I recently attended a fascinating Community for European Research and Innovation for Security (CERIS) annual event on Disaster-Resilient Societies (DRS), from 4-7 December 2023. It was organized by members of DG ECHO, DG HOME and other the European Commission leaders, and ably choreographed by the multi-talented Philippe Quevauvillier, Policy Officer at DG HOME. The venue was the fantastic Bouche à Oreille in Brussels.
(The full agenda is here: https://eu.eventscloud.com/file_uploads/14859b2cd944f49a38396209ebac2a1c_2023-12-04.07CERISDRSAGENDA.pdf )
Attendees included a wide range of participants from EU military, civil defense and fire fighters, as well as a range of NGOs, and managers of a number of important EU-funded Horizon 2020 projects. The conference aimed to facilitate conversations among DRS actors around news and perspectives related to recently launched and ongoing projects, as well as facilitating the dialogue among policy-makers, practitioners, scientists, industry/SMEs and civil society about current developments in the Disaster Risk Reduction sector for 2024.
Though this event was not directly connected with customs, there were a number of clear and important parallels to PEN-CP and the wider customs sphere. There were a few surprises as well. I should stress that this was my first CERIS meeting, so take my observations with a grain of salt. But two things really leaped out at me during the proceedings.
Firstly, it was interesting to see how often project leaders discussed the importance of involving "the citizen" in their project – and yet often making that citizen sound like some sort of a critically endangered species of animal, that might run away if approached. Many speakers discussed the importance of collaboration with citizens, "co-developing" projects together, basing findings on citizen input, etc. But these same speaker often added words to the effect that "Of course, we can't interface directly with citizens, only with citizen organizations, associations that do advocacy and focus groups, etc."
As a journalist, my immediate reaction was, "Why on earth not?" If a journalist wants to know something, he or she can go and ask people, in the street if necessary. This approach is obviously not statistically robust, and it certainly can be time-consuming, but I was puzzled by the apparent distance between project designers and the elusive citizens they claim to be targeting.
Additionally, when you package “citizens” into advocacy groups etc, they often have very different ideas and messages than they would if they were speaking as "plain" citizens. Plus, such organizations, no doubt are focused on making a living from providing "citizen, perspectives", which may actually interfere with producing an unfiltered account of what citizens really believe.
One very honest participant in several EU projects lamented the necessity of writing proposals which assume certain ideas on the part of citizens and stakeholders (specifically first responders), then, after the proposal has been accepted, going out and asking these people what they think and what they need, and hoping their responses align with what was written in the proposal.
Another interesting observation made by one audience member during a Q&A session: "We talk about needing citizen ideas, yet there are no citizens here at this meeting." My previous book was about whistleblowing (entitled Crisis of Conscience), and during the writing of it, I attended many whistleblower conferences. Which, likewise, frequently did not include whistleblowers. There is a tendency for academics, magistrates, civil society pundits and other "experts" to want to control the narrative of their events and their broader work. Whistleblowers, like other citizens, are sometimes unruly and hard to manage. They talk a lot about their hardships and their problems. But that is precisely the point – and what they want and need to speak about. Excluding whistleblowers from the conversations concerning whistleblowing seems in many ways a sterile, self-defeating approach.
In the same way, per the observation made during the Q&A session, these discussions about the importance of involving “citizens”, without actually inviting citizens to the party, could risk turning out the same way.
All in all, based on what I saw in Brussels last week, it seems like a more nuanced and direct approach to citizens, and to specific stakeholder groups, might be a good idea.
Secondly -- and I sense this is in some sense related to the previous point -- I was struck by the lack of any explicit communications function in any of the projects I learned about, and a related difficulty that many project participants had in explaining their projects in a coherent and compelling way. I would have thought that the ability to describe their own work to each other, to larger EU circles, and of course, to those elusive "citizens" we've been talking about, would be essential to gaining support for their work, reality stress testing it among the general public, and ensuring that taxpayers fully appreciate why their tax money is being spent for these projects.
To be clear, the caliber of presentations and participants was consistently high, and their projects almost universally of great interest and potential impact. Which underscores, at least for me, the vital importance of making these people and their messages accessible to a wider audience – an audience that would no doubt, if properly educated, applaud, this work loudly and gratefully.
Incidentally, when I called Philippe Quevauvillier “multi-talented,” I meant it most sincerely. Here he is (center, gray shirt) performing with his Brazilian jazz ensemble: