On Human Resources at the European Commision
The European Commission is a great Institution. When I was an EU law student I used to revere it, and now, after knowing much more about its inner workings, my views are much more nuanced, but still overall very positive, particularly in comparison with what goes on at the national level. Still, it is the EU Institution that should be giving impulse to the EU project, a mission that it has not always accomplished in recent times. And in our field, it is the Commission that calls the shots.
Some readers of this blog have remarked that I tend to be “too” Commission friendly. Some friends at the Commission see it otherwise. I see those opposing views as a good thing (for my views on the importance/difficulty of not taking the same side on every issue, see here).
Frequent readers of the blog may also remember me saying multiple times that the human factor is very often what determines whether institutional arrangements work or nor. An organization or Institution without the right people is very unlikely to function as it should. Today I want to insist on that point.
[Those interested in reading more can click here]
In a few hours the Commission will be announcing the new appointments for top official posts: Director Generals and Deputy Director General. I do not yet have any information on who will be the people chosen to lead DG Comp along with Commissioner Vestager, and in fact I wanted to write this before having any such knowledge so that no one thinks I’m complaining about the individuals picked (which I’m not, becuase I don’t yet know who they are). My point is a much broader one.
The Commission picks top-official posts pursuant to the typical-Brussels-political-bargain that balances many factors, but (typically, although there are exceptions) not competence in the area for which the people are appointed. On top of that, until now there was a policy of moving DGs and Deputy DGs around every 5 year, thus making sure that whenever they were able to better grasp the issues, they had to leave. President Juncker himself acknowledged at the time that this made very little sense. Admittedly, you do not need technical competence for a DG post, and certainly the problem is not as important at Comp as in other DGs, because those appointed to DG at Comp are usually among the Commission’s best.
[UPDATE: Very shortly after finishing this post it was made public that Johannes Laitenberger will be the new Director General at DG Comp; his CV is available here; it is a pretty uncontroversial and even expected choice, so no complaints at all this time; however, this one choice doesn’t mean that the appointment system itself is a good one].
However, the same happens at “mid-high” levels, like Director or Head of Unit. Some of the most competent people I know in our field hold those positions at DG Comp (there are exceptions here too…) but those people are generally obliged to rotate, sometimes to units where it is clear that their potential will not be put to good use. Why do not use people in the areas on which they have a great command? When that has happened, it has always worked (I can think of examples of people at Comp who are in the right places and do a very fine job).
Despite the above, the greater problems, in my view, lie “below”, at the case handler level. DG Comp is the Directorate General at the Commission with the greatest rotation ratio for officials. There are several factors that might explain this, among which are long hours (longer in any event than in other posts at the same Institution) and greater competition for human resources between the Commission and the private sector (which affects both people at entry level and at senior levels, who may eventually prefer to do a similar job outside for more money).
That said, the problem could easily be fixed. There are a large number of motivated and knowledgeable competition lawyers around who would be willing to go to the Commission and not move elsewhere, but they can’t. Why? Because the competitions to become an EU official increasingly make less sense (that is unless you are the private company hired by the Commission to design and constantly change the tests). Mirroring what happens at higher levels, those competitions are premised on the assumption that knowkedge isn’t relevant and that anyone can do anything, and therefore CV’s are not pondered until the final stages, once a large majority of people have been excluded from the process. Accordingly, the pool of people from which to pick officials risks being composed to a large extent by candidates who have had the time to thoroughly prepare abstract tests, and not only by those with the commitment or knowledge to do the jobs that need to be done. Fortunately there are exceptions to this general recruiting process (here is the main one), but these are too rare, are often used for internal promotions (also commendable) rather than for external hiring, and, according to some, not always well managed. An additional solution would be to hire more temporary agents, which is how the Chief Economist Team hires people; but of course that faces opposition from critics of revolving doors.
Since I never tried working for the Commission, I feel quite free to write about this. Should I ever decide to change my career path then I’ll delete this post (this is something quite common among my countrymen politicians nowadays…) 😉