Importance is not enough

Yesterday, the European Ombudsman (that is, the Ombudsman of the European Union) issued a press statement under the following headline: “Ombudsman investigates whether the Commission should do more to combat increased bee mortality”. The statement said:

According to the complainant, the Commission has failed properly to address the issue of bee mortality, which may be linked to the use of certain neonicotinoids. In its view, the Commission should take new scientific evidence into account and take appropriate measures, such as reviewing the authorisation of relevant substances, in order to address the problem.

No need to check: Neonicotinoids are some sort of insecticides. It didn’t take me a minute to share the link with friends and colleagues via e-mail and Twitter, preceded by a self-explanatory ‘no comment’. Soon after, I started receiving a few answers. The point of most of them was basically that bees play a very important role in the ecosystem. And it’s true! According to a 2010 report by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), decline of bees is becoming a global and dangerous phenomenon with direct consequences on the environment, the biodiversity and ultimately our own lives! Even if I was very superficially aware of their importance, I didn’t have an idea about the exact facts and figures. There you have the one thing I learned yesterday. If you want to know more, there is a must-visit website: Scary future lies ahead… In any case (let me get back to the Ombudsman now), I must say I still find the piece news both funny and shocking, and I’ve decided to write down here why.

As said, the most common reply I got yesterday referred to the IMPORTANCE of bees. Some highlighted the apiarists, some the environment, some the perfidious role of transnational companies, but the one thing they all had in common was this: we humans need bees. They are important. However, I don’t see the logical connection between ‘bees are important’ and ‘the European Ombudsman must have a say about it’. I would say the importance of an issue (assessed by the gravity of the problem, the extent of the affected population, the affect over shared values, etc.) is a basic condition for its transformation into a policy issue an Ombudsman may have to pay attention to. But that is not enough.

Apart from the importance, we need to think of the STRATEGY, or in other words, the priorities. Agreed, bees matter, but there are many other things that matter as well; which ones deserve the time of the Ombudsman? The Ombudsman (or any other policy actor) will have to determine its long and mid-term goals and short-term objectives, as well as the indicators of success. They must look at its necessarily limited economic and human resources and decide how they can use them most effectively (efficiently) in order to get the expected impact. In other words, they must find their theory of change.

Importance and strategy are not the only requirements, though. We also need to consider OPPORTUNITY. Bees may be important. The defence of bees may be among the self-imposed priorities of the European Ombudsman (for whatever reason). But working on it at this particular moment may not be the wisest thing to do, anyway. In the context of the current economic crisis, Ombudsmen are coming under strict scrutiny in several European countries (such as Italy and Spain) and some have even had to close down. Furthermore, since the popularity of the EU and its multiple bodies is not at its highest peak, it would make sense to avoid talking about issues that might make some of us (the sceptic ones) smile at the very least. Besides, the current EU Ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouros, is a Greek national and some evil-minded (I certainly am not among them) might think that he should rather look at some problems, mostly but not only in his home country, which are probably more urgent than the increasing high mortality of bees.

Even if the issue was very important, if it was deemed strategic and the moment considered just right… for goodness sake, watch the wording! COMMUNICATION matters as much as the other three criteria. Mr Diamandouros, couldn’t you find another way to say the same (i.e., that the Commission must protect the environment exercising due diligence over companies that produce insecticides), but avoiding the jocular tone? Let me copy and paste the headline again: “Ombudsman investigates whether the Commission should do more to combat increased bee mortality”. You understand what I mean, don’t you?

Koldo Casla



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