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Leaking and leak prevention in the European Commission

Today, my new article on leaking and leak prevention in the European Commission (open access) has been published in West European Politics. This is follow-up research to my doctoral thesis (2014) on how leaked Commission documents on the reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy circulated in networks of EU lobbyists – at the time I found that only few actors got leaks from the Commission directly but through much wider networks – and my more general work on EU leaks.

Presenting these issues at a workshop last year inspired my colleagues to ask what the Commission does to actually prevent leaking, and so I started a new research process the result of which are out now in the article linked above.

Findings of the article

The core findings of my new article are simple: there’s quite some talk at the top of the Commission – in the weekly College,  Chefs de Cabinet and Directors-General meetings – that leaks are bad and that something needs to be done, but the cases that are talked about at the top don’t seem to end up being sanctioned. Also, despite the  talk there seem to be only few investigations on leaking of sensitive documents in recent years, and little follow-up from past discussions in future meetings.

In academic literature, this “decoupling” between talk and action is called organised hypocrisy, and the European Commission seems to use  decoupling to balance between the conflicting values of  secrecy and transparency that are inbuilt into EU policy-making.

In more simple terms: talking about how bad leaks are and not doing much about them may seem hypocritical, but in the end it’s “just” a way through which the Commission (and other public administrations) deal with competing interests in controlling information on one side and in gaining support for their work, internally and externally, on the other.

FIGURE1_WEP_LeakDiscusssionsFINAL FIGURE2_WEP_LeakInvestigationsFinal

But instead of repeating in more detail what’s already in the paper – Figure 1 and Figure 2 of the article with key data are above – and what I have already published for an earlier version of my paper (see previous blog post), I want to use this blog post for two more things.

Research transparency: publishing all material used

First, I want to use it to make my research process for this largely qualitative research public. Research transparency is a key issue these days, and even more so in  research that uses interpretations from non-public documents instead of quantitative arguments from publicly-available datasets.

This is why most of the internal documents received from the Commission (and also those downloaded from the Commission website) and analysed for my paper are uploaded to an online drive with the following folders:

The folder containing the Commission College meetings also contains my collection of leak-related quotes from the meeting protocols that I considered relevant and used for the analysis in the paper. The folder on Security Investigations is empty because the Commission so far refuses to give access to the respective documents; but in its reply to refusing access it at least disclosed what kind of documents exist and that there were only six such investigations in March 2015- March 2017.

Based on all these documents you can replicate most of my analysis, contradict my findings, or find new material that adds to what I found. If something that you want is missing, I can add that by making photos/scans as some stuff only exists on paper.

How to do (EU) secrecy research?

This brings me to the second thing I wanted to discuss: How to do empirical research on matters of secrecy in EU affairs? It’s a question that I’m not alone to ask, but since starting my first EU blog in 2008 and sind my PhD research in 2009 I’ve been wondering what could be the most effective way of bringing light into matters of secretive information flows.

The paper published today has a simple approach: take what is already public for a decade (e.g. College meeting protocols), and then start digging deeper systematically by making freedom of information (FOI) requests, in my case asking first for IDOC reports (where I knew they would be released from past FOI requests) and seconf for those parts of the protocols of Chefs de Cabinet and Directors-General meetings dealing with leaks (where I did not know what I would get).

When the Commission refused access, I went for confirmatory applications. Where the Commission still refused, I went to the European Ombudsman. She has been very helpful, but I’m still waiting for documents I hope to analyse for this paper. Let’s see how much I get…

So this takes a lot of time, but it’s often worth waiting. Cracking secrecy through empirical research needs persistence. Because even if what you find is not revolutionary, it opens doors to new stories.

One of the stories that I could not pursue for the paper because I received some of the documents very late from the Commission (but thanks to the European Ombudsman I still got them just in time to correct an earlier version of my paper) is, for example, that the Chefs de Cabinet protocol of their meeting from 17 September 2012 speaks about a “working breakfast” of the Chefs de Cabinet of 21 September 2012 at which leaking was supposed to be discussed. What was discussed and whether this is documented anywhere is unclear.

However, what it shows is that matters of secrecy are organised in layers. Below the layer of Chefs de Cabinets official meetings, for which it took over half a year to get documents, there is a lay of semi-informal meetings such as working breakfasts, informal seminars etc. There may still be records of these meetings somewhere, but finding out who will have those records is already a challenge; getting them may be even more challenging.

This means that, at some point, empirical EU secrecy-research has to resort to interviews with key informants. If you are lucky, you may get access to these people – such as past Chefs de Cabinet who were part of a working breakfast – who then can report from their memories what happened, but this will be years in the past and you’ll have to face serious recall bias.

Which  makes, in my view, the hunt for documents still one of the most important parts of secrecy research, because they may document details that 2-3 years later will be forgotten even by key actors involved (try to remember details of what you did at a meeting three years ago…).

And it makes sharing those documents in a wider research community important, because it means we as researchers do not have to start from zero each time but each new generation of secrecy researchers can dig deeper and bring more light, layer by layer.

Overall, I hope that my open-access article on leak prevention in the Commission and the material I share can encourage you to dig deeper, at EU-level or in comparative leak research at national level. Leaking is a key aspect of bureaucratic and political life at the frontline between transparency and secrecy, but understanding leaks and leaking requires time and data collection methods that actually get you from layer to layer of secrecy. Comparative or even quantitative analysis may require even more time, more persistence, and cooperation among many researchers (and eventually generations).

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