Communication and Open Governance in a Time of Crisis

Credit: https://bit.ly/3wSc9M2

What is the state of play, lessons learned, and future orientations to partnerships in open governance today? This was the question debated at the latest meeting of the Club of Venice in a great event gathering high level experts ready to showcase examples of European cross-border and cross-sectoral cooperation, with the intention to explore how to make the most of partnerships toward stronger democracy and governance practice. Here are my two cents on the matter.

It is quite hard to identify how crises test governments and institutions globally. If we take a step back in order to have a broader vision on this issue, the noun “crisis” comes from the Greek word krisis, meaning “turning point in a disease”, the moment when a sick person could either get better or worse.

It also signifies the obligation of assuming a decision of one alternative over another. For instance, in the Greek New Testament, The Day of Judgement is hemera kriseos – a true crisis for those at risk of damnation and those hoping for redemption.

War or peace, disease or recovery, fortune or ruin. In all these senses a crisis is an intermediate stage leading to something, an outcome[1]. The real dilemma for us institutional communicators is “Is a crisis when we say it is?” – “What defines critical moments” and which indicators, material or abstract, can determine whether an event is indeed a crisis?

Europe has gone through many crises in its history and many more will come. In my field we often deal with the so-called “migration or refugees crisis” that reached its peak in 2015 when over 1 million people (coming from numerous parts of the world) crossed irregularly the Mediterranean to enter Europe. Ex post, several commentators proposed that talking about a ‘migration management crisis[2]’ would have been more appropriate. Let’s talk about it.

In this instance the European Commission, has used the word “crisis” to define a stand-alone and historically unprecedented phenomenon, based on two factors: (i) numbers and (ii) the uncontrolled nature of arrivals. It may be contested but it legitimate. The Commission’s approach gradually morphed from a humanitarian framing (2015-16) into one focused on border management (circa 2017) and cooperation with third countries to manage migration (2018 onwards). In 2019 the Commission declared the ‘crisis’ to be over[3]. I find that a very interesting examples of how “crisis” communication evolved strategically and an example of some very hard work of dialogue and compromise in establishing communication lines.

This opens another large dilemma for communicators when it comes to open governance. Open governance is the concept that citizens have rights to access to information and participation. (Democratic) governments and organizations should have the policy making power to advance transparency, accountability and participation, and make investments to enable these policies and I am confident in saying that it is Europe and the European Union who are leading in the world in this process.

When it comes to cross-border and cross-sectoral cooperation the question to ask is: Can this concept apply everywhere? Does the definition of crisis apply cross-border and cross-sectors?

Let me share a tiny bit of experience from my current role managing the communication of regional projects and dialogues across the Mediterranean.

As I quote a study from the Delors Institute: The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is an illustration of resistance to the global wave of democratization of the past decades, even if the countries’ undemocratic nature and its causes are complex and diverse. This region, key to geopolitical interests throughout the 20th century, is a privileged scene of EU’s external relations, drawn by recent events (such as those related to international terrorism, or the evolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict) and global trends (such as oil dependence, capital flows, or security alliances)[4].

The European Union (with the Barcelona Process) and the United States (most recently, with the Greater Middle East Initiative) are the main promoters of democratization in the region. In the current state of affairs, democracy promotion is a question always present on the international agenda.

Within the EUROMED Migration Programme we aim to establish a comprehensive dialogue on migration, with a specific focus on promoting evidence-based migration policies. Do we have an interest in promoting democracy? It is not within our mandate, to provide platforms for dialogue so that all the partners involved (meaning EU Member States and European Neighbourhood Southern Partner Countries) can freely exchange on their experience, challenges, concerns and priorities about migration policy.

In the implementation of programmes to establish a comprehensive dialogue on key agenda issues , it is by providing platforms for free and safe communication that potentially even actors with an interest in promoting democracy and open governance in the MENA region can benefit from the knowledge, openness and information from partners with different political systems, different levels of literacy, different values, different knowledge of the world, different history and different ambitions.

In particular, in this part of the world, but obviously not solely, external attempts to somehow present a type of government as superior or inevitable or the only possible way to do things, will be rejected and this will cause tensions that are hard to recover from, therefore annulling the dialogue efforts that may have taken years of diplomatic work to build.

It is with a very high level of discretion and diplomacy that we need to act in order to maintain this dialogue on one issue, migration, that more than any other over the past ten years in Europe and the Mediterranean has polarised the political discourse and institutional narratives.

When it comes to cross-border and cross-sectoral cooperation listening is a lot harder than expressing positions, and I think that’s the right approach to maintain especially when communicating to audiences (whether they are restricted or open) that have different views of the world from the ones an institution may decide to promote.


[1] The Vocabularist: Where did the word ‘crisis’ come from? https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-34154767

[2] https://www.epc.eu/en/closed-projects/EPC-in-the-refugee-crisis-deba~10f3d8#page-2

[3] Katharina Bamberg, Moving beyond the ‘crisis’: Recommendations for the European Commission’s communication on migration

[4] Cristina Barrios, Promoting democracy in the Middle East and North Africa region

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