• Opinion
  • February 22, 2019
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

Four lessons in community building for the European Union

Opinion: Four key pillars of successful and sustainable communities

This piece was written by Emily McDonnell, Head of Communications and Partnerships at Civocracy. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


The EU’s identity seems fractured, and its future isn’t clear. What have we learned from one of the most ambitious community development projects in history?

We’re now 100 days out from the first of the 2019 EU elections. The purpose, identity and future of the EU has never been such a hot topic. It got me thinking.

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The EU is one huge community. We’re so often conditioned to see communities as small collections of people focused on very specific things. Both the vast scale and seeming complexity of the EU makes it appear as something other.

At its core, however, a community is defined by a group of individuals with similar interests, gathered together around one purpose.

The EU was formed for a single purpose: to end the frequent conflict between neighbouring states. And that is a goal most people can stand behind.

So why is it that, over 60 years on, the EU now feels like such a loaded concept, and we see groups of people pushing back on the idea of European identity?

To get to the bottom of this, it’s worth investigating how successful communities operate, what we expect from communities and why we want to be a part of them.

Why communities?

The notion of belonging and having a shared identity is wired into human DNA. Historically, our communities have been our family, our village, our nation, and have evolved as society has changed, for instance, communities focused on yoga, food or ethical fashion.

When we think of communities in this way, we accept that they aren’t perfect, but we still actively engage with them and work to improve them where we can, noting that belonging is still valuable to us. The EU is simply a scaled up version of any of these.

At Civocracy, we have worked hard to outline the key factors for building and maintaining local communities, and these principles are applicable for communities of different sizes. So what can the EU do to close the developing cracks?

In our experience, there are four key pillars which every successful and sustainable community needs to actively nurture: community purpose, transparency, collaboration, and the ability to adapt.

1. Community purpose

Feeling we have a purpose is essential for human wellbeing.

The EU’s core value is to “protect, empower and defend” its members — effectively, it aims to bring prosperity to the continent while allowing member states to retain their own sovereignty, ultimately improving life for all.

Having a strong value is great start, but work is needed to implement and guide purposeful actions. Every project, policy change or research project must answer to this core community value; the community will then be able to defend its actions and to better engage its members.

2. Transparency

The second pillar of community maintenance, transparency, is essential for two reasons. First, to humanise the community, and second, to build real trust.

The EU seems opaque. The website is difficult to use, and the media spins us tales about how ineffective and pointless it is.

Yes, the EU isn’t as effective as it could be, and there are processes which need updating. However, it does provide an incredible array of opportunities and benefits for EU community members in an attempt to improve society. Finding out about these benefits, however, is a nightmare.

Did you know that, in 2017, the EU gave €52.6bn for creating jobs, reducing economic gaps, developing agriculture, and combating terrorism? It also gave hundreds of grants and contracts to small organisations and researchers who are working for the benefit of EU development.

Because of the EU, we can cross borders without a visa, our food has to be up to a high standard (no chlorinated chicken), and we have a human rights charter that gives us the right to rest periods from work (aka weekends and holidays).

Yes, member states pay the EU a fee, but they get a lot of that money back in subsidies alone.

In increasing its transparency through improved communications, the EU could do wonders to increase people’s trust in it.

3. Collaboration

A 2017 study titled The State of Communities by co-matter found that only 13% of community experts believe monetary rewards are an incentive to join a community. The real incentive is the promise of new and meaningful relationships.

In our work at Civocracy, governments have seen that opening problem solving up to the whole community leads to new idea generation and increases community happiness (as measured by the McKinsey Smart City quality of life indicator).

In the EU community case, being transparent that citizens are concerned about migration, climate change and unemployment, or that the EU is facing problems of clarity and modern communication, and calling on members to help share ideas, would lead to the creation of sustainable and efficient solutions. Two heads (or, in this case, 512.6 million EU heads) are better than one, especially when they can bring in expertise from different sectors, cultures and educational contexts.

The ying to this yang is showcasing impact. On asking for collaboration, you, as the head of that community, need to highlight what impact these collaborations have had. This, in turn, drives both the level and quality of contributions.

4. The ability to adapt

We live in an ever-changing world. We’re facing challenges from globalisation and migration to new technologies and data protection concerns, as well as from climate change and populism. Communities must be adaptable and ready to incorporate new ways of working to keep up-to-date with these continually evolving issues.

In most communities, members meet on a semi-regular basis to share their feedback and new ideas to improve their community. They also communicate through digital channels, trialing which platform works best for the group.

This is something the EU needs to have a better handle over: communication systems are outdated.

Time to build

In focusing on and strengthening these pillars, the community of the EU would be transformed, engagement would increase, and we would see the benefits of the community’s purpose.

Yes, the EU isn’t perfect, but it is a community that is worth belonging to. It’s a large and complex organism, but its desire to maintain cultural differences, improve our quality of life, and maintain unity while enhancing prosperity are core values which benefit us all.

We are all responsible for pushing our EU community to get better (remember the power of collaboration) — we have to work to improve our structures, we can’t just reject them. The first — and simplest — step is to make sure you vote this May. — Emily McDonnell

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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