From an Israeli settlement to EU digital communications.
Dan Sobovitz (MPP 2010) has just completed four stimulating years in the cabinet of European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič. Hired as a speech-writer for Šefčovič, he also ghost-wrote the vice-president’s popular LinkedIn blog and publications.
But the part of his job he was most passionate about was the chance to explore how digital technologies could help institutions better communicate – for instance, crowdsourcing new ideas by inviting young Europeans to pitch policies to the vice president in an event livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube, or by broadcasting live on social media from autonomous vehicles and a transatlantic solar plane flight, taking input from the audience.
For a trip to Kourou in French Guiana to watch the launch of EU Galileo satellites into space, Dan even managed to persuade colleagues it would be a good idea to capture the event on a virtual reality camera.
“We were trying to tell EU citizens – ‘these satellites belong to you. You should experience this miracle with us in the most immersive way. Once they tune in for the gimmick, they also hear the message,’” he says. “It wasn’t always easy to pitch new communication methods that had never been tried before, given that it’s a fairly conservative institution which is quite risk averse.”
Dan grew up in an Israeli settlement on the West Bank, in a conservative religious milieu with a father in the military. He didn’t even realise his home was in occupied territory until the family relocated to New York in the mid-1990s, where he attended a Jewish school and the settlement question came up in a class on Zionist history.
“Nobody ever bothered to tell me before,” he says. “It’s kind of a six-ton time-bomb. When you’re there as a child, you don’t think about it too much. But when you take a few steps out of it, you suddenly understand that this place is charged on so many levels.”
That realisation led him to study political science and Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University. He learned Arabic and studied Islam and regional politics. His course included a semester at Sciences Po in Paris. At that point, he was considering a career in the Israeli diplomatic service, he says, but “the gap between where I stand and the Israeli government became too great.”
In 2008, Dan returned to New York, embarking on a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University. He spent the second year at the Hertie School. Back then, living in Berlin felt like luxury after New York, he says.
“In Manhattan everything was so expensive, and we students couldn't afford anything,” he says. “I was living with three roommates. In Berlin I could suddenly afford a nice studio by myself in Prenzlauer Berg.”
But graduating in 2010, just after the financial crisis, it was hard to find a job. After a spell giving guided tours in Berlin, Dan returned to Tel Aviv to work for a strategic consultancy. It wasn’t, he says, a good fit.
“So I took a one-way plane ticket to Brussels and hoped for the best,” he says. “I was couch-surfing and trying to meet anybody who had any tip to give me. I figured I had the right profile. I am also a European citizen and I speak French. I had significant credentials from good universities in public policy. There are so many international organizations in Brussels, something had to work out. And something did work out.”
In 2011, he began a traineeship for Mostra, a communications agency that provides services to European institutions, then gained experience at various Commission departments, including serving as the Digital Communication Coordinator and Editor-in-Chief of the EU Humanitarian Aid & Civil Protection Department (DG ECHO). When the call from the vice-president’s office came, the offer was too good to refuse.
“I discovered that doing policy communications is the one place where I fulfil both my convictions and my need for creativity,” he says. “If I do policy without communication, I can believe in what I'm doing but I find it a bit dull and grey. If I do communication without substance I find it creative, but I miss the values.”
Dan is currently on paternity leave from the European Commission, as he and his husband are having twins through surrogacy. They have also recently relocated to Berlin. With his keen interest in digital communications and the philosophical and ethical questions they raise, Dan is joining Berlin’s tech scene. He intends to invest more time in his work as an evangelist for tech4good and socially responsible innovation.
Read more about the Master of Public Policy programme.