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What the EU’s Mobile Roaming success taught me about innovation in bureaucracies

Europe’s success in eliminating mobile roaming charges may be the first “data4policy” case study where the data was website traffic, and illustrates the rewards of allowing innovation to flourish at the edges of large organisations.

a major success story … if success is measured by popularity

The EU’s Roaming Saga is a major success story only if success is measured in terms of popularity. In fact, the end of this story is terrible news for the EC’s Department for Communications (“DG COMM”), who’ve been wringing it dry for over a decade.

But first, a little history

For me, the story started when I was on holiday in Northern Bretagne in July, 2005. I was listening, for the sheer novelty value, to BBC Five Live, which reached across the Channel into my car as I waited for my wife to return with baguettes and croissants. I was on holiday, in a relaxed and happy mood.

And then Martin Selmayr came on the radio

Until Martin Selmayr, spokesman for European Commissioner Viviane Reding, came on the radio and explained that the European Commission was going to “build an interactive website where every European could check real prices and see for themselves the reality of roaming charges across Europe”.

This is not a Heroic Web-Building Tale

The world does not need another Heroic Web-Building Tale, but to explain my point I need to explain why it was vital that the site rocked. So bear with me.

Data journalism, without data visualisation

The EC was proposing a Regulation, not announcing one. With around 10% of mobile operators’ profits coming from roaming, they had a battle ahead.

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One sort of data will lead to another

Data4Policy: crashing your webserver helps

That evening I saw a screenshot of the site on the BBC 1 evening news, and that month it got as much traffic as the entire cross-EC Information Society Portal which hosted it. That site traffic crashed EUROPA, the EC’s million-document webserver. We had to write a note. It went to Reding’s Cabinet.

allowing citizens to explore the story and the data themselves was completely new

Because that internet traffic (apparently) mattered. In building a case for her Regulation, Reding faced stiff opposition from the Commission’s Vice President for Industry, Günter Vodafone (OK, Verheugen), one of whose predecessors announced his move to Spanish telco Telefonica while still at the Commission. The industry didn’t like Reding’s proposal, and neither did he.

The web traffic data proved her right

The EU’s Constitution had been rejected by France and the Netherlands that Spring. Barroso needed a good story. He sided with Reding.

Innovation starts at the Edge

Which is ironic, because if DG COMM and the Commission’s central IT department (“DIGIT”) had had their way, we would never have been able to build that website.

an integrated team of communicators and developers

At INFSO, however, we had our own developers, and freedom to act. That flexibility was crucial, and stemmed from the DG’s genesis as a ‘task force’, with its own team of web developers, in the 1990s. Somehow INFSO’s Comms Unit had managed to hang on to them, creating an integrated developers-alongside-communicators team that most 20th century organisations (private or public) would not achieve for 5–10 more years.

Innovation rarely escapes the Edge

Another example shows how over-centralisation can prevent innovations being mainstreamed across large organisations.

EUROPA would have been better, earlier, if it had not taken 12 years to mainstream this innovation

Today Newsroom is used by almost 2000 EC publishers, publishes into over 60 environments, and manages 600,000 subscribers of over 200 newsletters. Call it a success story if you like, but I can’t help think that EUROPA would have been better, earlier, if it had not taken 12 years to mainstream this innovation across the Commission.

Centralised economies of scale v. Decentralised innovation

This post is not an attack on centralised IT services.

  • the Newsroom could have been mainstreamed a full decade earlier, benefiting the Commission greatly.

Centralised services: lowest common denominator

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I never claimed to be an artist
  • impose uniformity in look and feel, message, etc.

Centralisation can save money, create critical mass and bring order to chaos

However, by definition it results in:

  • rules on what is and is not allowed - innovation-stifling, by definition.

The Mother of Invention lives at the Edge

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Centralised services cannot be expected to understand the diverse specialised needs of the many diverse DGs along the organisation’s edge.

Centralised services are not being ‘anti-innovation’ — they’re simply doing their job

Centralised services are not being ‘anti-innovation’ — they’re simply doing their job: creating economies of scale and bringing order to chaos. But in the process they create conditions which prevent their clients (the DGs) meeting the specific needs of their clients — European citizens.

Balancing centralisation and innovation

So it was a perfectly natural for the Commission, facing the monster-that-was-EUROPA, to centralise control and bring the Beast to order.

Innovation pipelines: from Edge to Centre, and Back

There are many forms of innovation pipeline. In this particular case, it exists to ‘funnel’ innovations developed from the Edge into the Centre, from where they are Mainstreamed out to the rest of the organisation.

Probably shouldn’t have bought that Surface Pro
  1. the Centre helps polish and refine the proposal, in the process:
  • clustering similar ideas together and building a Movement around them
  • imposing innovation management best practices (ringfenced resources, top-level support, fixed evaluation deadline, clear success definitions and metrics, etc.)
  • kills the bad ones
  • doesn’t get in the way of good ones

A supporting culture

The Newsroom followed this path, but it took 12 years because it faced a decade of headwinds as it traveled down that funnel. That headwind was cultural resistance.

  • pilots are encouraged, and failure is a possible outcome
  • the modus operandi is partnership, not rivalry
  • innovations — and innovators — are celebrated, not feared

Further reading:

Written by

Piloting innovative online communications since 1995. Editor: Founder: Personal Hub:

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