Tom Spencer's Blog

Valedictory Lecture delivered by Tom Spencer, Sometime Executive Director of the European Centre for Public Affairs – Brussels 8th November 2011

It used to be the tradition that departing British Ambassadors would send a final telegram home to the Foreign Office in which they spoke outside the normal constraints of diplomatic niceties. This practice may now be rendered redundant by Wikileaks! Nevertheless the opportunity to look back over a career or part of a career and view truth in an unvarnished way seems to me desirable. On leaving the ECPA this summer I agreed to give this lecture and the ECPA agreed to place on its website a history of the organisation from its registration in April 1986 to my departure in June 2011. This period fortuitously encompasses a quarter century of the ECPA’s history so might legitimately be taken as an opportunity to look both backwards and forwards.

During the summer, as I re-assembled the ECPA archive, the need for some change in my plans became obvious. The ECPA is, and has always been, a collective effort and not the personal intellectual property of one man or one family. To rise above a dry compilation of the minutes or an exercise solely in personal biography, a meaningful history of the institution needs to be a “Wiki-history” that involves contributions from those who have made up the ECPA family over the years.

The Wiki-history of the ECPA is therefore presented as a work in progress. The text which I am offering today is a partly clothed skeleton which I hope we may all contribute to fleshing out in the next few months. Talking to ECPA veterans, such as Adrienne Pratt who worked for the ECPA from 1990 to 2006, or reading the generously written contributions from Robin Pedler, Executive Director from 1991 to 1999 and Academic Director until 2004, I am struck by how much the ECPA has achieved intellectually and the particular method by which it advanced. For me this was pre-eminently by the mysterious chemistry of bringing the different elements of ECPA together to consider a problem. If we started with one question, we would conclude with several answers and a myriad of further questions. So I thought tonight, rather than reciting the history, I would share with you the questions which have surfaced during the summer and see if the traditional ECPA formula works for us all on this occasion.

What might we learn from a properly researched history of public affairs in Europe? Conor McGrath, an ECPA stalwart, who edited most of our recent books and has written entertainingly and extensively on aspects of public affairs, would like to see at least some of our archives thrown open for inspection by scholars. Conor also suggests that the Wiki-History should include “Character sketches of many of the early/long-standing/key members and staff”. Suggestions on how we should achieve this would be warmly welcomed! Rinus van Schendelen points out that many of the early practitioners of European public affairs have now retired. Surely it would be useful to capture their insights, to learn of their successes and to candidly examine their failures. In such a way succeeding generations can not only stand on their shoulders, but also avoid their stumbles. We consciously set out from the beginning of the ECPA to identify what made European practice different from that of the predominately American early models. As we face the convulsions of mature globalisation this might be a good moment to put on record our conclusions. We need of course to ask the preliminary question as to what extent a history of the ECPA is a reasonable proxy for the development of public affairs in the European Union.

One of the themes which stands out boldly from a study of our archives is the impact of the development of the Union on the nature of public affairs. What we were teaching in any one year reflected the evolution of the European Union itself. Most obviously the need for knowledge of European public affairs developed most rapidly as the Union in the 1980s deployed Qualified Majority Vote in the approach to the European Single Market. The need for expertise drove the need for professionalisation. Such professionalisation put pressures above all on in-house public affairs practitioners as their Janus-like balancing act became ever more tricky. Pan-European teams became a necessity once the Single Market was in place. Enlargement of the Union brought new elements to the collective personality that we refer to as European public affairs practice. Governments needed to train not just their diplomats, but their home ministries. For new Member States there were the successive hoops of Association Agreements, Membership Negotiations and rapidly thereafter the challenge of the six month revolving Presidency. As the competencies of the Union increased and its geographical extent grew ever larger, training became an ever more desperate attempt to keep abreast of the rising complexity of the Union. It may be in retrospect that we failed to notice a glass ceiling beyond which an intuitive understanding of political realities in a growing number of counties simply failed. Various of my correspondents have noted the increased difficulty in applying the “Community Method”. They speak as if they were talented water colourists now reduced to painting by numbers in a medium that is alien to their instincts.

The reverse relationship, that of public affairs’ impact on the development of the Union is equally interesting. One thinks of examples such as the European Roundtable of Industrialists and the Kangaroo Group on issues relating to the Single Market, or the campaign to put Animal Welfare into the Treaty. More fundamentally however I have come to believe that ever more complex public affairs conflicts led to pressure to re-write the rules or clarify legal judgements. In small matters and in great it has been the conflict and experimentation of day-to-day public affairs, at least as much as political theory, which has driven the European Union forward.

The decision to adopt the phrase “Public Affairs” in the mid-eighties was an entirely pragmatic one. The phrase does not translate well out of English. It has a different meaning in Europe than it does in America. It does not sit comfortably in the academic world. Its practitioners cannot decide whether they are a management function or a profession. It has endless border conflicts with Public Relations, with Communications, and with Corporate Social Responsibility. It encompasses within itself Government Affairs, Regulatory Affairs and much else. It is a portmanteaux phrase, but at least it has carried water pragmatically for a quarter of a century. I do not believe that there is much to be gained by obsessive debate on its boundaries. We should instead accept that much of the definitional conflict is designed to underpin personal advantage. Rather we should judge European public affairs by its fruits. Does it enable me to do my job better? Does it help me predict future developments in the EU? Can I place its techniques at the service of causes in which I believe?

We can ‘frame’ public affairs in different ways. I find after twenty five years that I am firmly in the camp of those who would settle on a broad rather than a narrow focus. I understand that it is occasionally necessary to do intellectual violence to the complexity of a situation that you seek to understand and then influence. But “ceterus paribus”, other things being equal, is the cause of much arrogance and confusion in the study of economics. Its results can be even more disastrous in public affairs with its nuanced landscape and multiple possible destinations. For instance to rip in-house public affairs from its social and political context is as foolish as to ignore its reality and concentrate on the more visible worlds of consultancy or trade associations. Similarly for NGOs or trades unions to argue that they occupy a different planet because they are “not for profit” is a recipe for self-delusion. To concentrate on one European institution, one country or one language is to enter a contest bound, hobbled and blindfolded. To exclude politicians from the discussion is to go foxhunting without the fox. To narrow one’s vision to a national or even continental scale in a global world is like using a primitive compass even though you have a GPS at your disposal.

Public affairs without self-knowledge all too easily becomes just a technique, a tactic or a party trick. Public affairs, like banking has consequences. It cannot be pursued satisfactorily in a moral vacuum. It matters that you acknowledge that there are different views on tobacco, alcohol, arms sales or climate denial. Public affairs practice in Europe is intensely competitive, but that does not mean that it has to be just a race to the bottom. Not everything has to be sacrificed to the next quarterly figures or the next contest for ‘most successful public affairs consultancy measured by billings’. Lines can be drawn. Ethical brands can be created. Good public affairs practice can be placed at the service of good, rather than bad, causes. It makes me unhappy that some of the best public affairs practitioners and agencies are hired by the worst causes. And that equally some of the best causes have only the most amateur of communications public affairs expertise to defend them.

The techniques of corporate transparency, favoured by Corporate Social Responsibility and measured by Transparency International, can be important aids to corporate or consultancy growth. My involvement in environmental matters, and specifically climate change, meant that I refused to teach ExxonMobil, as an exception to my general rule that teaching everybody to improve their practice of public affairs strengthened the democratic system. In retrospect, I regret that I did not apply this ban more widely to those who seek to disrupt the scientific method on which the public policy discourse rests. I spent part of the summer working with the Carbon Disclosure Project who seek to use the power of investors to push large companies into reducing their emission of CO2. They were un-amused to discover that twenty eight of their top fifty companies, who they were lauding for their climate-friendly behaviour, were simultaneously supporting one form or another of climate denial. Roland-Jan Meijer’s short essay on the development of Holcim’s public affairs could be the starting point for us to consider the relationship of corporate strategy and the public good.

I am unimpressed by those campaigners against capitalism who would seek to disable all those who carry messages between businesses and government. However as the planetary scene darkens, public affairs like banking, is going to have to defend its licence to operate on principles that reflect the sustainability of our civilisation. ‘Global warming’ and ‘financial melt down’ are both examples of market failure. The malfunctions that became prevalent because we allowed a secular creed that “greed is good” to replace the original ethic of capitalism.

I have not tonight been able to illuminate more than a few of the questions facing the ECPA and similar public affairs institutions. The search for questions is what the ECPA has been about for a quarter of a century. However I remain true to our original collective vision. If we “record” what we have achieved and “analyse” it with a clear and unbiased eye, we may yet continue to improve the “conduct” of public affairs.

Do not hesitate to get back to me with comments or suggestions on any of the above and/or the proposed ECPA history. I’d be happy to send you a copy of the draft Wiki-history upon request.

Tom Spencer

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  1. Tom, I am honoured to be part of ECPA’s more recent history (well, for half of its life so far), on the management board, as occasional speaker, and chiefly as learner.

    In my own French & slightly arrogant way (even quoting myself!), I said several times:
    ‘The ECPA annual conference is one of the few Brussels events where I really learn something!’.

    It’s the same as for university teaching: good teaching is close to good research, which is close to good practice.

    For example, I was delighted, well before ECI started, to organise workshops on transparency with Tom and others. We brought together SEAP, EPACA, NGOs and industry, together with Commission and Parliament people. Now, transparency is part of the Brussels culture (well, mostly).

    As I was scanning through the long draft Wiki-history of ECPA, I realised how much I missed during the first half of ECPA. I do benefit indirectly for example by cooperating at Fondation EurActiv with Julian Oliver and Sharon Spooner, associated since much longer than me.

    Well, this is not an obituary:
    Vive ECPA! Et vive Tom et ses nouveaux projets!

    Christophe Leclercq

  2. Tom,

    Just a public note to say thanks very much for your support when I was editor of Public Affairs News (March 2007-Nov 2011). Your guidance was always insightful and much appreciated and I always learned a great deal at ECPA events.

    I hope to continue to work closely with you in my new role at EurActiv.


    Ian Hall

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