Mathew Lowry

The answer to this post’s title may be so obvious that you wonder why it needs writing, but Jon Worth’s idea to get a Blogging Day for greater European Parliament transparency together got me thinking beyond the knee-jerk reaction.

One of the tenets of transparency is full disclosure, so this is where I point out that the European Parliament is a client’s client. This, in turn, makes it pretty difficult to blog on the specific issues raised in Jon’s post. As Ron Patz wrote recently:

“In the Brussels bubble, everybody who could write a good blog has something at stake, so either people limit themselves to not write about stuff where they’d have something to say (e.g. not to fall out of message of their organisation or to be accused of hiding interests)…”

Why there is no serious blogging scene in Brussels

As a consultant to the EU Institutions, it’s simply risky to blog about clients – past, present or potential – no matter how clearly I say that these are my personal views, divorced from my work. I’ve done it once (Being Useful beats Being Tuneful), but generally censor myself (or choose my subjects carefully) a fair bit. I’m sure I’m not alone, although almost noone in my line of work blogs (while, strangely, many of them are apparently social media experts 😉 ).

But I figure I can generalise a bit about transparency and communications in the era of social media.

Who do you trust more?

To answer the question, imagine citizens of two cities. Each city has a Government Building.

Warning: I am exaggerating for effect!

In City A, the building is made of concrete, has no windows, and is surrounded by razor wire, interspersed by guard towers equipped with machine-guns.

In City B, the Government Building is not surrounded by razor wire or machine guns. There are large windows, set in translucent walls. Behind the windows are people – with names, hairstyles, tastes in music – who talk about what they do within limits, which they explain.

Some staff, moreover, are specifically tasked with taking questions into the depths of the building, and returning with answers. While they do this, people outside can see movement through the translucent walls, so they know something’s happening. When an answer takes some time, the staffperson will occasionally return to the window to assure the questioner that they haven’t been forgotten.

Now ask yourself: which city has citizens who trust their government more, and take seriously what they say? And which city has better policies, reflecting their needs?

How much of a good thing?

So far, so obvious. But how much transparency is actually possible and – just as important – practical, at the EU level?

Take Ron Patz’s two excellent ‘Schizophrenic Council’ posts. His first post triggered a genuinely fascinating discussion between him, Reijo Kemppinen (Council’s Director-General head for press and communication), Jakob Thomsen (responsible at the Council for access to information) and other bloggers.

One may or may not agree with the Council staff’s views on how well the Council is ‘opening up’, but this conversation’s very existence shows a Council more in City B than City A.

Ron’s second post in the series, however, is called “... how the EU Council deliberately prevents transparency“, and portrays very much City A (OK, without the barbed wire and machine-guns).

So, are we halfway between? Well, there’s also the Tweetwall at Council meetings (ambushed), the pilot Blogger accreditation to the Council (successful), Van Rompuy’s “Ask your Question” initiative on Facebook (less so) and the Ask The President by video (brand new, and brilliant if it works).

So we’re bouncing between the two Cities like a ping pong ball? This may appear schizophrenic, but I suspect a more prosaic explanation – an Institution feeling its way into 21st century possibilities, using the internal resources, processes and structures it inherited from the late 20th century, where the web was, at best, a detached comms project where you dumped your brochures.

The challenge is also probably more prosaic than curing schizophrenia: how to be that person in the window, answering questions and interacting with people outside the Building, when there are 500 million people to talk to, in 20+ languages?

In other words, a question of scale, not sanity.

Setting limits

The question I’d like to know is this: just how transparent can an Institution like this be and function properly?

I’d love to pontificate on this, but I honestly don’t know who’s right, so you’re better off reading the conversation between Patz, Kemppinen, Thomsen and others on the aforementioned post, and then Ron’s followup, and make up your own mind.

Besides, I should perhaps choose my subjects more carefully

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  1. Isn’t transparency essentially about content? Are translucent walls and windows enough or is glass just making it look like there is no wall?

    Is it enough to see Merkel talking to Sarkozy behind a glass wall (reminds me of video footage from EU summits on EBS)? Or is the only thing that matters what they talked about? Is there much difference between guards with machine-guns and friendly ladies who always come back saying “this document / answer to your question can unfortunately not be made public”?

    I know, more questions than answers. Just wanted to stimulate some debate.

  2. I think you’re taking my metaphor a bit literally! 😉 One thing is certain – nothing breeds distrust more than promising something, and then not delivering.

    Hence my emphasis that any limits to transparency must be explained.

    Personally, I’d prefer guards and machineguns than fake openness – barbed wire at least presents an honest portrayal of what you can expect.

    Windows must therefore be real, even if they’re only small, rather than large illusory ones.

    So yes, it’s about real content – it’s better to know what Merkel and Sarkozy discussed than just seeing it through a window with the sound turned off. That’s just meaningless video to pad out the evening news to make it look like we’re actually informed.

    PS All metaphors fall apart under close examination.

    PPS Thx for dropping by 😉

  3. @brusselsblogger,

    I was on holiday when your comment came in. Now I’m back, commenting here without being logged in, to test. As far as I can see, it’s working fine. Will test by commenting again straight after this, so apologies to anyone else following this conversation …

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