Framing the question: less Europe is sad, more is shocking (and we value your vote for the Facebook luv)

The limits of public participation in policy

Mathew Lowry
5 min readSep 26, 2017


Did participants in the ‘Future of Europe’ process influence President Juncker’s State of the European Union speech, as promised? Of course not. Rightly.

I’m happy to be proven wrong, but it looks like thousands of ‘Future of Europe’ participants wasted their time: while they voted and commented on the EU Commission’s five different future “scenarios for EUrope”, President Juncker proposed a sixth, based on his “own personal experience”.

But while it’s a shame that exercises like this continue poisoning the well and providing Eurosceptics with ammunition, at least they’ll help us explore the limits of public policy participation at Europe’s Week of Regions and Cities.


Earlier this year the EU Commission promised that feedback via the ‘Future of Europe’ participation process would influence President Juncker’s State of the Union address of September 13 — a key agenda-setting moment for Europe:

5 scenarios: ideas welcome

At around the same time, my proposed European Week of Regions and Cities (EWRC) workshop on EU policy participation was accepted.

I was therefore on the lookout for examples of public participation in EU policymaking:

I couldn’t have asked for a more ambitious example — Future of Europe made its participants an enormous promise, for two reasons:

  • Volume: according to the EC, by July they had already held 1,750 physical and online events, at which they presumably received a few ideas each. Add to that 1000s of contributions I’m guessing they got via their multilingual online platform, plus well over 100,000 tweets and God Knows how many Facebook comments. That’s a lot of contributions. How did they plan to make sense of it and extract something useful?
  • Importance: The State of the Union is always an important agenda-setter, but this one — almost midway between Brexit vote and Brexit itself — was particularly important in setting Europe’s future direction, and was to be described by Politico as a momentous step.

So I asked, using every channel I could find, how they planned to process So Many Contributions to usefully inform Something That Important:

No answers, no surprises

No Answer - and rightly so

Noone should be surprised I got no answer — after all, how could the EC possibly address one of those 1000s of comments, questions and Tweets? It would take an army, which could surely be put to better use.

But if they don’t have the resources to answer one question, how could they process thousands of contributions to actually influence Juncker’s speech?

More to the point, should they? Should Facebook Likes influence Europe’s future direction, given that its inscrutable algorithm will skew who sees the consultation?

More to the point, should they? How does a ‘Future of Europe’ participation process fit with representative democracy? Should Facebook Likes influence Europe’s future direction, given that its inscrutable, US-based algorithm will skew who sees the consultation?

Does anyone really think that EU leaders, as they do whatever it is they do at these events, are glancing at Twitter for policy ideas?” (screenshot: Jon Worth)

As stated earlier, I’d be happy to see evidence that Future of Europe was not a democracy-washing exercise.

Until then, it’s looks more like the time anti-Berlusconi activists hijacked the 2010 EU Council Tweetwall. As I said at the time, “People aren’t idiots. They know they won’t have any constructive influence via Twitter… would probably agree that they shouldn’t. If people are not expecting constructive contributions to be taken seriously, their contribution will not be constructive, nor serious”. (2010).

Success criteria for public participation

If Future of Europe demonstrated what cannot be done via public participation, can it show us what is feasible?

There are quite a few ideas and case studies on our shortlist for the EWRC session. We’ll be exploring those which meet these success criteria:

  • specific: participation processes focusing on a specific policy (circular economy, SME innovation support, etc), not something general and vague
  • transparent: processes where participants clearly see that they will be able to see if and how their contributions are taken on board
  • focused audience: processes addressed to people with enough Subject Matter Expertise to contribute meaningfully, even if they know nothing about the EU, rather than the ‘general public’
  • resource credibility: processes where participants can see sufficient resources in place to process their contributions
  • institutional credibility: processes which extend an existing policy development process, rather than a one-off communications exercise
From the archives: Participation Success Factors: a quick followup (2014)

These factors, build on an 2014 exercise (left), and are mutually-reinforcing: a participation process for a specific policy, for example, is only of interest to focused audiences, which will make contribution volumes manageable, lowering resource requirements and hence increasing resource credibility.

Any other success factors? Connect to contribute

All four of us involved in the EWRC workshop would be very happy to integrate your case studies and other ideas. The easiest way is to Respond to this post. No Medium account? Other options here.

Update: there’s a hashtag (#participatEU), a mailing list and more than one followup post tagged EWRC on my Hub.

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