Tag Archives: Marietje Schaake

Unpacking #LOTE: how institutions learn new ways

With the Living On The Edge (aka #LOTE) conference, the Edgeryders team at the Council of Europe was trying to kill several birds with the same stone. Bird number one: starting to boil down the staggering amount of ethnographic data on the transition of European youth collected alongside the project to a synthesis that could act as a common ground. Even before the conference started we had collected over 400 transition stories with 3,000 comments from over 1,000 registered users: an overarching big picture to parse them is a must if we are to make sense of it. Bird number two:experimenting offline with the delicate interface between online communities and institutions. Can we design a format that Europe’s most radical and bright trailblazers and its civil servants can both find meaningful and fulfilling? Bird number three: gauge the potential for contagion of cutting-edge projects like Edgeryders with the institutions that promote them – but then need to give up some control over them to their community of users if they are to be successful at all. Will institutions experience some kind of anaphylactic shock and reject the transplant? Ignore it? Be inspired by it?

Killing bird number one was comparatively easy: we had aimed very carefully. We designed Edgeryders with native support for scientific inquiry. The legal infrastructure is such that all deliverables from the project are licensed in Creative Commons-BY, and therefore can be shared and re-used legally and safely. A volunteer Privacy Manager from the community, neodynos (thanks!), watches that we do this without compromising the sense of safety that a public space like Edgeryders should have. We extract data from the network analysis directly from the database, via a Drupal module called Views and an extraction script (thanks Luca Mearelli, my collaborator at the Dragon Trainer project, for writing it!). Both the script and the anonymized data are on github. We are proudly doing open science here. So, the rest is really just implementation.

Bird number two was hard. As we designed the conference program, I will freely admit it did feel contrived at times. Luckily my colleagues at the Council of Europe – and especially Gilda Farrell, the head of the division I report to – were patient if tough negotiators, and explained to us that yes, we do need opening remarks, and three closing speeches. And it is important that we make sure that several institutions are represented, as well as respect the balance of gender and nationality of speakers. This is about legitimacy, and a conference with insufficient visibility of the institutions would have sent the wrong signal that we were just playing around while the grownups were doing the real policy work.

It did work, though. It worked almost too well. Turnout was huge, with some people coming in from all over Europe, but also from places like South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. The online buzz was just insane – I don’t think any Council of Europe event had ever become trending topic on Twitter before. The Twitter wall backchannel worked like a charm. There was some disagreement and a lot of frank talk, but all of it was respectful. Everybody I talked to – both from the community side and from the institutional side – absolutely loved at least some parts, and learned a lot from what he or she did not like so much. The community went home incredibly energized, and got down to doing the most advanced stuff I have yet seen done within a government project. Check out DemSoc leading a collaborative “letter to the funders” to start a negotiation with the funding agencies about rewriting funding rules for increased effectiveness and fairness (I do hope the European Commission reads that one); or Nadia trying on herself the “life without using money” way of living, guided by moneyless sensei Elf Pavlik. The Council of Europe behaved magnificently, showing care and appreciation for the young Europeans who had made the effort to get to Strasbourg. When the security staff agreed to let into the building Elf – who does not believe in states and refuses to use national ID – I knew the cultural battle had been won. I learned two things: that a fruitful, inspiring offline conversation can be had between institutions and a self-selected group of citizens; and that prior socializing online is critical to that conversation not disintegrating into squabbling about rules of engagement and what is meant by what.

As for the third bird, I have neither full information nor the authority to speak for the Council of Europe, or any other institution. I do know that Edgeryders, that started as a completely peripheral project – just a little money and a couple of lowly temps at the margins of the organization – has now gotten the attention of the most senior decision makers; and that a prototype is being designed for using Edgeryders-style engagement to elicit input into ministerial conferences on the most diverse subjects. This was before #LOTE: the day after we got two new proposals – one of which is to redeploy Edgeryders as a community of experts advising European cities on how to fight poverty. Funding, it seems, is not an issue. A door has been knocked down, and the Council of Europe is exploring what lies beyond it.

If I were more business smart, this would be where I tell you how hard it was, and how we heroically overcame massive obstacles. The gist of it would be that I am a very smart guy, and you might want to consider giving me a lot of money to work with you. But I am famously not business smart, and the truth is that doing all this has been embarassingly easy. Of course we had to work very hard, but even that is more a consequence of the grueling timeline (seven months from launch to #LOTE) than the actual content. It did not take new regulation. It did not require a change in leadership. It did not require innovation, other than some tweaking of Drupal and a few lines of Rails. It did not require flawless execution: we made plenty of mistakes, and I more than anyone. All it took was integrity, a respectful, inclusive stance, and careful deployment of existing Council of Europe administrative plumbing. I could do it again, and so could you.

This is cause for cautious optimism. All in all, I could not have asked for more to my year as a eurocrat, which has now come to an end.

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.