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Using Email Bulletins to 'Import' Weekly News of Health and Human Services



INTRODUCTION



This week's feature looks at "Import," a new weekly email- and web-based bulletin on health and human services produced by a private consulting group. At OHPE Bulletin we have been delighted to receive this fascinating and informative newsletter, with its comprehensive national and international summaries of news, and the added value of analysis and commentary. It is also a pleasure to keep in touch with John Butler, and a truly erudite analyst and writer currently of The Agora Group and a former executive director of the District Health Councils of Ontario. John responded to our inquiry about exchanging Bulletins and possible features with this comment about why we do them: "A few folks have wondered why a private consulting firm produces a newsletter like Import, and my answer is that after 35+ years in the health system, I have learned many folks have a hunger for additional learning perspectives. I daresay that is the same reason why you and your colleagues provide such a helpful e-mail bulletin!" Indeed, the opportunity provided by email and the Internet to readily share our collected knowledge and news, has made the production and distribution of the Ontario Health Promotion Email Bulletin possible, along with the dedication and contributions of many people.



In the Resources section of this week's OHPE Bulletin you will find links to resources that your organization might use to create similar newsletters. A few additional examples of Canadian email bulletins of interest to health promotion are also included. We hope that you enjoy this Bulletin and the many others that are readily available.



- Alison Stirling, for the OHPE Bulletin editorial team


1. WHAT IS IMPORT?



"Import" is a weekly newsletter roughly five pages in length, launched in January and distributed by e-mail by the Agora Group, an Ontario-based consulting firm. The newsletter contains a broad mix of news related to the human services sector, which encompasses health and social services. It examines trends and issues in Ontario, Canada and internationally. There is also an opinion piece in each issue. The news is taken mainly from newswires, web sites of governments and agencies, other newsletters, and the eclectic reading habits and extensive contacts of the Agora Group affiliates. The name, Import, refers to the belief that the contents are "of import," i.e. significant. It also recognizes the "import-export" nature of communicating and exchanging ideas. The newsletter is currently sent to 650 subscribers, a number that increases with each issue.



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2. WHO IS THE AGORA GROUP?



The Agora Group is a human services consulting firm headed by John Butler, with 17 affiliated consultants. Two of the affiliates, Floyd Dale and Mike Moralis, work with Butler to produce Import each week. Butler and Dale are consultants with 70 years of experience in human services planning and delivery between them. Moralis is a professional writer and editor who has specialized in health policy, communications and public affairs for 15 years. All three have diverse and eclectic interests, and see the human services system as one in transition, or perhaps semi-permanent flux.



The organization's name, the Agora Group, comes from the Greek word that in classical times referred to the marketplace. It was both the site of commerce and a place for public assembly and discourse. The Agora Group believes that change only takes hold when it is rooted in the marketplace of ideas, where communities, organizations, families and individuals exist and interact. This premise is a key to the philosophy underpinning the newsletter.



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3. THE ORIGINS OF IMPORT



One of the things the three people responsible for Import and its contents have in common is a systems perspective, as well as a long history of sharing information amongst themselves and with others. They see human services not as a collection of programs, but as the interface of individuals with an increasingly complex world. Their extensive experience has given them an appreciation of the need for people working in human services to be broad thinkers.



It has become a cliché that the world is moving to an information-based economy. The explosion of information and channels of communication, including the Internet, means that although more information is available than ever before, it may be harder to find, obscured by sheer volume. The Agora Group affiliates believe decisions can and should be based on a delicate balance of values, abstract concepts, information and data.



The Internet is still a relatively new medium, and people are learning how it can help them. The three people responsible for Import use the Internet extensively for various purposes, including research. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, they see it as both the medium and the message; it is a new tool, not an end in itself. The proliferation of web sites means that no one can keep up with the explosion of information. At the same time, e-mail and desktop publishing have democratized the processes of producing and disseminating information, at least among the technological haves. The experience of the Agora members has persuaded them that many people still do not use the Internet as effectively as they might, and therefore fail to find information that could potentially help them. Marginalization of the technological have-nots is cause for different concerns



The three people involved in producing Import have broad, eclectic interests. All three understand the distinctions between health and health care, and value the determinants of health. Based on their common interests, and recognizing that their distinctive respective interests in issues like civic communities, data and knowledge management, and communications, the three affiliates saw a new role emerging for themselves. They began to see the value of cooperatively sifting through the mountains of information in search of important nuggets.



They recognized that there is value in the pursuit of knowledge and information, and conceptually explored this role as a potential market niche. The conclusion was that attempting to compete with other, larger organizations that have news-gathering as their primary function and core competency is a daunting proposition. However, they also realized that instead of trying to provide all the relevant news, the potential added value they could offer is that of filtering information and providing informed analysis.



The mass media attempt to provide something for everyone. As a result, stories important to the human services sector are often overlooked, or overshadowed by other stories. Newsletters, however, serve a targeted audience. The Agora Group concluded that it could provide news to the human services sector that might otherwise be missed. There was also the realization that many of the same problems are being addressed in different ways in different communities, and that opportunities to share evidence and best practices are frequently missed because that information was not being shared effectively. There was also a sense that even when events are reported in the mass media, the context is incomplete.



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4. THE PURPOSE OF IMPORT



Import is intended to provide a forum where issues that cross boundaries can be raised and tracked, and subjected to comment. The theory is that people working in human services want and need broader perspectives on the environment that is in transition.



One of the interests of the Agora Group is community development. One way of doing that is by fostering the development of capacity; another is through facilitation of discussion. Members of the Agora Group have also repeatedly encountered local change agents, heroes and heroines who may have no formal training and yet serve as focal points for their community. Import offers a way of recognizing their achievements, and recent issues have highlighted individuals in other countries.



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5. MAJOR THEMES



Import looks at the ongoing dilemmas related to changing social organization and emerging structures in both the global and local contexts. What is of interest to the authors is the effects of these structures on population health and wellbeing.



The concept of community is changing, with communities of interest, digital or otherwise, rivaling geographic communities as social supports. Communities that were previously neglected can find a voice, and have a better chance of making it heard to become empowered. One of the goals of the Agora Group and Import is to support this trend, in part by creating and managing structures for change.



The key theme is one of sharing and disseminating information, mainly through short summaries of news and developments that otherwise might be missed, or not perceived as elements of larger events or patterns.



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6. HOW IT WORKS



Import is very much an experiment in progress. Most of the work is done late at night and in the very early hours of the morning, prompting the trio to refer to themselves as "the league of sleep disorders." Some of the most interesting stories of the preceding week are distilled into brief summaries with links to web sites whenever possible. Each person's writing is reviewed by another member of the team. Once the content is ready, it is formatted for distribution by e-mail to subscribers, and also posted to the web site. (http://www.consultant-network.com - press 'our affiliates' and select Agora Group)



One of the interesting outcomes of the newsletter is that some of the people who receive Import e-mail responses to items that touch a chord. As the publisher, Butler loves to get feedback, because the purpose of Import is really to stimulate dialogue, he says.



In the spirit of this free exchange of ideas and opinions, he is equally delighted when another organization requests permission to reprint something from Import, or when he finds something in another newsletter that he would like to reprint. That cross-fertilization is an act of sharing that enriches both organizations, Butler says.



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7. WHERE IT'S GOING



Butler has written most of the opinion pieces, which appear under the heading "In my humble opinion." He says he hope other affiliates will contribute their thoughts, in order to reflect more diversity. Butler would also like to publish more articles about change tools, either for Import or for the Agora Group's web site. People appear to appreciate the publication, and as long as the feedback is positive, it will probably continue, perhaps linked to lengthier articles on the Agora Group web site.



The Agora Group's web site is hosted by the Consultant Network, and can be accessed through www.consultant-network.com. E-mail can be sent to John Butler at agora@consultant-network.com.

8. SAMPLE REFERENCES FROM PAST ISSUES OF IMPORT



All issues of Import are available in PDF format. Within each issue are brief summaries of newly released reports, news items and initiatives, with links to online documents where available. The following examples from recent issues have been selected (and shortened) by Alison Stirling of the OHPE Bulletin team:



* Drug Spending Soars, Says CIHI [Import v1#10] The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) say that drugs consume an increasing proportion of health care spending in Canada, reaching an estimated $14.7 billion last year or 15.5% of total health care spending. A media release from CIHI is available at: http://www.cihi.ca/medrls/14mar2001.shtml.

* Our Next Door Neighbours Are Everyone [Import v1#9] [W]e will profile people beyond North America who are making their worlds - and by extension our joint world - better, starting with Seleshe Demesse, an Ethiopian master musician who lived in exile for 20 years. Demesse leads a movement refurbishing Addis Ababa's civic spaces and engaging marginalized populations - homeless people, sex trade workers, street peddlers - in the change process. A full profile can be found in a March 9 article in the Addis Tribune http://addistribune.ethiopiaonline.net/Archives/2001/03/09-03-01/Seleshe...

* First Annual World Cancer Day [Import v1#7] February 4 was the first World Cancer Day, marking the first anniversary of the Charter of Paris (the Charter Against Cancer). Several hundred clinical, research and cancer survivor organizations including the Canadian Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute of Canada and the B.C. Cancer Research Centre have signed the charter. Information on the Charter of Paris is found at http://www.charteragainstcancer.org

* Privacy Commissioner Slams Ontario's Proposed Legislation [Import v12#6] Federal Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski had harsh words about Bill 159, the Ontario government's Personal Health Information and Privacy Act, in his February 8 presentation to Ontario's Standing Committee on General Government. The proceedings are available at: http://www.ontla.on.ca/hansard/37_parl/session1/committees/gengov/G044_1...