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Identifying effective networking and communication strategies in a European development context

Date
Time (GMT +01) 00:00 23:59

Speakers:

Simon Mawell - ODI

Julius Court - ODI

Peter Gee - ODI

Ben Ramalingam - ODI

Opening

Ramesh Jaura, President of Euforic, welcomed the participants and gave an introduction of the seminar programme, reminding us that this is Euforic’s 8th Annual General Meeting as a cooperative in its 10 years of existence and highlighting the concept of Euforic that is focused on the effective dissemination of development information via a logical website, aimed at affecting policy.

Ramesh underlined that networking is the backbone of today’s information society in a globalising world. Further he drew attention to the role of civil society in development, stating that misinformation doesn’t help to forge citizenry.

This year’s AGM takes place at a critical moment when several high level meetings address the critical development issues at stake, providing windows of opportunity. The UK is a key actor in this process, holding the EU Presidency and hosting the G8 summit, in addition to the Make Poverty History Campaign. He thanked ODI as a core member of Euforic, for its generous support in preparing and hosting this meeting.

Simon Maxwell, Director of ODI, talked about what he called ‘Europe’s year of destiny’, referring to the new Commission and the revision of the Development Policy Statement, the doubling of aid, the international summits on for instance the MDGs and trade. This provides a unique opportunity for development organizations to take up challenges.

He illustrated this by explaining the role of the ‘thinktank’ ODI, in its capacity of a ‘policy entrepreneur’ and wishing to make a difference in the world. The policy process faces the development researchers with the dichotomy of long term and short term demands versus a proactive or reactive attitude.

For policy oriented research to be effectively communicated, the researchers and their organisations need to be good storytellers, networkers, engineers and strategists. Work needs to be done across geographical and sectoral boundaries. This is applied in the EDC 2010 project (www.ecd2010.net) in which Euforic also participates. The dilemma is how to structure and manage a wealth of information in a dynamic setting. It needs to be structured and disseminated according to the demands of the user and in a planned and strategic way.

What makes networks effective in influencing policy

Introducing this session, Huub Mudde, Coordinator of Euforic, referred to the theme and lessons of the 2004 AGM focusing on the social nucleus as the basis for e-debate and communication. Influencing policy requires a dynamic group, content that matters, and insights into how the outside world perceives you. The objectives of this seminar focus on which information strategies are employed in following the user perspective, and the future of the Internet landscape.

Julius Court, Research Fellow RAPID Programme ODI, gave a presentation based on the editorial of the May issue of the Euforic Newsletter (http://www.euforic.org/detail_page.phtml?&page=about_newsletter_editoria...). He highlighted the invisibility of many networks, however being true centres of power, in their capacity to link research and policy. In this relation, the credibility of evidence is a crucial matter, particularly since policy is subject to many external influences. Often information is shared by bypassing formal structures and networks can play a complementary role to these. Specific attention needs to be given to the role of civil society as an actor in the policy process.

Julius stated that in European development cooperation there is a lot of fragmentation so converging is essential to be more effective. He described six different types of networks, explaining how each structure can best fit one specific function. Concluding with ten factors of successful networking, he pointed the audience’s attention to some of them, among which the complementarities with official structures and the good use of ICTs. The dimension of the networks may also matter, but more in terms of ‘quality’ than in terms of ‘quantity’. Euforic and other networks could take the discussion forward.

Gordana Stankovic, European Programme SID Netherlands, explained that the goals of the SID European Programme have a long term nature. To date, the main activities were two conferences in Vienna and The Hague. The former dealing with the relation between EU enlargement and development cooperation aiming at strengthen focal point in the new Member States. The latter concentrated on the future of EU development policy and the role of parliamentarians, while building bridges between various sectors and civil society.

The methodology is to realise these objectives with a networking perspective, building partnerships in a complementary way. It is obvious that these processes suffer from constraints but the lessons learnt are that measuring impact and influence are very beneficial.

Birgit Habermann, representing ETFRN, explained the role of the network enhancing the exchange of information, coordinating research and building bridges between research and policy. This is reflected in the set up of the ETFRN website.

With regard to management, a clear network perspective is imperative to be successful and to create added value: interaction of various levels; combining research with policy; knowledge dissemination; target audiences; focal points in various countries. The constraints reside particularly in the relation between policy and research because of low policy support and an insufficient number of policy makers participating in the network, as well as few researchers being activists. On the short term, ETFRN’s main challenges are the revision of the governance structure and it’s financing.

Robin Schofield of Accenture, a private sector company, described development organisations as ‘public policy shapers’. In relation to electronic communication issues, he recognises various stages in ‘internet maturity’, of which ‘insight’ is the highest stage that can be achieved. A major question is how policy makers can draw conclusions from all the information that is presented to them, since it is not just a simple aggregation and analysis of raw data.

He concluded by saying that ICT is rapidly becoming the new electricity and suggested that organisations should include knowledge management costs in their funding proposals.

David Steven, Managing Director of River Path Associates, gave a presentation on the so called ‘social technologies’, explaining their advantages and complementarities vis-à-vis centralised technologies. In this context, flexibility is essential since heavily centralised networks lack resilience.

Weblogs, in particular, seem to be rather effective tools to create an easy to manage, focused, dynamic and immediate information exchange via the Internet.

This approach was used at several occasions during UN summits to quickly create live websites, focusing on building content. However, it should be noted that the precondition is the availability of a team of content developers who can liberate some of their time for projects with a limited duration, and the concept only works in a flexibel and open environment. It has the capacity to energise people and to create grassroots movements geared towards social change.

David Wendt, Monitoring and Evaluation Officer of ID21, characterised the project as a knowledge pool communicating research to policy. To understand the use and impact of the project, extensive research was done, of which the results are available on line at http://www.id21.org/id21-info/impact.html. The objective was to get an understanding of the users. Networks and policy communities are difficult to target since they are complex, diverse and dynamic.

David concluded by stating that one should be realistic in this kind of exercise and not overestimate people’s use of the Internet.

Isolina Boto of the Brussels office of CTA, also referred to people’s limitations to participate effectively in the policy debate. Networks can be tools to address this deficit, but to be effective and to enhance the interaction between researchers, policy makers and community based actors need to match the common needs and expectations of their members. Besides which, networks like CTA focused on the ACP-EU context, need not only inform different actors but also obtain feedback from these same actors, so improving their capacity to produce, manage and use information. Several factors such as time, financial sustainability and willingness to collaborate may challenge networks’ capacity to be effective.

Combining more traditional and electronic information tools, CTA has launched in February 2005 the CTA Brussels weblog. This has in fact been seen as the most effective way to combine scarce financial resources with the request of different kinds of information raised by ACP actors. The idea of CTA is to further develop this weblog, but to do so collaboration with other information networks is essential.

Peter Gee, ODI Head of Public Affairs and IT, presented the work ODI had undertaken on the Commission for Africa. This activity took the form of a series of preparatory meetings and of an electronic forum, divided in three sections following the working section of the Commission itself. The structure and the functionality of the forum were in fact similar to a weblog, with the only difference given by the presence of a moderator to summarise and steer the topical discussion.

The response of the users to such an initiative was quite positive, with an average of 400 visits per day. It is however, more difficult to evaluate the influence that this e-consultation and its 41 page summary produced, has had on the Commission in terms of input in its final report. It is evident that the ODI activities at the very least have contributed in giving legitimacy to the Commission for Africa.

Working group session

This session was facilitated by Bridget McBean (ECDPM), Caroline Knowles (IDS), and Ben Ramalingam (ODI). Participants were invited to discuss four challenges, relating to the why and how of networking, and to come up with recommendations. The discussion within each group was very lively and participants responded well to this session.

Ben summerised the main elements that emerged. It was noted that effective networking goes far beyond the sole funding purpose and that it is more likely to take place between organisations and institutions with similar objectives. Further, effective networking requires a good balance between collaboration, coordination and competition, while ‘strategic opportunism’ is a key to success.

Panel discussion

The discussion, facilitated by Ramesh Jaura, focused on the user perspective, asking which information foraging strategies are used.

Richard Blakeway (assistant to Tony Baldry MP, former Chair of the UK House of Commons Select Committee on International Development), provided some insights from both the media and policy areas. He was rather doubtful about the usefulness of networks in relation to foraging information. He made an appeal to make more use of the media and to focus on tailored and timely information. He stated that networks and information producers need to be clear to themselves about what they want to do with the information and how they can effectively use ICTs.

He concluded by challenging Euforic staff about how to repackage the results of the seminar for information purposes.

Mikaela Gavas, BOND EU Policy Officer, explained that the mission of BOND can be summarised in three words: informing, influencing, and steering. In practice, foraging information is done to master the complexity of EU development issues. It should not be forgotten that lobby targets are also sources of information

To be effective, a good connection with ‘Brussels’ is a prerequisite including good access to persons; credible information for policy makers; capacity to access also classified information; ability to get the message out at the right time.

Also Mikaela asked the question how raw data can evolve into policy. She advised a ‘conceptual packaging’ format for information that should be jargon free and understandable for a general public.

Liz Thassim, ODI Research Assistant, spoke briefly about her personal experiences in foraging information. Apart from using traditional information resources, websites and search engines, she found that personal relationships and networks play an important role and often have an informal character. Further she pointed out that the position that people occupy in organisations may add a specific relevance to the information.

Ben Ramalingan, ODI Research Officer, pointed out that institutional capacity plays an important role in all aspects of information foraging. Further he reminded the audience that we work for the poor and that we need to keep certain values high.

Several participants and panelists had additional comments (summary).

Isolina Boto (CTA): There is too much change in the Commission and there is no coherence between the EC development policy and the policies of the 25 Member States. Further there is a conflict in organisations who criticise the Commission but in the same time are financially dependant on the Commission.

Richard Kasesela (SID Tanzania): The private sector certainly has a role to play.

Mikaela Gavas (BOND): Overdependence of NGOs on the European Commission is problematic. This is complicated by the fact that the Commission designs facilities according to their view what NGOs should be.

Geoff Barnard (IDS): Aren’t there too may networks? If so, then doesn’t this highlight the need for branding?.

Richard Blakeway (assistant to MP): Networks need to keep a strong focus on their niche and brand.

Simon Maxwell (ODI): To structure institutional relationships with organisations and networks in Africa, ODI has set up a Partnership Programme. Further he noted that researchers have great difficulty in dealing with sudden upcoming policy demands and changes.

Liz Thassim (ODI): The stumbling blocks encountered in information foraging can be overcome by individual contacts.

Closing session

At the closing of the seminar, Simon Maxwell did a little game, asking participants to note the main lesson learned from the seminar, and what they would do first as a follow up once they are back in their offices.

He concluded by stating that networks are difficult to evaluate, have high transaction costs, and are difficult to fund. A major lesson is that it just does not happen by itself and that networks provide a wealth of opportunities.

Euforic’s President Ramesh Jaura, thanked ODI and participants for their respective contributions to make this an excellent seminar. He compared the Euforic network - in its capacity of a members driven cooperative - with a lighthouse that is being lite from inside.

Description

On the threshold of the UK Presidency of the EU, the G8 and the MDG Summit, this seminar organised by EUFORIC and ODI, was held to explore the importance and opportunities of networking and Internet information for development policy. In the understanding that 2005 is a vital year for the future of European development cooperation, what are strategies to follow and mechanisms to use for being really effective in influencing development policy? Which information foraging strategies are used by politicians, researchers or lobbyist? What could the Internet information landscape look like in ten years from now and how could development organisations prepare themselves? Having a website is one, but the issue is what then: how to really bring information across and be influential. The seminar brought together the experiences and expertise of ODI and a variety of cases from within the Euforic network.

A series of presentations were given during the workshop. From ODI, Simon Maxwell focused on policy entrepreneurship in 2005 – development’s year of destiny; Julius Court focused on what makes networks effective in influencing policy and whether Europe was networked enough on international development issues; and Peter Gee used the Commission for Africa e-consultations hosted by ODI to explore what makes Internet communication effective in informing policy. Ben Ramalingam was the lead facilitator for the afternoon group sessions, using a series of provocative challenges to lead discussions on various aspects of networking.