Tag Archives: Commissione Europea

The Internet vs. the democratic deficit: can online collaboration break the ice between citizens and international institutions?

Global problems demand global governance: we have been repeating it for years. And truly, after World War II, international institutions have proliferated and ended up playing important roles in almost every field. It’s not just the United Nations, with their galaxy of agencies, but also the Bretton Woods twin institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; OECD; OPEC; the World Economic Forum; the structured military alliances like NATO and SEATO; the Club of Madrid; the International Atomic Energy; the WTO and many others. In Europe, this tendency is amplified by the continent’s unification project, and Brussels’s influence on public policies of EU member states has come to be very important. By some calculations, 70% of the activity of the average European country’s parliament consists in signing and stamping directives discussed and decided upon in Brussels and Strasbourg – which would make those parliaments little more than expensive decoration.

This system is extremely efficient. With 736 MEPs (the German Bundestag has 622) and a bureaucracy of only 33,000 employees the European Union runs the world’s largest economy, with 500 million inhabitants (Oxford Economics estimates public sector employees at 2.5 million in the UK in 2009, though the two figures are of course not directly comparable). But such efficiency comes at a price; many Europeans perceive the Union’s institutions as distant, inaccessible, unaccountable – at least to them. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is not elected, but appointed by the member states. The European Parliament is elected, but MEPs find it hard to reconcile the day-by-day work in Brussels with the need to stay in touch with their constituency, which tend to be very large. As a result, these institutions feel like they are working in a vacuum. They study official reports from far-away places, but the everyday life of citizens is perceived as some remote radio transmission with a lot of static on top. The combination of isolation and need for high quality information creates a space for lobbying, and, unsurprisingly, lobbying ensues. In the European political jargon, this problem is called democratic deficit.

The social Internet, I believe, has the potential to break the barrier separating the women and men working for international institutions from citizens. Social filtering allows to entertain massive-scale conversation without too many information overload problems. My past experience with Kublai showed that a central administration can open a direct dialogue with individuals in peripheral territories, leapfrogging all the local administrative levels, and that such disintermediated discussion is an very effective learning tool for the institutions that engage in it. My team and I are trying to enact similar tactics at the European scale with Edgeryders. Individual elected and appointed officials are exploring this space in a more agile way than large organizations can: Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake and Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes are notable examples.

International institutions are interested. Tomorrow (November 29th 2011) the European Parliament – led by its vice president, Gianni Pittella – hosts a discussion on this issue, with a lively program: I have the honor of presenting Edgeryders. On December 9th I will hold a webinar with United Nations Development Programme/Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It is a promising path: I hope it takes us far, because we are are in dire need of reinforcing supranational governance with democratic legitimacy.

Inclusion is disruption: the future of European funding

The European Commission manages a lot of money. Just regional development projects are allocated a little less than 350 billion euro over the 2007-2013 period; research is allocated another 50 billion, and on it goes. Many critics complain that these resources end up funding mainly “the usual suspects”: universities, large corporations, public authorities, trade unions. These players can deal with the bureaucratic complexities of mounting a European project (for example, build a consortium with at least X partners in Y countries, one of which should be a new member State to increase chances of being funded); but they are not necessarily the most effective at using the money to everyone’s advantage. On the contrary, large organizations tend to have large overheads, a lot of middle management as opposed to line-of-fire staff, low propensity to risk.

Small and micro enterprises, young entrepreneurs, social innovators, creative businesses – often the most interesting players, who can contribute substantially to regional development, research and many more things beside, are left out of the game. As a rule they get demoralized by the formalistic, bureaucratic culture of these processes, and they don’t even bother to bid for funding; when they do bid, they almost always lose. All this has been clear for a long time; as of lately these people have been making themselves heard in a an unusually clear way, and Europe is starting to react. The video above, produced by my friends at CriticalCity Upload, proves the point: it has been shown in a plenary session at the Digital Agenda Assembly, as 1,200 people – including Commissioner Neelie Kroes – watched. Attendees reported the audience responded with thunderous applause.

With this problem in mind, the Department of Regional Affairs at the Prime Minister’s Office is building a project called Opera, a tool to build European project in a peer-to-peer modality (an open community will launch in September). One of its most fascinating features is the possibility to search for possible partners, and to comment and rate their performance. The community spots reliable, fast, collaborative partners and makes it easier to find them — and this will help the emergence of better partnerships and better projects, increasing the efficiency of that funding. The Opera project is explicitly inspired from Kublai, a project I helped launch in 2008 and directed until earlier this year. The Opera team promanates from Studiare Sviluppo, an in-house company of Italy’s central administration that also worked on Kublai. I am happy and proud that the work done by me and my tea, has helped inspire other Central administrations.

Kublai and Opera make use of Web.20 to get to a fascinating result: making public policies more inclusive and more efficient at the same time. Enhanced inclusivity stems from opening the door wide open to get on new agents that are fast and innovative; and these, cutting a slice of the pie for themselves, increase overall efficiency (the efficiency gain is impressive: CriticalCity Upload – incubated in Kublai – has a cost per user reached that is one thirtieth of European e-participation projects). It is not so surprising, because public policies work through people, and chaning the players is a great way to change the game. It remains to be seen whether policy innovators will manage to protect iniatives like Opera from the inevitable backlash of incumbents, that have so far gotten a very confortable deal under the present system. For all the talk of Creative Destruction, not everybody likes creative destrucion.

Inclusione e distruzione creativa: il futuro dei fondi europei

La Commissione Europea gestisce un mucchio di soldi. Solo per i progetti dedicati allo sviluppo regionale stanzia poco meno di 350 miliardi di euro nel periodo 2007-2013; per la ricerca ci sono altri 50 miliardi, e così via. Secondo molte voci critiche, queste risorse vanno prevalentemente a finanziare progetti dei “soliti sospetti”: università, grandi imprese, enti territoriali, strutture della rappresentanza come sindacati. Questi soggetti sono in grado di gestire le complessità burocratiche di montare un progetto europeo (esempio: costituirsi in consorzi internazionali con almeno X partners in almeno Y paesi, di cui almeno uno deve essere un paese di nuovo ingresso nell’Unione per aumentare le chances di successo); ma non sono necessariamente quelli che usano le risorse nel modo migliore possibile. Al contrario le grandi organizzazioni hanno in genere costi amministrativi alti, molto middle management invece che personale operativo, bassa propensione al rischio.

Piccole e piccolissime imprese, giovani imprenditori, innovatori sociali, imprese creative – che sono spesso i soggetti più interessanti, in grado di contribuire in modo sostanziale allo sviluppo dei territori e alla ricerca – rimangono quasi sempre fuori dai giochi. In genere, scoraggiati dalla cultura burocratica e formalista di questi processi, non partecipano nemmeno; e quando partecipano perdono quasi sempre. Tutto questo è noto da tempo; negli ultimi tempi, però, questi soggetti stanno facendo sentire in modo sempre più chiaro la propria voce; e l’Europa comincia a rispondere. Il video qui sopra, prodotto dai miei amici di CriticalCity Upload in risposta a una call della Commissione Europea, ne è una prova: è stato mostrato in sessione plenaria alla Digital Agenda Assembly, davanti a 1200 persone tra cui il Commissario Neelie Kroes. Chi c’era mi assicura che gli applausi sono stati molto convinti.

Con questo problema in mente, il Dipartimento Affari Regionali della Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri sta mettendo in piedi Opera, uno strumento per elaborare progetti europei in modalità peer-to-peer (una community aperta verrà lanciata a settembre). Uno degli aspetti più interessanti è la possibilità di ricercare possibili partners, ma anche di votarne e commentarne l’agire. I partners affidabili, veloci e collaborativi vengono segnalati dalla community — e questo aiuterà l’emersione di partenariati e progetti migliori, accrescendo in media l’impatto della spesa. Il progetto Opera è esplicitamente ispirato a Kublai, un progetto che ho contribuito a fondare nel 2008 e diretto fino a qualche mese fa. In effetti, il gruppo di Opera fa capo a Studiare Sviluppo, società in-house del Ministero dell’Economia che ha lavorato anche su Kublai. Sono contento e orgoglioso che il lavoro del mio team e mio abbia ispirato un’altra amministrazione centrale.

Kublai e Opera usano le logiche del web 2.0 per ottenere un risultato affascinante: rendere le politiche pubbliche su cui lavorano più inclusive e più efficienti al tempo stesso. La maggiore inclusività apre la porta all’ingresso di nuovi soggetti, veloci ed innovativi; e questi, conquistando una fetta delle risorse in palio, accrescono l’efficienza del sistema (non è un vantaggio marginale: CCU, incubata in Kublai, ha un costo per utente coinvolto 30 volte inferiore a quello dei progetti di e-participation europei). Non è sorprendente, perché le politiche pubbliche camminano con le gambe delle persone, e cambiando i giocatori si cambia il gioco. Resta da vedere se gli innovatori delle politiche pubbliche riusciranno a proteggere le iniziative come Opera dalle inevitabili contromosse di chi finora si è avvantaggiato dei criteri di assegnazione dei fondi europei. La distruzione creativa non piace a tutti.