissioner who has nothing to say about key Commission competencies, from competition and the internal market to Lisbon Agenda and trade, is at best of limited value … the communications unit is used to produce feel-good, flowery deliverables for “citizens,” while the rest of the Commission gets on with the real work. This approach is … almost demeaning to citizens as it would appear not to treat them as mature and intelligent adults.

The LisbonCouncil is better placed than I to judge whether Margot Wallström didn’t pay enough attention to the Lisbon Agenda, although they may have a certain bias. Anyway, I totally agree with their emphasis on substance, as it resonates with the previous point.

However, I feel they are taking a somewhat simplistic view of EU communications, which is somewhat unfair to Margot Wallström.

To begin with, VP Wallström simply doesn’t do all EU communications – each DG has its own communications responsibility. Moreover, the DGs generally focus on communicating more specialised material, to their specialised audiences.

Thus getting the central ‘communications unit’ to communicate the DGs’ more specialised policy material (‘key Commission competencies’) to a wider audience, as the Lisbon Council suggests, means building a ‘content partnership’ between the centralised communications practitioners and policy experts from multiple DGs.

This is because while two DGs can communicate to their own specialised audiences independently, non-specialists don’t know and don’t care about the Commission’s internal organisational structure. Communicating the EU’s work to this audience thus requires aggregating and summarising the work of multiple DGs (to say nothing of the other Institutions). The coordination and teamwork this requires is not as easy as it sounds, as I found during the thematic portal pilot project, which tried to communicate the specialised work of some 14 different DGs to non-specialist audiences.

Secondly, one should acknowledge that it was during Margot Wallström’s tenure that the Commission improved its focus on the Web. The creation of an EC-wide network of internet correspondents modelled on the spokespersons, for example, will hopefully play a major role in mediating the above content partnership.

And, of course, without her blog, the Commission’s adoption of social media would probably be even further behind where it is today.

VI. Get to the Bottom of It: Increase Use of Surveys and Polls, Encourage Outreach via Web 2.0 and Pay Attention to Election Results

Which leads neatly to their 6th recommendation:

While the official stakeholder dialogue is of course an important feature of the EU arena … there are opportunities to complement this institutional structure by bringing in the voice of citizens in a more direct and audible manner.

The Lisbon Council calls here for using surveys to provide a mandate, citing environmental action and (again) the mobile roaming story as good examples; as well as for policy to reflect election results more faithfully, and “to connect with citizens is through Web 2.0 and social networking”.

Here they doff the obligatory hat to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. I’ve already pointed out that Obama’s use of social media since his election has been less impressive than his actual campaign, so I’m glad to see the Lisbon Council has a reasonably realistic take on this:

And while it would be difficult to replicate such an endeavour at the European level, it is at least worth a try … [Web 2.0 outreach should be] a sincere and honest effort to make governance more transparent, more understandable and more accountable.

Unsurprisingly I agree. But it is worth considering the Parliament web team’s reflection that they may be creating a new digital divide by focusing too much on web2.0.

VII. Overcome the Divides: Mastering Horizontal Issues in an Institution Built on Silos

The Lisbon Council sees a problem from their perspective of innovation policy:

There are key issues that are of paramount importance but that do not have an institutional home in the form of a dedicated directorate general (DG), such as innovation, skills or the Lisbon Agenda. To date, they have been handled by a myriad of DGs, such as enterprise, employment, economic and financial affairs, education, etc.

I mention this here because it echoes the problem I mentioned earlier (see point V), facing EU communication – the difficulty of coordinating communications, leading to the dichotomy (“feel-good flowers” on the one hand, “real work” on the other) which the Lisbon Council observed and criticised.

Praising Meglena Kuneva’s impact as the first Commissioner solely focused on consumer affairs, the Lisbon Council hopes to see a single Commissioner take responsibility for innovation, or “more aggressive interdepartmental coordination on key issues”. In the absence of either:

the Commission runs the danger of what can be described as the “Lisbon Agenda syndrome” – where everyone is nominally working on a policy but the overall impact is limited because the substance too often gets lost in the process or is hampered by too many isolated actions that somehow don’t add up.

While discussing innovation policy, the Lisbon Council could just as easily be considering communications, describing how the efforts of all those DGs, each working on their own communications efforts, adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

But it’s worth pointing out here that the creation of a Vice-President responsible for communications, according to the Lisbon Council themselves, did not have the required effect. Instead, they criticise Wallström’s efforts as ‘just another DG’, unconnected to the others, albeit with a different audience and hence tone. So this begs the question as to why they feel a dedicated Commissioner ‘worked’ for consumer policy, but didn’t for communications.

And it implies that a dedicated Commissioner for Innovation won’t necessarily solve the silo problem for innovation policy, and that Communications is left looking for another model.

I’m not sure I agree. Personally, as I stated earlier, I think the appointment of a VP focused on communications did improve things, although I agree with their contention that a greater emphasis on substance might help. This, however, is easier said than done.

And I do hope they get their Commissioner for Innovation.

If there are other recommendations for the new Commission, feel free to send them my way.

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  1. You correctly highlight the separation of tasks between DG Communication and the Communication departments of the individual DGs.

    But this is exactly an area for improvempent I think. DG Communication not only has no power to guide (control) what DGs are doing but also do not provide them with the necessary resources.

    What happens all the time is the following scenario:
    A DG wants to renew its website. Neither the DG itself nor DG Comm have the essential resources. So everything is outsourced. Content, CMS and often also hosting (as DIGIT, the Commissions IT service, in addition often creates major technical constraints). The result: a totally fragmented systems of websites with no skills beeing ever built up internally.

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  2. FYI: The BlogActiv commenting function is still very disturbing. Essentially you feel like your comment is lost after submitting it.

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  3. Absolutely right that good inter-DG coordination could provide enormous improvements to communications to a wider public – my point was only that this is difficult to achieve (see the thematic portal post).

    As for the whole reinvention-of-the-wheel thing, there is some internal development, of both code and skills. I was project manager of two specialised CMS (Newsroom and Event in a Box) which were developed in a policy DG (INFSO) and were adopted by other DGs (including DIGIT, actually!). But this is probably exceptional.

    There’s enough material for ten recommendations on this subject alone, so don’t get me started.

    PS In a very sense, comments are being lost. They all go into the spam filter, where I have to dig them out. Including my own! WordPress #fail.

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  4. Looking forward to your article “Ten recommendations for DG’s web communication departments” 🙂

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  5. Don’t hold your breath! Each DG has its own situation: content, messages, audiences, organisational structure, culture, technical resources, motivation, etc.

    Anyone who thinks he can boil all that down to 10 prescriptions for all DGs that are still specific enough to be useful is too ignorant and/or arrogant for his/her own good (although that doesn’t stop many).

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  6. While risking to be ignorant/arrogant 🙂 is it really so much different?

    The content/messages/audiences might be different but aren’t the tools mainly the same for most DGs?

    But you probably have a big point when it comes to different organisation structure and motivation.

    What I am asking myself: why isn’t DG Comm providing a pool of 20-30 web consultants that could assist the different DGs in their needs for web communication? It would save a lot of outsourcing cost and would ensure at least some uniformity/integration of DG/portal websites.

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  7. Well, to begin with, you cannot separate tools from organisational structure. INFSO, for example, was ‘lead DG’ in the thematic portal pilot, which was called for by the same Communication (Europa 2nd Generation) which foresaw the decentralisation of web publishing.

    So INFSO decentralised, training web publishers in all of its units, with INFSO’s comms unit providing a core support and training unit which was also responsible for the ‘wider public’ levels (Home Pages, themes, Newsroom Home and enewsletter, etc.).

    The job was often given to interns and other short-term staff, so ‘publisher churn’ was high. In such an environment, you simply cannot roll out a complex (i.e., not user-friendly) CMS. In the end we created a hybrid system which allowed decentralisation while keeping things user-friendly and providing high functionality (the Newsroom). The price we paid was to have a hybrid, rather than having a fully integrated system, although I doubt the users notice. Pilot projects often roll like that.

    Those DGs which kept their web publishing operations centralised, however, can adopt a more complex CMS, developed for them by the central DGs. I’ve been ‘outside the house’ for over 2 years, so I’m not really up to date on its uptake.

    Before its existence, I think, DGs were offered Frontpage as standard, some got Dreamweaver, and of course many went the subcontracting route, resulting in sites built using Joomla, Coldfusion, Plone, etc…

    Call it messy, but in such environments lots of ideas get explored, which has its advantages. Those DGs who just want a solid CMS get one provided centrally, while DGs with specific needs, which cannot be predicted by the centralised DGs, develop solutions and then (hopefully) share them.

    For example, there’s no way ‘Event in a Box’ would be part of the ‘standard central CMS’ – the central DGs do not organise such events or form communities of practice, and many of the policy DGs have no such needs, either.

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  8. Mathew, thanks for your explanations. These background infos aver very interesting.

    “DGs with specific needs, which cannot be predicted by the centralised DGs, develop solutions and then (hopefully) share them.”

    The important word here is “hopefully”. It is exactly here where I don’t see a structure (or even requirement) for sharing the experiences. But I agree that it might be difficult, with so many structures existing, and overlaping.

    Related, and maybe symptomatic for the problem: on the Europa e-Forum (an online forum EU webmasters), the forums for “content” and “portals” have the last message from is from a “mathew.lowry” 🙂 (In 2007. There is only 1 message in 2009)

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  9. It’s true that I was pretty active in all of these fora (online and face-2-face), whether the other DGs liked it or not!

    In my defence, it was part of my job to transfer INFSO’s lessons learnt to the other DGs. INFSO had that responsibility as it was leading the thematic portal pilot project, which led to the Newsroom, which was adopted by several other DGs, even if the thematic approach was not.

    But not by all DGs – one can transfer lessons and offer the code, but one cannot force people to accept them, because they simply may not need it. And that’s where I learnt that there is no such thing as a ‘DG communication strategy’ – each DG is in its own place.

    I wasn’t the only one to contribute to those forums, so it saddens me to hear that they’ve died down. It might in any case be better if such discussions took place in public – it would doubtless generate some useful ideas from the outside, help people outside the house understand just how difficult and complex something like an ‘EU online communication strategy’ can be, and create/harness a community, which in today’s Web has to be part of the strategy.

    Initiatives like Writing for y(EU) are therefore a really welcome first step towards this more open discussion.

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