Mathew Lowry

An organisation which cannot remember cannot learn; an organisation which cannot learn cannot improve.

Sometime during the EuropCom conference, I found myself listening to someone explaining how the Commission is reorganising the EUROPA site along thematic lines. “But the thematic portal architecture was adopted in 2001,” I said. He hadn’t heard – he’d only been in the Commission 4 years. Plus ça change.

I also heard, later that day, about the latest EC web app to be ‘Corporatised’ (made available to all DGs of the Commission). Specifically designed to publish time-critical content online, enewsletter and RSS, it works across organisational siloes and can publish news, calendar items, funding oppportunities, videos, publications and more into any EC website, whatever the CMS. Its called the ‘Newsroom’. “But that was developed for thematic portals in 2002,” I said. Several other DGs had adopted it by 2005. Has it really taken the Commission 12 years to Corporatise it?

And during my participation session, I mentioned that the EC’s first successful eparticipation site had been built in 2002 around DG INFSO’s major annual conference. I think under 5 people there knew of it.

Fact of the day at #EuroPCom – listening to @mathewlowry on the first @EU_Commission Web 2.0 site launched 12 years ago!

— Peter Hughes (@PeterLingua) October 15, 2014

The only person there who mentioned to me that she knew of it told me that that she’d heard engagement “wasn’t that great”. I could only point to my last event, 2006, when the longlist of Networking sessions published for crowd-driven selection got over 8000 comments in the first month. Which was August. She hadn’t heard that – she’d only been in the Commission 3 years. Plus ça change.

I later looked up the 2013 site. A lot of participants chose to create a Public Profile, the first stage of active engagement, but it’s not possible to see how much actual engagement took place. The Web has evolved a lot since this approach was piloted – people chatter more on social media than comment on content these days. Just ask Fabio about Medium.
This has important implications for eParticipation. At the Participation session, the difference between sharing and discussion was a significant topic: too much emphasis on social media metrics was seen by many there as a sign of ‘democracy washing’, where the focus is on getting Retweets and Pageviews, not harvesting new ideas and networks.But if people are commenting less (a widely documented fact) and sharing more (often without reading what they’re sharing – another indisputable fact) where does that leave eParticipation? Should one equate Likes with endorsement of a policy option, or would that be measuring the wrong thing?

But that, the state of the Big Internet and the inevitable backlash, are subjects for other posts.

The purpose of this post is not to secure my place as a Grumpy Old Man. My thinking has evolved a lot since 2002, too, thank goodness. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in the past.

I am mentioning this because if the above happened to one person in one week, I wonder how many other good practices, useful code and tools, relevant experience and more have been piloted, tested, documented and forgotten over the years?

An organisation which cannot remember cannot learn, and an organisation which cannot learn cannot improve. How can the Institutions better remember and learn from their own projects, when so many of their staff are temporary, arriving and leaving within 3 years?

Author :


  1. Among other lessons not learned in the last 20 years one could perhaps mention:
    – the failure to define a target audience
    – the failure to define a desired outcome
    – the fascination with home pages and cover designs at the expense of content
    – the refusal to prioritise user needs over business needs
    – the reluctance to pay for testing and impact assessment

    Staff turnover is one thing. Other factors include procurement procedures that lock clients and contractors into a compound reverse auction whose logical outcome is non-payment and non-delivery.

  2. Well, if we want to draw up a list of everything done wrong then we’ll need a bigger screen 😉

    My point was more about the things that have Done Right in one corner of the EC, and yet have failed to be taken up elsewhere.

    This risks making me look both grumpy and self-serving (the examples I cited are projects I led), but my point is that there must be loads of other people out there with similar successes which have not been ‘taken on’ and adopted more widely.

    Successes I have probably not heard of because, I suspect, I hardly ever go to conferences. Perhaps I should.

  3. Thankfully, now that grumpy old men like you and me are taking over from those young whippersnappers who hang out at conferences, maybe less stuff will get forgotten, and we can say goodbye to the temptation to remake the world (or at least, to contract out for a new and shiny website) instead of heeding the ancient wisdom.

  4. The contract agents on which the commission increasingly relies can stay for 6 years, not 3, as before. A welcome development for continuity. And you are right that silos form too easily and knowledge sharing is difficult.
    But isn’t the conclusion not that many projects are forgotten, but that good stuff takes a long time to get bedded in to the organisation?
    One of the keys is easier tools, so the barriers to entry are lowered, avoiding the temptation to say it’s all so complicated and contract it out? Hence Drupal for Europa 2.0 and social media for everyone.
    Unfortunately e-Participation is still a tough call on increasingly limited human resources, and requires top-level support, which it looks like we understand better now.
    And no one uses the word “portal” anymore…

  5. Firstly, my apologies for the problems with Blogactiv’s spam queue – not only did it catch both of your comments, but it also declared that my own reply to Simon was also spam. Talk about diligent! It’s almost as if it wanted to check absolutely everything before publication, in case any errors crept in … 😉

    Anyway, if noone uses the word portal anymore, then improvements are indeed possible.

    Perhaps it’s just a question of expectations. For me, a decade is a long time – dozens of programmes, projects, and events and indeed DGs could have benefited from the Newsroom and ‘Event in a Box’ over the past 12 years.

    The opportunity cost is extremely high, and not just to each part of the EC. If, for example, the thematic approach had been rolled out across the top level of EUROPA following its adoption and endorsement by the relevant internal committees in 2003-04, the online content created for every single campaign in the past decade would have reinforced this level, and thus been useful well beyond the lifetime of the campaign, rather than being erased, forgotten and reinvented.

    The end result would have been a EUROPA which would have presented to any user interested in a particular topic: “Here’s What and Why and How the EC works in the topic you care about, and here are some examples of the results in the country you care about. Add if you want more, here are the latest relevant news, events, publications and funding opps from across the EC, as well as opportunities to ask questions and suggest ideas”.

    All that could have been set up a decade ago. And why tools are important and can be an important barrier, that’s wasn’t the issue in this particular case – all of these systems were developed by a handful of people, working on them part-time.

    As is almost always the case, the problem was not technical, or insufficient resources, it was organisational. Hence while I look forward to seeing the next technical fix, I’d put to you that the real problem remains cultural, no?

  6. Mathew, good post, this ex EU official often feels the same way…

    (& others like BlogActiv and soon EU Community / EurActory)
    could also be expert memories / Community knowledge management?

    But if so, and once each contributing parnter has the right set-up, it would be nice to have some EU support for it…

    Best wishes,


Comments are closed.