Africa: Survey Report, Lessons

Africa: Survey Report, Lessons

Africa: Survey Report, Lessons Date Distributed (ymd): 960818

Africa Policy Electronic Distribution List Reader Survey Analysis Possible Lessons

A full version of this report (49K) is available in html format at

To receive an ascii version of the full report by e-mail, in two files, send a message to, containing in the first line the message: send report96

The survey itself can be found at gopher://

This posting is preceded by a separate posting with an executive summary of survey results, available on-line at gopher://

Possible Lessons from Survey

In general, the lessons we can draw at this time are influenced by

(1) the objectives and location of APIC and WOA, which are particularly relevant in determining the selection of postings, and

(2) the constraint of how much predictable staff time is available for managing the Africa Policy Electronic Distribution List, which is particularly relevant in determining how much "value-added" we can provide for reposted documents.

The first point leads to our focus on Africa-related policy issues seen as particularly relevant for the U.S. government and other U.S-government-influenced multilateral institutions. The second limits us to specific commitments for the Electronic Distribution List and parallel Web site that can be sustained with an average of not more than 10 to 15 hours a week of staff time.

We hope that readers will understand that some very good ideas they have suggested may not be practical for us to implement at this time. As explained below, some of them we hope to be able to implement in the future. As for others, we hope that other groups or individuals (perhaps some of you) will take the initiative to implement them themselves.

Several readers asked us where we get our information, and how we organize the work for the distribution list. In brief, publications written by APIC or by WOA that are distributed via the list are a selection from printed publications prepared in the course of the ongoing work of the two organizations. Versions of almost all APIC publications (except longer book-length publications and internal reports) are distributed through the list. A smaller proportion of WOA advocacy and lobbying communications are distributed through the list.

Our pool of information from which we draw reposted documents includes those that are sent to us by e-mail. In many cases, however, they are documents that we first receive by fax, post or at meetings we attend, and subsequently locate on-line or request from the originating organization in electronic format. They also include ones we find on-line in relevant conferences on IGC, in Usenet newsgroups, or on the Web. There is not much staff time available for random Web surfing, but we often use the Web to find relevant documents that we have heard about through other means or think likely to be available on a particular issue or crisis.

Priorities are determined taking into account urgency of the information contained, relevance to current policy debates, reliability of the source, how much time it is likely to take for us to obtain an electronic version of appropriate length for redistribution, and whether it provides new information or perspectives readers are unlikely to have already seen.

Lessons For APIC and WOA

1. The positive ratings from respondents, combined with the continued growth rate, indicate that the list is meeting a real need. We definitely plan to continue. Thank you for all your encouragement.

2. The frequency of postings, satisfying 88% of the respondents, is probably as good as we can get. Our rough internal guidelines are to send out on average not more than 2 or 3 in a week, and a minimum of 6 to 8 in a month.

3. The length of postings is satisfactory to a substantial majority (76.2%) of respondents. But there is a significant minority for whom the postings are generally too long. Only 3% thought they were not long enough.

On this point we hope to do better. We will try to reduce the average size moderately in the future, avoid documents over 22K whenever possible, and excerpt more drastically when redistributing longer documents we still judge particularly important.

The tag at the end of each posting has been reduced slightly. We realize that it is unnecessary for regular recipients. Since the documents regularly go to new recipients, however, through redistribution, we think it essential to keep basic information mentioned here.

A number of respondents suggested regularly providing short executive summaries or abstracts at the beginning of each document distributed. We think this an excellent idea. Before implementing such a policy, however, we will have to consider carefully the extra staff time this would add up to.

4. A number of readers requested more postings on particular countries or particular topics, or a different balance, such as less U.S.-centric material. We welcome such suggestions. Our capacity to respond is limited in a number of ways. Without increasing the frequency or length of postings, neither of which seems advisable, there is a limited amount of space available. We therefore have to make choices.

That is why we have tried to keep a fairly narrow focus on policy-relevant and advocacy information. Although some readers indicated that they find us useful as a news source, we have neither the ambition nor the capability of serving as an adequate news source. We urge readers to find other ways of getting more regular comprehensive news on the entire continent or on countries or topics of particular importance to them. Links to such sources can now be found on our Web site, and we will continue to refer to these and other new sources on occasion in our postings.

Even within the limitation of a policy and advocacy focus, however, WOA and APIC's organizational objectives and location imply that we further focus primarily on issues we consider to be particularly relevant and timely for policy-making by the U.S. government and U.S.-government-influenced multilateral institutions, and on which U.S. public opinion particularly needs to be better informed. To the extent that our perspectives on these issues can be widened by input from sources on the ground in African countries in particular, and in other parts of the world as well, we welcome -- and indeed are eager to receive -- specific corrections and additional information. But we think we neither can nor should be of equal relevance to policy debates as they take shape in other national capitals. Those tasks, of selecting and distributing policy-relevant information by criteria specific to other contexts, should, and we are convinced will be, taken on by institutions based in other places, first and foremost on the African continent itself.

The selection is also tilted toward the range of issues on which we are particularly active and feel more confident in judging the quality of information, and toward what we feel are gaps that are not currently being filled by other organizations or information sources. It is as a result tilted towards issues of general relevance for a range of African countries, or to "crises" that are or, in our judgement, should be particularly the subject of Washington debate.

In practical terms, our selection is influenced not only by such relatively thought-out editorial guidelines, but also by the range of information easily accessible to us without prohibitive investment of proactive staff time in new research and fact gathering. If we receive material on a relevant topic that (1) has already been published or distributed, (2) is public domain, or authorized for redistribution by the author/originating organization, (3) is from a reputable source, to which we can refer people for further information, (4) is relatively short (a text file less than 20K, or less than 2500 words) and readable, including general background for those who are not specialists in the particular issue or country, (5) is timely, and (6) is already in electronic format, so that we don't have to retype or scan it, the chances of it showing up through our list are significantly increased. In cases where we do not receive such information, or have it called to our attention, important issues or countries are less likely to show up among our reposted documents.

We are considering ways to make a wider selection of material than can be conveniently distributed through e-mail, available as documents or links through our Web site. But that will happen only when we are able to work out sustainable procedures for processing a much larger volume of material while still maintaining consistent quality guidelines. Even then, and even if it were feasible, we do not think it an appropriate goal to become "the" centralized source of Africa policy information. Our approach is rather to stress that the provision of such information should and will be decentralized. We will consider our efforts most successful if we serve as a model for others to provide complementary sources of electronically published information.

5. A number of readers suggested the option of filtering the list so that recipients could opt to receive postings only on a given region or country. While we recognize that this would be an added convenience for many readers, and that its lack may deter some from subscribing, particularly those that have significant monetary or time costs for receiving messages, this is not a practical option from our point of view.

The primary reason is the significantly greater complexity that would be added in keeping track of separate mailing list options for different subscribers. Managing the list is practical for us with limited time commitments precisely because we have kept it as simple as possible. And while automating such a system is theoretically possible, that would also involve significant costs in debugging and explaining such a system to subscribers. Considering that different subsets of readers would be getting different sets of articles would also complicate editorial judgements about the balance of information presented.

We hope that those who suggested this improvement will understand our reasons for not being able to provide such a service at this time. This means that on balance you will simply have to decide whether the value of the useful documents you receive outweighs the nuisance of receiving ones you do not find useful.

There are alternatives, however, which may be relevant to at least some of those wishing such an option: (1) Use the delete key, or its equivalent on your system. Be assured that we are not offended. We understand that almost everyone has too much to read, and has to make choices. Note that survey respondents on average deleted 1.5 of ten documents, skimmed 4.3 and read carefully 3.9. (2) Most mail systems, including Pegasus, Eudora and others, have the capability of customized filters to sort incoming mail, filing it, deleting it, printing it or taking other actions depending on words found in the headers or the text itself. Learn to use this capacity, and you can provide your own customized filters for our postings as well as other material. (3) Request to be removed from our list, and instead visit our Web site from time to time to check only for documents you are interested in. If you are on any of the APC networks, check our postings in the conference instead of subscribing to our distribution list.

In theory, it would be possible for us to try to establish more specialized lists dealing with specific regions of Africa or with particular topics, with material from our list plus additional material on that region for people with specific interests. We do not rule out ever doing so, should we have the additional resources in staff time to make it practical. However, we think that most such ventures are probably more appropriate for organizations and individuals with greater specific expertise in--and, as feasible, location in--specific regions of the continent. So instead of establishing such specialized lists ourselves, among our goals over the next year are to collect more systematic information on lists that are currently available, and to encourage others to improve and expand the range of such resources. (For starting points on locating existing resources of this kind, see APIC's July 1996 Background Paper, "Africa on the Internet: Starting Points for Policy Information," which is available on our Web site.)

Possible Lessons for Other Electronic Publishing Initiatives

The Africa Policy Electronic Distribution List model is only one model of electronic publishing, and the survey results provide no basis for systematic comparison with other models. However, there do seem to be some lessons that might be of wider application. Among those lessons:

(1) E-mail distribution remains a viable alternative, despite newer communication tools such as the World Wide Web.

Despite the current publicity focus on the Web, e-mail distribution of information continues to have its own advantages. There exist substantial numbers of people, including those with Web access, who welcome receiving carefully selected information in their e-mail boxes even when they have the option of obtaining the same information from the Web. An audience defined by subscribers to an e-mail distribution list is likely to be a more consistent group than the possibly much larger but more intermittent set of visitors to a Web site.

Organizations currently establishing a presence on the Web might well want to consider whether a selection of the information they are putting on the Web might also be attractive to potential subscribers to an electronic distribution list.

(2) More is not automatically better. It is necessary to strike a balance between providing too much and too little information.

A frequency of two to three times a week, and a length of 10K to 20K, seem to satisfy the needs of a significant number of readers. This pattern seems to strike a balance between creating overflowing mailboxes and providing too little regular information to be of maximum benefit.

While other frequencies and lengths may also be appropriate for some audiences, electronic publishers might well consider whether the Web rather than e-mail may be the more appropriate venue for longer documents or more frequent additions of new information. Periodic e-mail notices can be used to notify regular readers of significant additions to a Web site, and mailservers, including public web-by-e-mail servers, can be used to make longer or more frequent documents available to readers without Web access.

(3) There should be scope for many other Africa-related electronic distribution lists on a similar model, but with different editorial guidelines and intended audience niches. In fact many country-specific and topic-specific lists, or newsletters with an e-mail version, exist already, but there is still considerable scope for new ones seeking to define an information niche and to strike the best balance between too much and too little information in that niche. Many existing lists, as well as future ones, could benefit from more explicit editorial intervention to provide value-added for recipients. This does not necessarily imply writing or editing new material, but does require at minimum the editorial sifting function of picking out what is seen as most useful among a much larger flow of information, and proactively seeking out additional repostable information to meet the needs of the readers. Since recipients' information needs vary, there is room for different editorial guidelines and judgements appropriate for different groups.

Among desirable requirements for organizations or individuals considering such publishing options: (a) an existing program of good quality print publications, which can be complemented by lower-cost distribution of summaries or full documents via e-mail; (b) access to an incoming flow of information, at least part of which is appropriate for public redistribution; (c) access to an internet service provider at reasonable flat or hourly rates with zero or low per-message charges (this is easy in the U.S., but probably still quite difficult in many locations in other countries); (d) clear editorial guidelines determining the niche of information/opinion to be filled (taking into account other resources already available to potential readers), as well as the target size and frequencies of postings; (e) consistent encouragement of further redistribution, along with a brief explanation explaining to recipients of a redistributed document how to receive postings regularly.

We, and others, are continuing to experiment and learn how to make best use of new electronic media for the benefit of grassroots African interests. We welcome continued dialogue with others engaged in the same or similar efforts. Please feel free to share your experiences and your suggestions.

Our particular thanks to all those who returned their survey forms.


Message-Id: <> From: Date: Sun, 18 Aug 1996 15:23:36 -0500 Subject: Africa: Survey Report, Lessons

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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