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Found in translation 8 April 2016

Posted by cooperatoby in Uncategorized.
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Every Christmas my cousins ask me what it is I actually do in Brussels and every year they claim they still don’t understand. Waiting to board a plane for Manchester at Charleroi on Tuesday to go to Keith Richardson‘s funeral, I piloted the following non-technocratic response: “We help European governments to improve their employment, inclusion and training policies by learning from each other” – and it worked brilliantly. The young woman who’d asked said she’d started to turn off when she heard the word ‘government’ but it sounded really interesting. I’m glad to say: it is.

It reminds me of the dictum attributed to Einstein that if you can’t explain something to your grandma then you don’t understand it. Here’s the more technical version.

Social Impulse – a brand for urban and social CLLD? 12 December 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in EU, journalism.
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Event flowAt the Telling the Story conference yesterday, the Commission took the offensive to stem the tide of negative feelings about the EU. It assembled 800 communications professionals to help them to ‘tell the story’ about the good work the EU does with its various funds. According to Pascal Chelala of Eurobarometer, the public image of the EU has been in steady decline since 2007. But the trend is the opposite among people who have heard of the EU’s funds – here the approval rating is on the rise. Awareness of the ESF has risen by 4% in the last few years – to 44%. However the proportion of people who actually have heard of the EU funds varies widely – from 80% in Poland to only 10% in the UK. That explains a lot.
The event was both innovative and nostalgic for me. The pleasant nostalgia came from the fact that it was held in the Square, the conference centre that commands the Mont des Arts, with a panoramic view of Brussels. When it housed the Economic and Social Committee it was the first official building I came to in Brussels, for a CECOP general meeting in 1985. We used to meet in the Salle Europe (now the Arc), and I remember being amazed at the institutional welfare state which sold me coffee at only 10 francs (24 cents nowadays).

A new style of conference

The innovation was the open and participative style, aided by a comedy duet and graphic visualisation – i.e. cartoons.
Commissioner Johannes Hahn made the plea that regional policy should be seen as an investment policy with a return in terms of solidarity and welfare, and hence must apply across the whole EU and not be limited to the least developed parts. His colleague Dacian Cioloş pointed out that nowadays the CAP has territorial and social dimensions, and supports the production of social good such as biodiversity. It was good that Zoltán Kazatsay, deputy head of the Employment DG, chose to preface his speech with a testimony from an actual ESF beneficiary, Brigitte Debey. Lowri Evans, head of the Fisheries DG, was impressively to-the-point: the fisheries reform will mean more fish and more jobs – perhaps 7 million of them in coastal areas. She instanced Northern Irish fisherman Sam Cully, whose life was saved by an EU-supplied lifejacket. Nevertheless, journalists complained that the sort of firm information on real projects that they need to ‘tell the story’ is infuriatingly hard to obtain.
The high point was a masterclass in storytelling from Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans and a controversial biography of Mao Zedong. She told us how it as to live through the cultural revolution, and signed copies of her new book on Empress Dowager Cixi – the woman who abolished the torture known as foot binding

Gamification is the way to go

I learnt a lot about using social media from two expert contributors. Sean MacNiven, Head of Communications Innovation at SAP, talked about the trend to ‘gamification’. People like playing computer games because they have are clear goals and rules, they give constant feedback, you are allowed to fail, and you are promoted on merit. So a game like Farmville could be used to promote agricultural policy. This is not such a silly idea – look at what Sim City has done for town planning. His main reference is Gabe Zichermann, who says what motivates learning is the ‘3 Fs’: feedback, friends and fun.
Aurélie Valtat, the Council’s Digital Communications Manager, was also impressive. She encouraged communicators to think in terms of messages not ‘lines to take’ (rebuttals). Using social media is a matter of starting with an existing community and turning it into an audience: for instance the Employment DG started Social Europe after consulting the relevant NGOs. She advised communicators to be prepared for adverse reactions – which, where government is concerned, there will always be. “If you offend no one, it’s a sure way to be forgettable.”

Telling the story about CLLD

I contributed to the workshop on ‘communicating CLLD’ by presenting the case of Portugal’s Programa Escolhas (‘Choices’), a national ESF programme that has trained 220,000 young people, mostly of migrant origin. It operates in 110 places across the country, with an €8m annual budget. It is successful, having reintegrated 10,000 people into education or work, and given 14,000 of them IT qualifications – at a cost per participant day of just 42 cents. It undertakes two distinct communication operations:
• to partners and potential clients, via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Ning etc. It has produced 365 ‘life stories’ and has a weekly slot on national television.
• to institutions. It has maintained unwavering political support for 12 years by providing robust evidence of its effectiveness, through 20 impact indicators, calculations of social return, and thorough external evaluation.
Everyone in the workshop knew and approved of CLLD, and we saw some excellent examples of communicating it – see the video by Dreckly Fish in Cornwall, which was produced for €600! Thomas Müller of the LEADER group in Sauwald, Austria, gave us an excellent 8-point plan for putting CLLD over to local people.
The conclusions were that we are strong at putting out success stories of changed lives and livelihoods, but how do you explain the processes that produced them? The building of alliances and the negotiation of funding streams are riveting to very few. And the concept of CLLD is complex. Maybe LEADER has been over-codified, suggested our chair, Paul Soto. Its seven principles were developed in response to a Court of Auditors report, but in adapting the method to tackle urban and social problems, we may need to slim them down to the essentials: delegation of power and user participation. In towns, there is often no clearly delimited geographical area, there is a multitude of interested parties, and there are overlapping communities.
CLLD is a funding mechanism not a brand. Rural policy has the LEADER brand, and coastal policy the FARNET brand. So what is needed is a brand for urban and social CLLD – ‘Social Impulse’ was suggested.

Inexplicably popular posts 28 September 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in journalism, Uncategorized.
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An introspective recursive post – a chart showing my top posts.

Why do things ‘trend’? What little can we learn?

– personal recommendation is the biggest factor

– a fairly literal title

– people like photos

– referrals from other sites can make a big difference (how otherwise to explain the popularity of a 4-year-old post about trams in Antalya?) but you can’t tell where on earth these come from.
130928 blog reads chart

130928 blog reads origin

Content should be king 12 November 2012

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It’s been very interesting to have spent the first few minutes and hours of each day recently with steadily widening eyes not because of waking up but because of the latest development at the BBC. It was very heartening this morning to hear two of the great and the good standing up for the values of public service broadcasting. They made similar points: Liz Forgan (Scott Trust) said that ‘compliance’ should never have been separated from editorial judgement, and David Dimbleby said that the management had betrayed a committed workforce. Every time there were cuts, more managers were brought in to manage the cuts, leaving no one to care about the content. So we have a revolt of professional craftspeople against the generic profession of ‘management’ in the abstract.
There’s hope in this, as it’s fundamental to an ethical view of work and business – that you carry it on in order to do it well, not to extract the maximum that you can from it. Any profit you make is a by-product, not the objective. The grilling that the Public Accounts Committee is giving wealth-extractors Starbucks, Amazon and (gulp) Google echoes this very aptly. It’s a joy to behold, and abut time too. It’s a shame it takes the sort of crisis we are in to loosen parliament’s self-restraint.
These observations reminded me of the time in my own career when a layer of management was brought in over my editorial head. It distanced me from the customer, and instrumentalised me. Rather than being the co-creator of a well-crafted product, I was just a machine for churning out a specified number of words by a specified date. The business seemed to believe that its added value was in manipulating the communications channel – the web – rather than the information it was conveying. I felt pushed to the periphery of the organisation, and sure enough I eventually fell out of it. I like to think it was their loss!
It is ironic that Forgan and Dimbleby were being interviewed by the man, John Humphreys, who savaged George Entwistle so hard at the weekend that by the time the day was out he was toast. It’s as if the single most desirable characteristic in a leader is not judgement but combativeness. ?it makes good headlines but I’m not sure it’s the best way to run a railway

Groupthink 21 September 2012

Posted by cooperatoby in journalism.

I was struck by whether the mushrooming of information via the internet actually improves the quality of our thinking. In theory it ought to; nowadays we can instantly resolve most of our factual doubts – indeed I love nothing more than resolving a dinner-table quandary by looking it up on Wikipedia. And of course I contribute to Wikipedia, a project I deeply believe in, frustrating though it can be at times. However as any Google search will show, an awful lot of what is on the web is derivative and self-referential. There are too many parasites who ‘scrape’, ‘spin’ and ‘morph’ existing content in order to attract readers. I remember the odd feeling when I first came across something I’d written myself on someone else’s website – a mixture of pride and outrage (a bit like the Duchess of Cambridge at the moment maybe?). So error and confusion can multiply rapidly. It may be true that two heads are better than one, but crowdsourcing your opinions doesn’t always give you a more balanced view. Furthermore the sharing of opinion does not necessarily lead to an increase in understanding – witness the recent report that there are two tribes of bloggers whose opinions never meet – they are no more than opposing megaphones. (And curiously, the style of the blogs mirror their content: left-wing blogs invite comment and debate, whereas right-wing ones don’t!) Hence the importance of original reporting and principled journalism. And that’s why I love doing case studies! ‘Analysis’ and ‘synthesis’ often means the imposition of a set of blinkers on reality, not a probing for it inherent truth.

An exception has to be made in scientific domains such as medicine, where the internet does allow meta-studies to aggregate the results of many studies, which moves knowledge forward faster.

Hidden agendas 27 October 2011

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I’ve just been impressed by the subtle way that journalists influence political debate. On the BBC’s Today programme, Evan Davies has just had a perfectly civilised conversation with Guy Verhofstadt, now an MEP but previously Belgium’s prime minister. How different from last week on Newsnight, where Jeremy Paxman permitted himself to be extremely rude to Mr Verhofstadt. Introducing him casually as “He used to run Belgium,” (my grandmother used to say “She is the cat’s mother”) Paxman went on to ask him whether he would welcome Britain contributing to the euro bailout fund. When Mr Verhofstadt unsurprisingly answered that of course he would welcome it, Paxman then jumped in to deride him with the most extraordinary comment: “Spoken like a loyal Belgian”. This portmanteau combines two insults: to the concept of loyalty as well as to the country of Belgium. He implies that being loyal to Belgium is somehow a bad or ridiculous thing. I don’t think a respected journalist can permit himself to be so high and mighty. No one elected Paxman, and he should remember that. I wonder what clubbable spirit promoted him to be far more courteous to his studio guests, one of whom was the previous editor of the Economist.

Perhaps the difference is in the target audience between Radio 4 and BBC 2 television. Perhaps the difference is that Evan Davies has ventured onto Belgian turf, at the Euro Summit, whereas Paxman was sitting back in the comfort of his own armchair, railing at Mr Verhofstadt, who was imprisoned behind a screen. Perhaps it’s that Paxman is subconsciously promoting his recent book on the British Empire. Perhaps it’s that he is genuinely rattled by the peril that the world’s economic stability is in. At any rate, it shows the British political culture in a bad light, with knockabout journalism uncomfortably close to the real fisticuffs that routinely take place in the Italian parliament.

Devaluing journalism 6 June 2009

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“A newspaper is a package of content – politics, sport, share prices, weather and so forth – which exists to attract eyeballs to advertisements.” So declaimed one of the Economist‘s leader writers on 16th May. This stunning piece of reductionism is almost enough to make one cancel one’s subscription! Yes, it’s very clever to turn the world upside down – in reality adverts exist only to support editorial – but it is self-contradictory as well as nihilistic. Ironically, the article to which it refers analyses the decline of the “department store” newspaper and the corresponding rise of the specialist news outlet, working on the principle that the smaller the audience for a story, the more willing its readers will be to pay for it. Surely this implies that readers have more choice – and it is certainly not advertisements they are seeking. These are a necessary evil, and people avoid them where possible, as the continuing primacy of the BBC shows. People need a meaning, and papers need a purpose and a set of principles. Readers are much more interested in the values that their reading matter embodies than the Economist admits. The Economist itself was founded to promote free trade, and it can’t do it by denying its own values.

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