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Post-ESF report: (Mis)communication
Report on (mis)communication, ESF2008, Malmö, Sweden
(Date: 3 November 2008)
This report details the different levels of communication involved in the Malmö ESF. It points to the several failures of communication between different groups (ESF, ALIS, Babels), and the resulting chaos. It suggests a number of improvements to increase the transparency, the accountability and the efficiency of Forums, Organizing Committees and Babels.
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Report prepared by Yan, with input from several other coordinators.
For Malmö, there were supposed to be several levels of communication: (1) between Babels and the ESF, (2) between Babels and ALIS, and (3) communication within Babels. Each level of communication posed several challenges, some of which were addressed successfully, others unsuccessfully.
1. Communication between Babels and the ESF
One must here distinguish several groups within the ESF:
At any point between (a) and (c), between the ESF dream and the ESF reality, there were potential communication problems.
(a) Communication with the ESF as a whole
Some of the ESF participant organizations meet regularly at European Preparatory Assemblies (EPA), approximately 3 or 4 times a year, in several cities. Generally Babels helps with the interpretation at EPAs, but we rarely had any spare volunteers as spokespeople, since the budget is limited and there is not budget secured for interpretation. Even if we had, we would not have known what to say, as there were rarely any discussions regarding interpretation. Interpretation was usually considered a given: there would be no problem, Babels would take care of it, as it always does.
For many Babels coordinators, EPAs are not essential, as they are mostly about general ESF politics, not about logistics. For other Babels coordinators, it is important to use these meetings to stress the political problems regarding interpretation, to make sure Babels is given the means to work properly. The main problem seems to be that the EPA itself is of no use for Babels, but that there are informal meetings around the EPA which can be useful.
Luckily, for the Malmö ESF, the political decisions taken during the EPAs did not influence interpretation-related issues, or influenced them in a positive direction (language diversity, volunteer interpretation, etc.). However, most likely due to not knowing how Babels work, organizations took for granted that interpretation would be organized by Babels, without writing to the network until February, through Sophie.
In addition to EPAs, there is a general mailing list for the ESF member organizations. Several Babels coordinators are on this list, but Babels never communicated information on this list for the Malmö ESF, whereas for the Athens and London ESFs, for instance, several emails to the ESF list had informed organizations of several interpretation-related issues.
Babels’ lack of communication with the ESF as a whole explained the decision to publicly denounce the state of affairs during the Assembly of the Social Movements, on Sunday 21. This was the only place where Babels could address the ESF organizations. That Babels did not address problems earlier, at least through the ESF mailing list, is a problem. It was Babels’ responsibility to explain to everyone coming to the forum what the situation was. (Coordinators were hoping everyday that issues would be solved as had been promised everyday by the ESF organizers, and wanted to avoid public explosions of anger and frustration as much as possible.)
However, a positive note is that the communication with individual seminar organizers was much better than in previous forums: a greater number replied to confirm their language needs, the list of speakers, etc. Alas, with the chaos caused in great part by the booths not working, a lot of this work was useless (see report on Booth planning).
Conclusion: Babels has not consensuated a strategy to communicate with the ESF as a whole. For Malmö, this did not pose a major problem, since the political decisions regarding interpretation agreed with Babels principles: language diversity was guaranteed, as was volunteer interpretation. However, for future forums, Babels should avoid leaving its chair empty, not only to make sure that the political project is maintained (language diversity, etc.), but also to make sure everyone is aware of potential problems with logistics, as logistical problems have political consequences.
(b) Communication with the NOC and the Board
The NOC was mainly composed of representatives of the Scandinavian unions which were going to finance most of the ESF. NOC meetings were usually conference calls over the telephone: there were few physical meetings (members of the Board were scattered throughout the Scandinavian countries). In many conference-call meetings, it seems many people of the Board were not present. In addition to this, the NOC changed sometime before May, due to the departure of several Swedish groups, infuriated by the politicking within the NOC. See the minutes to the Babels meeting online, posted on May 29 so that volunteers could read.
Babels began to have direct contact with the Board only 2 days before the forum, when the accommodation and logistical issue had already become a crisis which was forcing Babels to threaten to pull out of the ESF. Until then, most of the Board members were not even in Malmö, and Babels relied on ESF staff in Malmö to communicate with the Board.
When problems arose, this laid too much pressure on the ESF staff member who was in direct contact with the Board, while remaining the Board’s employee. In the end, Babels coordinators contacted the Board members directly, by email, then in person. But by that time, mutual trust was reduced to ashes, with accusations on both sides (see Accommodation report for a copy of the correspondence between the Board and Babels).
To this day, Babels does not know whether the Board members had precise responsibilities, and if they did, who was responsible for what.
The impression left on Babels is that several Board members did not do their work, or evaded responsibility, or even covered up problems from within the ESF, while other Board members were left overworked, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, trying to extinguish the flames as best they could. Also, other board members went on holiday during the month of August, leaving o the hands of their own volunteers huge tasks and logistics. Thus, the WHOLE task of taking care of the booth was left in the hands of a courageous exchange student form Australia, who was also a volunteer, but not a technician. Babels did not know about this all until the situation exploded.
Conclusion: during the preparation stage, the lack of communication with the Board did not pose problem, as the Board had early on agreed on a budget for Babels, and Babels was entrusted with organizing interpretation as Babels saw fit, within the budget allocated. However, when problems arose, this lack of direct communication became a weak point. A clear picture of who is responsible and accountable for which areas is essential, as is a medium to communicate with these people, and the Board in general.
(c) Communication with the ESF staff
The ESF staff in Malmö were divided between paid staff and volunteer staff. For the most part, paid staff had been working several months before the ESF, whereas volunteers began working several weeks before the ESF. Paid staff had specific responsibilities and their pay level depended on the type of responsibilities. (In Sweden, your contract can specify that you will be paid 10% for one responsibility, 35% for another, etc.)
Volunteer Babels coordinators who were present a few weeks before the ESF were sometimes surprised by the fact that many ESF volunteers were seen working non-stop at the office, while some paid staff and Board members would frequently be absent (some went on holidays only one month before the forum, some were regularly on sick-leave, some would refuse to work overtime, and perhaps some were no doubt working, but not in the office). While Babels believes that people should never be forced to work non-stop, and that Social Forums should be model employers, it was shocking to witness the exploitation of slave workers (unpaid, working non-stop) by a handful of pampered employees or Board members.
One ESF employee was responsible for working with Babels: Sophie. She first got in touch with Babels on February 11, meeting several experienced coordinators in Paris in March 20. A physical meeting with a group of European Babels coordinators who were committed to prepare the ESF then met in Malmö in May 3 and 4 (see below, section 3).
Sophie was also asked by the ESF Board to oversee a number of other issues, notably visas. Realizing that interpretation required much more time and effort than the NOC was willing to pay for, Sophie asked that she be no longer responsible for visas, so that she could concentrate only on Babels/interpretation. Her pay was consequently reduced to 75%, though this did not stop her from working 18 hours a day, on average.
In other forums, the ESF had secured enough funds to support full-time staff members to work with Babels: 3 in London (2004), 3 in Paris (2003). In Athens, there were two full-time members working with Babels at the office, one of them participating in an internship program. In any case to deal efficiently with a number of very important issues there have always been many other volunteers helping. By only paying for 0.75 staff, the ESF grossly underestimated the amount of work required to deal with coordinating the work of 400-600 interpreters from around Europe. Organizing Committees always tend to exploit volunteers and semi-volunteer workers.
Other ESF staff, paid or unpaid, worked closely with Babels. Among the unpaid staff, Annette worked with Babels on the ESF program, Malin worked on food and logistics, and Annie worked on accommodation. All were remarkably well organized. Work with them was carried out in person, by phone, or through internet (notably googledocs for the ESF program, and accommodation).
Among the paid staff, in addition to Sophie, Babels had to deal with Francisco Contreras and Anders Palmqvist, in charge of finances. Agreements on how to proceed with travel, accommodation and reimbursement were passed orally with them, but in the last 3 weeks before the forum, they began to be overwhelmed by the work, and subsequently blocked, deferred or pretended that they had taken care of all requests. When the extent of the lies was known, Babels sought a new interlocutor that would be a member of the Board. After some confusion, Elin Brusewitz took charge of the reimbursement process.
Conclusion: communication with ESF staff was mostly good, until there were problems. Some staff were reliable, some turned out to be inveterate liars. In theses cases, Babels did not know what to do, and given the lack of direct communication with the Board, essential issues such as reimbursement and accommodation were not taken care of in time, with disastrous consequences.
2. Communication between Babels and ALIS
ALIS and Babels are two separate networks. Several Babels coordinators are subscribed to ALIS discussion lists, or know personally members of the ALIS group in Greece. But there is no official communication protocol between the two groups.
Since the ESF/NOC had decided to take charge of the implementation of the interpretation equipment, and since ALIS did not want to get involved (believing, it appears, that it would be too difficult to work with the NOC ESF), there was no Greek ALIS volunteer in Malmö to serve as adviser. At one point, one experienced ALIS volunteered to go, but the ESF refused to pay for his flight. This means there was nobody to train local volunteers on how to build booths and check consoles. Babels was never informed of this by ALIS Greece or the NOC.
Francisco Contreras was in charge of ALIS and the equipment in Sweden. In May he said he had contacted technical college students, and that he would have volunteers in July. In the end, the ESF found one volunteer to manage the interpretation equipment: Kajute. This young exchange student from Australia had experience organizing events, but no experience with interpretation equipment.
One month before the ESF, Kajute was planning the schedules for 30 ALIS volunteers, but these volunteers never materialized. Even though Francisco could boast that the ESF had the equipment already in Malmö long before the forum, contrary to the WSF in Porto Alegre in 2005, when it was discovered only 3 days before the forum that the interpretation equipment had not been built, there were not enough people to take care of the equipment. Thanos, from ALIS Greece, had estimated in May that 50 volunteers with prior knowledge of sound equipment would be needed. Kajute found only a dozen, with a lot of good faith, but no technical skills.
At no point before the forum was Babels formally informed that there was a problem with the equipment (many consoles did not work), and that Kajute lacked volunteers. Had we known, Babels would have looked for solutions, like asking the professionals who arrived early to help, or train the beginners for consecutive interpretation and not simultaneous, or demanding of the ESF to pay trained technicians, or stopping training interpreters and asking them if anyone could volunteer to help build booths instead, even though that is not what Babels interpreters had initially volunteered for.
For the experienced coordinators who discovered that the booths were not ready on Wednesday September 16, one day before the beginning of the forum, this was not surprising or particularly alarming. In previous forums, things are often done at the last minute, and in some cases, equipment starts working only after 1 session is already finished. The extent of the damage became apparent only when the Forum was already well advanced, and virtually 90% of the forum did not have any booths built, let alone functioning.
Conclusion: Babels was not responsible for the interpretation equipment. When problems arose with the equipment and the lack of volunteers, ALIS/ESF did not warn Babels. Solutions were afterwards improvised, complicated by the fact that Kajute, the ALIS manager in Malmö, had no way to contact his own volunteers (the ALIS volunteers had not received any phones either), and some of them had no access to e-mail. In future forums, Babels must follow and assess the situation regarding equipements, and might even want to exercise a greater degree of paranoia and make sure that the equipment works well,and that the people in charge are experienced and sufficient in number.
3. Communication within Babels
Within Babels, we can further distinguish communication:
(a) Communication between Babels coordinators
As soon as Malmö ESF was accepted as a Babels project on the general coordinators list email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org mailing list was created so that coordinators worked through it, as well as through several online tools (Babels database, Babels wiki, and googledocs). In May 3-4, a dozen coordinators flew to Malmö to meet in person, to determine the tasks and responsibilities for the work that remained to be done over the summer. Afterwards, communication was maintained from the malmo mailing list, as well as through weekly Skype meetings.
There were regular communication problems, due mainly to the use and misuse and confusion regarding the discussion list, the contact e-mail, the Babels wiki, the database and the problems with Skype meetings. None were serious, but impeded the smooth and efficient working of the group as a whole. At several points, work was done twice because there was insufficient coordination among the coordinators!
In future forums, it is essential that coordinators learn early how to use the tools Babels works with: mailing lists, database, and wiki.
Conclusion: contrary to other forums, communication between Babels coordinators was mostly efficient and peaceful, with occasional problems due to the technical knowledge needed to handle online tools Babels uses to work (mailing lists, database, wiki), and occasional contradictory behaviour on the part of a few coordinators.
(b) Communication between coordinators and the rest of the volunteers.
In the following paragraphs, ’coordinators’ means Babels volunteer coordinators, ’volunteers’ means volunteer interpreters. Both ’coordinators ’ and ’volunteers ’ are all volunteers (unpaid). The difference is coordinators volunteered to organize the forum, in addition to participating in the Forum as interpreters.
(i) Before the ESF, initial communication between coordinators and volunteers was carried out through the database. One contact email was created for the project: email@example.com. Yan, María and Graziela several times pointed out that there were too few people receiving replies to that contact email, and did not know whether anyone was every replying to emails sent to that email. At some point, Grégoire, Sophie and Graziela (the latter only regarding the call for coordinators) were all subscribed and did their best to reply to questions.
Separate communication was afterwards carried out through generic email addresses created with gmail: esftravel@gmail, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org etc. These addresses were created to receive information regarding travel or reimbursement. Sophie and Lina were initially solely responsible for the travel messages, but at some point Sophie had to leave other coordinators (Barunka, notably) take care of emails, as she already had too much work. Pelle received messages concerning reimbursement, and so on. The number of different email addresses was sometimes confusing. The fact that Sophie had used her own work gmail account to conduct a great deal of correspondence complicated matters: she received hundreds of emails each day, making it impossible to read, let alone reply, to them.
Another very important problem was that many volunteers did not reply to our messages, or they would only reply after weeks of delay. Things were worsened by the fact that most emails were sent between June and August, when many people are on holiday. Even when the travel group asked volunteers to confirm their travel arrangements, there was a great number of volunteers who would wait for days, sometimes weeks, before actually buying the ticket they had found. Of course, in the interim, prices had increased, and the confirmation process had to be done again.
Other problems were volunteers not reading emails properly. Even when the email began with HUGE letters saying "If you need a visa, write to email@example.com IMMEDIATELY", volunteers would ask two weeks later "What do I do if I need a visa? I’m leaving in two days, etc." This created many problems. Everyone should be advised to RTFM (’Read The Fucking Manual’) before asking questions or complaining!
Other than sending out mass mailings to the volunteers who subscribed to the ’ESF Malmö 2008’ project on the database, nobody was specifically in charge of creating a communication strategy. Instead, there were two types of messages: collective messages with logistical information sent by by all the coordinators, and small group messages with non-logistical information sent on a personal basis by individual coordinators.
Collective messages were prepared on the wiki. They concerned accommodation, travel, visas, reimbursement, selection, and so on, and they were prepared as the need arose. But no messages were prepared explaining the political issues involved, or how logistical decisions had been taken, or who had volunteered for what. This meant that there was no transparency (nothing was hidden, but nothing was explained either), and that volunteers sometimes wondered if anybody was in charge, and why things had been done this way or that. For the future each message should bear an introduction explaining how it was created - through the wiki, collectively - and why - for organizational purposes, etc.
Small group messages were devised by individual coordinators for smaller groups. María wrote messages for volunteers in the Scandinavian countries with no prior experience in simultaneous interpreting (see report on Training); Grégoire and Philippe created a googlegroup list for the French booth; Sophie created a list for the people in Sweden, etc.
There was no way for volunteers to contact coordinators by anything other than email, except in Sweden, were some volunteers contacted Sophie. Very quickly, however, Sophie could not manage too many calls asking very simple questions, while having to do all the rest of the work too.
Further communication problems were caused by the lack of phones, mobile phones and phone cards with credit. Babels coordinators requested tirelessly that they be given phones with credit, to deal with accommodation issues, etc., but received no response from Francisco. Another member of the Board, Lina, brought a few phone cards once the forum had already begun.
Less than a week before the Forum, a dedicated BabelsMalmo Skype account was created (and paid with personal funds) to make it possible for coordinators to call a few volunteers who were going to face particular difficulties (they had no accommodation and they were arriving late at night, for instance), but the other volunteers were not given the Skype number. If there was a problem, nobody knew what number to call.
Conclusion: All volunteers received by email all the logistical and practical information, when it was available, but most questions by volunteers remained unanswered. In addition, most volunteers did not receive non-logistical information, such as information on what the Forum was, what it meant, what Babels was trying to do, what the volunteers could do to prepare, which coordinators were doing what, etc. A clear communication strategy might help new-comers understand how Social Forums are organized, and what the Babels coordinators are trying to achieve. Also, emergency phone numbers, phones and volunteers to answer the phones, need to be planned for emergency situations. Lastly, a clear list of emails should avoid confusing about what email is used for what, and who receives messages.
(ii) During the ESF, communication with volunteers was carried out through word of mouth, through posters in ABF (the Babels office), and during meetings on the evenings of Thursday and Friday at Amiralen (3 minutes away from ABF). Several other meetings had been organized by ’booths’ (for example, all those selected for the French booth met at some point, etc.).
There was no overall plan, everything was improvised. Luckily, most people had the necessary information, but this was mostly because of a combination of luck and because the situation was so chaotic that volunteers naturally searched for information at regular intervals.
Coordinators had planned a few weeks before the forum on having 6-10 contact people for each geographic area during the forum, to check that everything was working well, and with mobile phones to call the Babels office at ABF if interpreters were missing or needed. In the end, this idea was abandoned, since there had been no time to find volunteers for that, no phones (and phone cards), and there were too many problems anyway.
Conclusion: communication during the ESF worked as well as it could, but it was always improvised, and each day a new ’method’ was found to communicate important information. This was often confusing and frustrating. There were daily meetings between coordinators before the forum, which were very useful to determine what was needed to be done, but these daily meetings were forgotten during the forum itself. Daily meetings should be planned between coordinators, and with the volunteers, as a matter of course.
(iii) After the ESF, communication was again carried out through the database, using the firstname.lastname@example.org contact list. To avoid further breakdown of communication between coordinators and volunteers, the whole list of coordinators was subscribed to receive messages sent to the email@example.com contact list. This made it possible to keep all the coordinators aware of what was going on, but it also created some confusion, as some coordinators replied to the volunteers without seeking prior consensus. One thing is to be aware of what is going on, and another is finding volunteers willing to do the hard work of politely answering sometimes insulting emails.
Conclusion: as with communication before the forum, a small team of coordinators should take care of communication with volunteers to deal with post-ESF issues.
General conclusion concerning point 3: as was done more or less succesfully in previous forums (Athens, Porto Alegre), a clear communication strategy should avoid the numerous communication problems experienced in Malmö, for which there was no regular information before, during or after the forum. With a clear communication strategy, even in the event of a crisis, there are ways to keep everyone informed of what is going on.
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