posted 3 Apr 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 7
Towards an e-Europe
EUROPAplus the intranet of the European Commission
In an organisation as information-centric as the European Commission it is not surprising that the intranet has emerged as a powerful and popular tool. Jean-Bernard Quicheron describes EUROPAplus an intranet that offers access to over five million documents to European Commission agents working all over the world.
EUROPAplus is the internal web server for the European Commission an information channel for officials by officials of the commission using internet tools and standards.
In February 1995 the commission presented its internet server EUROPA to the G7 conference on the information society. At the time internet access was fairly thinly spread within the institution which meant that EC officials could not access the commission’s internet server either internally or externally.
A copy of EUROPA was placed on an intranet server so that officials could see EUROPA online. This is how EUROPAplus was in fact created in April 1995. It was named EUROPAplus as it offered an extra dimension (internal information) rather than simply being a carbon copy of the original EUROPA. The intranet gained in popularity and in the meantime all officials of the commission gained access to the internet.
The overall goal of EUROPAplus is to allow for a coherent quick and transparent flow of information and communication between the college the departments (so called Directorate Generals) and staff of the commission. It helps contribute to the creation of a real esprit de corps at the same time showing that the commission is a modern administration striving for internal transparency. Simultaneously it serves to help pave the way towards realising the ‘e-commission’ and an ‘e-Europe’.
As an aside the fact that the commission has a central intranet does not prevent individual departments from having their local intranets dedicated to their own internal information. It should also be noted that the email services of the commission are not incorporated into the intranet services.
Our target audience
The intranet is accessible to more than 20 000 officials or agents of the European Commission in Brussels and Luxembourg but also in a further 23 cities within the European Union and in some 100 delegations throughout the world. The services contribute to the sharing of information to document management and in theory at least to avoiding the needless duplication of work.
EUROPAplus has become a very powerful and popular tool for internal communication and information. Hundreds of tons of paper have been saved and distribution costs have been cut. But there is also still substantial potential for increasing work productivity.
The sheer number of documents on EUROPAplus is difficult to calculate. We know that the server hosts around 480 000 static pages. But the databases used for the management of internal procedures also generate an abundant number of dynamic pages. We know for sure that the intranet gives access to at least 5 000 000 documents. The average number of document hits per working day is 160 000.
The documents and collections of documents vary in content and classification including:
- Administrative information emanating from the personnel and administration services;
- Information coming from the various services within the commission. These can be either other intranets (this applies to five Directorate Generals) or sites created specifically for EUROPAplus;
- Management applications (for example the job description application launched recently);
- News and databases;
- Document production and management (notably legislative procedures);
- Information retrieval tools;
- ‘What’s new’ and messages;
- Portal function facilitating access to the servers of all the institutions of the European family (council parliament economic and social committee etc. as well as general internet access);
These are explored in greater detail below.
Personnel and administration services
Usage statistics show that the administrative information used by the personnel department accounts for about 33 per cent of all requests to the server but does not necessarily represent 33 per cent of the entire content of EUROPAplus.
This information may take the form of:
- Organisation charts of all Directorate Generals of the commission;
- Data disseminated by the
personnel and administration service in its site
which hosts more than 8
but not exclusively
- Staff matters;
- Medical care and refunding of medical costs;
- Furniture and office supplies;
- European schools;
- Internal directories of all sorts;
- The telephone directory of commission staff (persons searchable online using various criteria);
- Service directory of commission staff (staff searchable according to hierarchical structure to keywords or by name);
- Internal job vacancies application (NADIA);
- An internal online newspaper called Commission en Direct with many interactive tools (a forum mini-ads ‘personally speaking’ arrivals and departures and so on);
- A site dedicated to administrative reform which allows for interaction between staff.
- Intranets other than EUROPAplus;
- Sites produced by Directorate Generals (autonomous partial sites or excerpts from local intranets);
- Translation services (online ordering of translations terminology database – Eurodicautom automatic online translation via Systran and so on);
- General online services (for example a manual of procedures legislative preparatory documents etc.);
- Budgetary guidelines and rules;
- IT guidelines and services from the IT department;
- The central library site.
A few management applications have a web interface visible on the intranet even if they are aimed at a limited target audience. The job description exercise which was undertaken recently for the entire commission staff in the framework of the administrative reform was carried out purely via the intranet. This meant that whoever wanted to complete this form had to fill it in using EUROPAplus. This also served to widen the visibility of EUROPAplus among staff. Most management applications will soon have a web rather than a proprietary interface.
Online news and databases
News is being produced internally in many ways and is disseminated via the intranet. Some news produced externally by professional press agencies or specialised press bodies is also bought by the commission and distributed on the intranet.
Internal news sources:
- RAPID news to the outside world from the Press and Communication Service of the commission (PCS) is also available on EUROPA;
- EU-Review a weekly review of events occurring within the various European institutions is produced in-house by the secretariat general and sent to the delegations of the commission throughout the world;
- Press reviews originating from representations and delegations of the commission are written and sent electronically each morning to the server and redistributed at around 8am on the intranet;
- Press cuttings – Excerpts from the press as selected by the press service;
- ‘Sources Say’ a news fact sheet produced twice-daily mainly centred on EU news;
- Commission en Direct the in-house newspaper. 45 000 paper copies are distributed on a weekly basis to all institutions delegations and retired officials. It has an interactive forum dedicated to issues of general concern for commission staff.
External news (subject to copyright internal distribution only):
- Live news – Most European news wires are online;
- Telexpress – Press releases selected by the Press and Communication Service of the commission (PCS) three times a day;
- Agence Europe Online (in four languages) – Bulletin online each morning;
- European reports – Online bulletins twice weekly;
- Oxford Analytica – Produced in Oxford with an analysis of economic and financial world events. Bulletins are provided daily;
- Reuters databases (Reuters Business Briefing Energy Briefing Insurance Briefing European Union Briefing).
The intranet is a real mine of news but profiling i.e. tailoring requests for news to one’s needs still remains rare. The heterogeneity of news casting platforms does not make the personalisation profiling easy.
The commission also buys in many other information sources that cannot be classed as ‘news’ notably a huge database collection like the Dialog Corporation’s (750 databases in the field of business and finance chemicals energy and the environment food and agriculture law and government medicine pharmaceuticals science and technology and the social sciences) Lexis-Nexis (specialised in law) and Dun & Bradstreet (information about specific firms).
Document production (legislative procedures)
The commission produces many legislative documents as well as introducing and leading many procedures. Today most procedures rely on electronic document production and management. The stream of preparatory and legislative documents is available in the collection of databases.
- Greffe2000 and LegisWrite are
computer systems used for:
- Drafting official documents whether legislative in nature or not;
- Compiling complete dossiers;
- Submitting them electronically to the registry for approval by the commission;
- Monitoring the whole approval procedure;
- Intervening at the request of the secretariat general;
- Electronically transmitting the dossier after adoption by the commission to the other institutions and to the publication office (EUR-LEX CELEX and official journal).
- SG-Vista (Secretariat
- A document repository containing all the documents emanating from the commission’s registry.
- CELEX the database containing details on European law is also available online internally.
the database containing
the European official journal
is available online.
- Whereas EUR-Lex on the internet only contains the last 45 days of the official journal the internal copy of EUR-Lex contains everything published from 1998 onwards.
- SCADplus bibliographical database available online on EUROPA is also on EUROPAplus.
Information retrieval tools
EUROPAplus offers different tools to make navigation through this ocean of information easier:
- A thematic index also searchable using a search engine;
- A search engine scanning the entire contents (that is 480 000 documents);
- Proprietary databases have their own search tools;
- A ‘what’s new’ page a notice board etc. all allow for easy search orientation.
‘What’s new’ and messages
Informing the staff about events is done via the following facilities:
- A general ‘what’s new’ page;
- A message box for important political and administrative messages;
- A notice board for social events and conferences etc. concerning the whole staff;
- A ‘what’s new of the what’s new’ i.e. what’s new on the different sites fed in by other services.
In order to facilitate access to the internet servers of all the institutions of the European family a part of the homepage acts as a portal. Officials do not have to know the internet addresses of all the servers of the European Union; rather they can access them via this point.
Here are some features that are among the best assets of an intranet like EUROPAplus:
- Paper savings – 1 400 tons of paper have been saved annually because service directories and the phone directory of all staff have been put onto the intranet. Also job vacancies and administrative information leaflets have been put on the intranet allowing for quick transmission of the information;
- Databases like CELEX EUR-Lex SG Vista are really appreciated. The availability of electronic documents tends to increase dramatically;
- News is there to delve into. You may select the source you are really interested in instead of only reading the newspaper you subscribe to. You must find ways of reaching out for the sources that matter for you and neglect others that experience has shown are less important to you.
- Accessibility and permanent availability of information are important features but are counterbalanced by the fact that you become very dependent on a computer.
Some sensitive issues
Tools and server management
Statistics are difficult to establish and are not necessarily reliable. And yet they are crucial in the healthy competition between services to be on the ‘hit parade’.
We do not yet have any content management tool which means for instance that the index by theme is managed manually despite the fact that using a database for this purpose would simplify day-to-day management.
Strengths of EUROPAplus
EUROPAplus has several clear assets:
- Categorisation of contents – The main pages managed centrally have the advantage of being categorised. In other words used intelligently the index allows for quick and easy retrieval of information. The thematic index can be browsed using the search engine a facility not always available on internet or intranet servers;
- Modularity of search – Retrieving
information is made easier since the user restricts his search only to
document collections relevant to them:
- Proprietary databases have their own search modules which facilitates information retrieval as long as one knows what is available in a given database;
- The content of the whole server has been subdivided in document sub-collections. The search engine can peruse a given collection and exclude others thus reducing background noise (unwanted results);
- Some news sources are also searchable using the search engine;
- Certain local intranets like the one from Directorate General Development (around 6 000 files) have their own search facility allowing users to browse only a specific site.
- Publishing rights granted to teams feeding in information – Production of information is fairly decentralised. Information providers have publishing rights. They simply have to abide by guidelines laid down in the information provider’s guide.
The weaknesses are either dictated by a lack of human resources centrally or locally or are caused by human factors.
- No harmony in the way information is being presented – The fact that individual intranets are eventually incorporated into EUROPAplus means that there has been no co-ordination upstream. Certain links to the central intranet will be replicated in local intranets for example. Corporate branding might also be diluted since the team in charge has not respected the common look and feel advocated by the central team;
- Duplication of information and of work – The same fact may lead local web teams to duplicate locally (physically and not with a link) information available centrally. By the same token these collections have not been categorised nor included in the central index by theme within EUROPAplus;
- Updating is not yet an automatic reflex which means that many sites contain out-of-date information. The lack of discipline adopted towards paper-based information can also be applied to electronic information managed by a huge administration. An updating culture must be developed;
- Editorial board – The former editorial board which was an excellent coordinating body has been abandoned. This leaves the central co-ordinating team with a huge responsibility but a lack of contact with the various webmasters.
It is wrong to assume that most users should read most information on the intranet. Just like before intranets were created people look for information primarily in their own fields of competence and work.
Some cultural barriers persist. In particular some people are rather hostile to what they see as an IT invasion into their daily working environment.
- Email – Bad habits persist. The use of generic email channels instead of the intranet as a quick vector for communication (thus taking up bandwidth) should be avoided. Many people delete circular emails away without even reading them;
- Retention and overflow of information – Needles storage of information on the intranet whether voluntary or not should be discouraged. Furthermore the overflow of information creates a certain weariness. As a consequence some people do not read important information thoroughly.
- Training – Training everybody is very important. It means training different people for different purposes (browsing writing html doing ftp even simply learning how to use the intranet properly).
Web teams’ positions in the hierarchy
Some web teams are placed at fairly high levels of management others belong with IT departments. A golden rule is that units providing information are responsible for the content they send; they should update the server directly or via an intermediary. The content manager has different responsibilities according to the service concerned. He might be king in his own realm or might share responsibilities with various others.
The importance and usefulness of an intranet depends very much on high-level management staff. If staff members are overwhelmed with daily management questions and are unaware of IT issues or of the potential of the intranet they tend to solve their information and communication problems with their usual ways of communicating (i.e. internal notes phone calls etc.).
Many high-level managers are not necessarily computer literate and still tend to use traditional information channels (newspapers the press etc). One would then tend to find two main streams of information traditional and electronic which is not an ideal situation.
Some services would find web servers very useful to quickly disseminate vast quantities of documents but services dealing with very sensitive political issues tend to neglect intranets (or only use them in the very last instance) as they rely more on traditional means of information dissemination. This is due to the misconception that these offer more control.
Updating remains crucial
Updating an intranet remains a difficult exercise. A lot of time and effort is put into convincing the owners of the information to update regularly and efficiently.
If EUROPAplus is really to become the focal point of information dissemination inside the commission different challenges will have to be met. Most issues are well-known many of them imply ‘simply’ a change of attitude. Habits are reasonably easily altered but it takes a lot of time and effort to change mentalities.
Quality of the information put on the intranet
- Updating should be a reflex – old information makes no sense on a vector supposedly fast reliable and easier to update than paper documentation;
- Before putting information on a site efforts should be made to ensure information is not needlessly duplicated;
- Think of all the data collections available on an intranet as a whole as a collection of documents broken down into easily searchable sections;
- Content quality should be central to any information policy. For the first time in history we have a tool that allows updates in almost real time. We should take advantage of this tremendous asset.
Sharing of responsibilities and teamwork
- Consider oneself not as a unique information provider but rather as a member of a bigger team within the organisation;
- Create better networks either inside one’s own service or between different services tackling the same tasks and inside a given sector;
- EUROPAplus should find the appropriate coordination body which guarantees a corporate branding without imposing useless rules which delay production.
Better involvement of management and integration of management applications
- The job description exercise undertaken by all the commission’s staff could have been used in order to enhance the service directory online. Management has an important role to play in this process;
- The split of the teams in charge of EUROPA and EUROPAplus has meant less resources for EUROPAplus and less synergy between the two servers.
Sharing of good practices
- Better networking means exchanging information about good practices. This implies more valuable exchanges between the centre and the periphery of the organisation;
- Cooperation is the motto. Ideas can and should stem from inventive individuals but be better coordinated thus allowing teams to realise economies of scale and avoid duplication of work.
EUROPA and EUROPAplus were developed in the context of the G7 conference as mentioned previously. After five years of experience both servers are a success story.
Many high-level managers within the commission – in particular the computer illiterate or computer neutral – are convinced that intranets are a question of technology. For them this is something they do not have to bother about since others have taken on the responsibility. But this should not be the case especially as information remains the core business of the commission. Luckily attitudes are evolving and the sheer weight of information to be conveyed will force people to adopt other mindsets.
We must redress the balance and focus on information. Every business is after all operating in the knowledge economy. We have to convince even more high-level staff that every employee is not only a user of the intranet but also an information provider. We have to convince all that managing information is everybody’s business; we have to create more awareness to provide training as much as possible. We have to switch from data processing to knowledge processing.
This is a lengthy process and one should never rest on one’s laurels. Here lies the real challenge and the key to success.
Jean-Bernard Quicheron is EUROPAplus Manager for the European Commission. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views and comments reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official European Commission policy.