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Seeking examples of real participation in EU policymaking

If you have a real case study of EU policy participation, let me know and we’ll use it in this October’s workshop at the European Week of Regions and Cities (EWRC).

The workshop, which also involves Anthony Zacharzewski (Democratic Society), Agnès Monfret (head of Communications, DG REGIO) and Michele Cercone (head of Events, Committee of the Regions), focuses on community and participation in the regional policy context, but any policy area will do.

This post introduces some key questions we’d like to explore. If you any ideas or examples, get in touch (see Connect to contribute (updated), below).

Participation vs. Democracy-Washing

First question: what do we mean by real examples? Are there fake ones?

We’re looking for no-bullshit examples of public participation in EU policymaking:

where an EU policy changes course — even a little tweak — due to useful input received from outside the Usual Suspects of EU policymakers and the rest of the Brussels Bubble.

Policymaker have been calling for public engagement in policymaking for many years. But most examples discussed at my 2014 EuroPCom workshop were what one participant derided as “democracy-washing… a communications project which masquerades as a participation project will fail at both… poisoning the well with distrust and cynicism” (2014).

Three years later, I still haven’t found an EU example of what the Tavistock Institute calls taking engagement from rhetoric into practice (Tavistock was in NHSCitizen: see my 2015 workshop and followup chat with Anthony).

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Framing the question: more Europe = shocking, less Europe = sad (see followup analysis)

Don’t get me wrong: participation requires excellent communications, so there’s plenty of room for Facebook polls and the like.

Avoiding democracy-washing simply means ensuring that the comms supports participation, not the other way around. That means opening up the policy process to beyond the Brussels Bubble — not to sell the policy, but to improve it.

But the comms team should be happy, because participation projects have the best message possible: “we‘re developing policy, and want your input”.

participation projects have the best comms message possible: “we‘re developing policy, and want your input”

Key Questions: Which, How, What and Who?

But what sort of input, exactly? What contributions would be useful to policymakers? Who could provide these contributions, and what motivates these participants? Who would bring policymakers and participants together, and How? And which Institution’s policy development processes are we participating in, anyway?

These are the Key Questions I hope to explore in the workshop. They’re deeply interrelated, so here are some starting point answers, in no particular order:

Which Institution? CoR(e) Business

The Committee of the Region’s (CoR’s) interest in these questions should be clear: they are a participative, not representative, body, with a clear mission: to “bring Europe to the Regions, and the Regions to Europe” to improve EU policies impacting Europe’s regions and cities.

Collecting useful input from regions to improve a CoR “Opinion” — and hence an EU policy — is therefore core CoR business. It’s in the Treaty.

Collecting useful input from regions to improve a CoR “Opinion” - and hence an EU policy - is core CoR business… This immediately makes the entire process more credible

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“If someone is not expecting their constructive contributions to be taken seriously, then their contribution will not be constructive, nor serious.”

Because this is a specific, Treaty-driven policy development process, the participation process is more credible. For the dangers of non-specific participation, see #EUCO Berlusconi TweetWall Syndrome, left.

Moreover, it means that rather than using modern communications techniques to tell everyone what a great job they are doing, the CoR would be using modern communications to do their job better — the best comms tactic of all.

Note: the workshop is exploratory. Neither this post, nor the workshop itself, constitutes any sort of announcement that the CoR will pursue this strategy.


So how could this be organised? Assuming CoR involvement, this is probably the easiest question to answer, as their mission equips them with over 300 ‘local footprints’ through which local contributions can be stimulated, harvested and fed into the EU policymaking process.

For example, every May several hundred local events are held across Europe by organisations involved in the European Week of Regions and Cities (EWRC), which is held in Brussels every October. One can easily imagine:

  • local campaigns in March-April to get local contributions to an upcoming policy, for which the CoR is forming an Opinion
  • discussing the best ideas at the local events in May with other locals, local politicos and someone from the Brussels Bubble (a CoR Member, someone from the local EC Rep, etc.) — i.e, “bringing Europe to the Regions
  • the authors of the best ideas (“Delegates”) are invited to Brussels for the EWRC or another relevant event — i.e., “bringing the Regions to Europe
  • before Brussels: networking Delegates and their ideas together (online) — i.e., “connecting Regions together to exchange ideas and good practice”
  • in Brussels: networking their ideas into the Brussels Bubble policy discussion (face2face)— i..e, “providing Regions with a window to Europe”

These ideas will (I hope) be fleshed out in the workshop, which will also look at how telling Delegates’ stories could communicate both process and policy.

how could telling Delegates’ stories help communicate both process and policy?

Any ideas or suggestions? Connect to contribute, below.

What would be useful to policymakers?

But what sort of contribution, exactly? What inputs would be useful to policymakers, and hence make the process credible to participants?

This depends, of course, on the policy process, and the Institution behind it. In this specific case, we’d be looking for contributions which could influence a CoR Rapporteur’s team as they draft a CoR Opinion on an EU Policy as it passes through the EU’s legislative process.

Of all the key questions, this is the one where I look to the workshop for answers. I personally just don’t have the political background.

For example, my first guess was that everyone wants to hear ‘success stories’ — examples of EU policies & programmes achieving their goal — to ensure new policies and policy updates stimulate more successes like them.

failure stories … can help design failure out of new policies and programmes

But it turns out that my comms background (where success stories are the Lazy Communicator’s Holy Grail) failed me here: the legislators I’ve spoken to are more interested in failure stories. Concrete examples of where EU policies or programmes don’t work, have unintended consequences or are too difficult to use can help them design failure out of new policies and programmes.

Sounds good, but what else would be useful? Connect to contribute, below.

From whom? And why would they bother?

The above What question is inextricably linked to another: Who are the participants making these contributions, and what motivates them? What can we realistically expect from people who are not paid to study these issues all day in their comfortable Brussels offices?

what can we realistically expect from people who are not paid to study these issues all day in their comfortable Brussels offices?

We’re talking about getting contributions to specific policies, so we’re targeting the ground between Facebook slacktivism and lobbying.

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From Online Communities: Slides & Key Take-Aways from EuroPCom 2015

We’re probably asking too much to expect the sort of detailed contributions lobbyists provide, financed as they are by industrial associations and NGO membership.

But we need greater depth than a Like from the mythical “General Public”. It must have substance to be useful.

The 2015 slide, above, positioned participation as one benefit which convening communities offers EU programmes (there are others, to be explored in the workshop). Community Members are more diverse than Lobbyists, but more motivated and knowledgeable than Slacktivists.

Community Members are more diverse than Lobbyists, but more motivated and knowledgeable than Slacktivists.

Participation, moreover, can be a major factor motivating people to join communities. So one starting point is that ‘Community Member’ is one sort of persona we could hope to get input from: someone living in a Region who:

  • is not active in EU policy, but has relevant knowledge and experience
  • has enough commitment to join a community, or submit a contribution
  • values the rewards (visibility, agenda-setting) offered by the process: to take part in local discussions in May; to be sent to Brussels to discuss their ideas with others like them and the denizens of the Brussels Bubble; to potentially influence EU Policy as a result.

Sounds good, but who else? Connect to contribute, below.

Connect to contribute (updated)

All four of us involved in the workshop would be very happy to integrate your case studies and other ideas into the workshop. The easiest way of contributing is to Respond to this post. If you don’t have a Medium account, you’ll find several other options here.

Update: there’s a hashtag (#participatEU), a mailing list and a followup post:

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