So, farewell thematic portals on EUROPA

Imported from the Blogactiv.eu blogging platform, closed without warning in 2021. Links, images and embeds not guaranteed, and comments not displayed.

Constructive discussions generally require good discussion documents. One of the Commission's major contributions to any European online space should therefore be a EUROPA that supports the conversations - setting out What it (and the EU) does, Why and How it does it to the 'interested public', in their language. A pilot project explored one way forward.

Disclosure: I was the chief architect of this project, while working at DG INFSO. This means being one of the project's advocates within the Commission, which I left 2 years ago. Some people could therefore be forgiven for thinking that I am a hopeless case, still banging on an old drum after all these years...

The truth is that when I left INFSO kindly allowed me to share a slidecast with my new colleagues via our company's training extranet, and have now permitted me to share it with a wider audience. Given that EUROPA will have a major role to play in the emerging online European community, here is that slidecast.

First, some background

The genesis of this project was the "EUROPA 2nd Generation" Communication of 2001, which tasked INFSO with leading a cross-EC pilot project to create a thematic portal, which would provide (my emphases):

"an integrated & unique entry point ... to a complete range of information and services on the Information Society policies and activities of the Commission ... without the need to know the organisational complexity behind the scene"

Like any pilot project, the idea was to explore possibilities and report back. In this case, we were looking to see if and how EUROPA could be improved using a thematic, cross-EC approach. Eventually, the hope was, the thematic approach would be extended to other Institutions, but the priority was to 'get the Commission's house in order'. So we assembled a cross-EC Editorial Board, bringing together the DGs most concerned with ICT policy, figured out how to meet the above mission statement, and implemented it. The resulting approach and the site is set out in this slidecast, but please note that this short film was originally made last year for publication on our company's training extranet, so don't expect anything slick:

Running notes:

  • 0 - 01:55: introduction, problem statement
  • 01:55 - 02:45: the thin layer of cross-EC thematic portals
  • 02:45 - 04:43: a theme page dissected: explaining EU added value to interested non-specialists; improved navigation; Newsroom Items by theme from across the EC.
  • 04:43 - 06:30: a theme page dissected (cont): feasible multilingualism
  • 06:30 - 09:23: results in summary, see below. (with my son, William, calling me to dinner halfway through!)
  • 09:23 - 10:37: a brief tour of the portal's home page and a detailed look at its Transport theme page

As you'll see from the slidecast, the main outcomes included an editorial architecture aimed squarely at the 'interested general public' (e.g., in this case, interested in the field of Information Society).

Crucially, this editorial approach was feasibly multilingual. I don't think I can stress enough how important that was.

We also figured out the required organisational approach and developed some technology which was - for the Commission - reasonably innovative.

Despite being rather limited in our choice of technologies, we were the first in the EC to use RSS and XML syndication, and introduced the first (and still the only???) completely decentralised, cross-EC publication workflows.

And, of course, we launched the site itself. I don't think I'd surprise anyone by mentioning that the key problem was organisational, aggravated by both inter-DG competition and resource scarcity (this was before the No votes in France and the Netherlands, when communications were not the priority they are today).

Even then, we got more support from the other involved DGs than you'd have thought. It all boiled down to the individuals we could enthuse, really.

Underpinning the conversation

It should be noted that this was never meant to be the full solution for EUROPA, just one piece of the puzzle. But I'm more exercised by what we didn't achieve, rather than what we did.

Back in 2001, for example, I saw thematic portals as the natural home for interactivity and discussion with non-specialist audiences - the idea was that once the basic portals described above were in place, we'd add forums, polls, etc. By the time we got the site up, however, it was clear that the Institutions needed to go where the discussions are.

However, I still think that they - and everyone else - need something like a suite of thematic portals to back up these discussions. I mean by this that anyone involved in social media discussions on EU affairs should have somewhere to link to whenever they need to explain to (frequently sceptical) non-specialised audiences:

  • why the EU is active in the area being discussed - i.e., explain the logic of EU added value in the field (aka 'answering the subsidiarity question') - and provide examples
  • what the EU is doing - i.e., provide rich links to everything the Institutions do in the field, as well as latest news, events, publications, etc,
  • and do this in as many languages as possible.

First in, first out

The Information Society Thematic Portal was the first, but several more followed, all with a different approach as teams experimented with the same problems we encountered and found different solutions. Not all actually constituted formal cross-EC Editorial Boards, for example, while some (to be frank) called themselves portals but were in fact nothing more than just another DG website.

The ones which did the job properly improved the ant colony of EUROPA subsites. But EUROPA didn't become thematic, and now INFSO tells me that they're replacing the thematic layer with something else. It is 5 years old, after all. That's the life of a pilot project. 

I'd say that the project had a reasonable impact on the internal debate on EUROPA's future, with the basic multilingualism strategy being endorsed, central concepts such as 'thin thematic layer' entering the general EUROPA lexicon, and several DGs adopting the Newsroom. But the project set out an ambitious vision in organisational terms, with cross-EC editorial boards, interlinked centralised and decentralised publication systems, and so on. Possibly too ambitious. A new top level of EUROPA is on its way. I saw a preview earlier this year, and it looks like an improvement on what they have today, which is (in fairness) better than it was in 2002, when I started out. Watch this space ...

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