How to navigate the swamps and paradoxes
a special guest post by Vincenzo Le Voci, Secretary-General of the European Union’s Club of Venice
Europe’s great project was founded in the aftermath of two global conflicts to achieve one great ambition: a better Europe, enshrined with democratic rights and values to be enjoyed by every one of its citizens. To the surprise of nobody, it has proven to be a long process. It has required clear views, much good will and common sense, clever and experienced diplomacy, and the collective effort of very able and forward-looking statesmen.
Nor has it been easy. It has taken nearly three generations to grow from a group of six countries, struggling to shrug off the aftermath of horrible war, to a family of 28 Member States committed to consolidate friendship and cooperation. Each has its own peculiarities, culture, history and national pride. And each of them has a strong, individual role in delivering this extraordinary partnership which transcends old resentments, jealousies, and misunderstandings.
Europe’s great achievement is rightly described as “unity in diversity.”
Nevertheless, on the eve of a crucial moment – the European Parliamentary elections in May 2014 – Europe is enmeshed in a framework of paradoxes:
- Europe hesitates to instil democratic values when consolidating solidarity and cohesion within its borders; it promotes them loudly outside EU borders; whilst looking on as people protest and die for those same European values in countries like Ukraine
- Europe fosters sustainable recovery whilst national governments fail to sustain internal coalitions (even those with strong majorities)
In the field of communication,
- Despite the imperative to communicate using local methods and values, Europe struggles to promote this approach and hesitates to decentralise communication management and planning
- Europe wants to invest in innovative interactive tools, but often penalises the most effective traditional media methods – and overlooks important sectors of the audience
- EU institutions fight to enhance and reinforce work in partnership, whilst behind the scenes they dismantle the most effective partnership models without any explanation and despite positive evaluations
- Worst of all, Europe wants its public communicators to find common targets and speak to citizens about common growth and social welfare. However, nothing stems the “blame game” – in every country, the great enemy to national progress is Eurocrats and bureaucracy, but any credit for a welcome new law goes to national negotiators. There is never acknowledgement of the EU’s capacity to facilitate dialogue and negotiation.
There are other examples of this schizophrenic approach. Europe’s founding fathers – generations of men of cultural talent like Albert Camus who fought for Europe’s ideals – would turn in their grave. (Camus said: “The European civilization is first and foremost a pluralistic civilization. I want to say that it is the diversity of ideals, of opposites, contrasting values and dialectic without synthesis. The dialectic of living in Europe is the one that does not lead to a kind of ideology at the same time totalitarian and orthodox.”)
How can public communicators survive in this maëlström? It is difficult to describe how difficult it can be to seek synergies, to speak coherently to citizens in an atmosphere of global crisis, or how difficult it can be to convey clear messages from the political establishment to citizens.
Is it realistic to speak about an “inter-agency” formula for public communication in Europe? Is it conceivable to describe elaborate strategies for passing messages from national to regional to local level and the other way around? Is it possible to believe that while politicians in the grand European coalition don’t talk to each other, public communicators can find a way to talk, to trust each other and share best practice, and maybe try to build trans-national projects?
Actually, everything can happen, provided that we can capitalize from successful examples, safeguard know-how and grant and treasure continuity. There is always a way to design communication localised to meet citizens’ expectations (“what’s in it for me?”) and to respect our wide variety of languages, and cultures. We must fight the prejudicial stereotype that everything bad flows from the centre of Europe, and all good comes from local governments.
Finding synergies in our “old continent” to “go local” with one voice remains the biggest challenge, not least because global crisis tends to drive us apart. Nevertheless, while this remains a situation that will not be improved easily or soon, it is of great note that several governments and EU institutions have developed a culture of inter-agency cooperation. They include the “Be relevant” approach in the Dutch government, the “MindLab” inter-ministerial platform set up in Denmark, the coordination put in place within the UK Government Communication services, the newly established German Ministry of Digital Infrastructure. These are just a few concrete examples of a determination to connect key elements of ministries and agencies. The ultimate goal remains to reach out to citizens, optimize public services and gain citizens’ trust. We need to use every platform available for broad and pro-active consultation, and strive to give everyone pride in playing an important part in the process.
It is obvious that connections among national, regional and local authorities; and between them and civil society (all non governmental organisations); and between them and EU institutions and bodies and international organizations are crucial. But making these connections must be guided by a vision. A clear understanding of the mission, its values and objectives, allows well-motivated communicators to act with professionalism. This is why today’s efforts to invest in and promote communication training ethics and transparency will pay off in Europe and elsewhere.
In his Politics and the English Language, George Orwell highlighted that political communication can be “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” This danger remains; and so we should remain vigilant, while building a safer and better future. We must continue to learn from history, drawing on solid social-cultural roots and good principles.
It is was no accident that Altiero Spinelli, one of the founding fathers of Europe, believed that European integration needed to draw inspiration from the founding principles of the Constitution of the United States of America.
Vincenzo Le Voci has worked on information policy, communication strategies and transparency issues since 2001 and is currently coordinating the agenda of the EU Council’s Working Party on Information (Members States’ press and information officers). In 2011 he was appointed Secretary-General of the Club of Venice, the network of the communication directors from EU member states, candidate countries and institutions. Before joining the EU in 1992, he worked for NATO as Housing Manager for the United States Air Forces in Europe (1985-1991).
This guest blog post is part of NAGC’s continuing partnership with our international counterparts. NAGC is dedicated to bringing together and learning from the best minds in government communications around the globe.