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Newsletter, March 2010

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Engaging beyond boundaries

It has become quite common for organisations and individuals in the UK to be consulted on decision-making by public bodies. In most other EU countries, if not all, public and stakeholder engagement is in an earlier stage of development. Although there are superb examples of successful initiatives - take Cologne's award-winning participatory budgeting scheme - they are the exception rather than the rule. You can imagine the challenges that face those who attempt to take engagement to the EU level.

Inconvenient response

Despite the challenges, organisations such as the King Baudoin Foundation in Belgium have started to break new ground over the past decade, and EU decision-makers are increasingly looking to engage with the public and stakeholders. It took an inconvenient response to referenda about the EU's constitutional treaty, back in 2005, for the European Commission to adopt a strategy to encourage citizens' participation on EU matters. The resulting eParticipation programme has bred a collection of projects enabling citizens to engage with EU matters online. Some are more successful than others, but through monitoring and evaluating the programme creates a potential for learning.

Looking at the eParticipation programme and a few deliberative processes that materialised in recent years, the outcomes of the EU's participation strategy can hardly be called revolutionary, but things are irrefutably moving, with the continued European Citizens' Consultations as an interesting example. Building on the experiences of a deliberative process undertaken in 2007, this process enables citizens from all member states to contribute to recommendations about key EU policies, in this case about economic and social affairs.

Flirting with engagement

Where the European Citizens' Consultations were an initiative coming from civil society, EU institutions are increasingly flirting with public and stakeholder engagement. They don't always get it right, as the bad press for the EU 2020 consultation illustrates, but it is encouraging to see that institutions want to go forward with engagement, in spite of its many complications.

Just one of those is the fact that the EU has 23 official languages. Undertaking a written consultation is intricate but altogether feasible; running deliberative events is quite another matter. In some EU-wide processes, public events are held at a national level, after which a lesser number of national delegates meet in a central place where (some) translation services are available. Another possible approach is to cluster people from a number of member states and make sure translation between three or four languages is provided. Less inclusive, but also less expensive, is requiring participants to speak and understand one or two common languages.

And don't believe that by solving language issues, everything will fall into place. Participants' expectations are shaped by their cultural background, which often comes down to nationally cultivated habits. If there are Italian participants in the room as well as British and Dutch, then it will be a proper challenge to get lunch right, both in terms of what is being served and in terms of the time available. Other, more subtle differences are equally likely to occur, for example the level of structure and formality that participants need to feel comfortable deliberating. This is typically something to which German and Austrian participants are somewhat sensitive. You may want to call this stereotyping; I believe it is important to be aware of such nationality-related expectations.

Mutual learning

It is considerations like these that we are dealing with at the moment, as we are involved in advising one of the directorates of the European Commission on an EU-wide stakeholder engagement process. In particular, we are exploring ways to encourage a constructive face-to-face dialogue between a diverse range of stakeholders from different countries. Most stakeholders in this sector are usually concerned with national or regional issues, and they may regard the EU as an externality, a circumstance beyond their influence or even an inconvenience, while others will look to the European policy to drive their agenda at a national level. What will happen if these stakeholders get the opportunity to exchange views on European and national matters with other stakeholders from several member states?

The challenge is not only to enable lively discussions across language boundaries, but also to enhance mutual understanding. And, importantly, mutual learning between the national stakeholders on the one hand and the EC directorate on the other. The expectation is that enabling people to interact with fellow-stakeholders in other countries will help them consider the EU dimension alongside their national reference. The EC directorate in turn should obtain a clearer view of national stakeholders' expectations.

Stakeholder analysis

Clearly, to achieve this, it matters who the stakeholders in the room are. Among 100 to 200 people, there should be a fair degree of balance in terms of nationality and interest, to ensure the discussions can be had in their full extent. To further enhance diversity, it is worth considering criteria like stakeholders' level of influence, their gender and the age range they are in. These considerations were part of the stakeholder analysis we carried out in preparation for the deliberative events.

Carrying out the stakeholder analysis was fascinating, as it comprised working with experts from all 27 member states, each of whom were working on the basis of the same brief and templates. The result is a database with detailed information of 3,000 stakeholders, and meticulously composed invitation lists for the deliberative events. They are, in theory at least, a great premise for a series of exciting events. Events which, because of their rare nature, will certainly produce further insight into the art of multi-language and multi-cultural engagement.

Remco van der Stoep

Further reading:

Cologne participatory budgeting

MOMENTUM, eParticipation website

European Citizens' Consultations

Press about EU 2020 consultation

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