Change is coming...
Mavence Deputy Director, Anna Koj recently interviewed András Baneth (co-founder of EU Training), on recruitment and selection reform in the European Union institutions.
You can read the full transcript of what they discussed below, or view the interview here.
Anna Koj (AK): Hello Everyone and welcome to the new episode of the Mavence interview series. My name is Anna Koj and I’m the Deputy Director at Mavence. I’m very happy to have with me today András Baneth.
András is the Managing Director of the European Office of the Public Affairs Council as well as co-founder of EU Training and SpeakerHub.
András can you please introduce yourself in a little more detail. I know you’re a very well-known person both in Brussels and beyond, but just to give it a personal flavor and touch.
András Baneth (AB): Thank you so much for the opportunity to be here and to have a great discussion about selection, recruitment and the job market. Those are essentially the three hats I’m wearing - the ones you’ve already mentioned. I have a background in Law and Political Science, but I am increasingly interested in Strategic Communication, and blended into all of this is Public Affairs, which is a very broad concept that includes so many areas from Talent Acquisition all the way to Skill-Building, to being an effective persuader when it comes to the Institutions.
AK: Thanks András. Mavence specialises in Recruitment and Public Affairs and International Affairs. Today I wanted to talk to you about recruitment for the EU Institutions. As you may know, the European Court of Auditors has recently issued a report in which it is assessing the function of the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO). I’m going to read a brief paragraph from the press release they have issued, which states “The European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO) should reconsider how it selects new recruits for the EU Civil Service according to a new report published by the European Court of Auditors today.” (This was at the end of October 2020).
“At a time of reduced staffing and advancing digitalisation the EU Institutions increasingly seek to recruit specialised staff who can become operational quickly. However, the auditors found that EPSO’s selection process is not well adapted to small-scale, targeted competitions that could attract such specialists to apply for positions in the EU Civil Service. At the same time, they also point to a number of weaknesses in the Generalist selection procedure carried out by EPSO.”
A few of the findings with regards to the Generalist selection is that it is apparently not very attractive for younger professionals, under the age of 35. It is also not really insuring geographical, social and economic diversity because a lot of the people who end up on these (Reserve) lists ultimately already live in Brussels or Luxembourg. And, while the satisfaction rate of the institutions is fairly okay regarding the profiles selected, the costs may not really be justifiable, according to the report.
Now, I know as part of your activities you provide training and coaching on how to approach EPSO tests, psychometric assessments and the whole EU selection procedure. I would be really curious to hear your opinion on the report, as well as your thoughts on the selection processes for the Civil Service and the EU Institutions.
AB: I think overall the report points at very valid issues. Raising the idea of the distribution of who applies for these competitions and who actually ends up getting the job - this is a very valid point and has been a phenomenon for many, many years, pretty much since I’ve been dealing with this topic. There’s a heavy bias towards those who are in Brussels, because they are the ones who know what the job actually entails, they know how the exam works, they have first or second-hand knowledge through acquaintances’ experiences and understanding of what the benefits are and why they should do it.
Then there’s another broad selection, usually Southern Europe, by-and-large, Southern and Eastern Europe, where most of the candidates come from. And that has a lot to do with the salaries, and the opportunities that they may have or not have in their respective countries and the contrast of these salaries at the EU Institutions. There is a duality there that is certainly a big issue to address.
Then there is the other part, that again the report points at, which is the Generalist competitions vs. Specialist competitions. There are basically two competing priorities. One is to obviously find the most suitable person for the job. The other one is to have a selection system which is fair and scalable. Perhaps the second one is the most difficult, because having a fair selection system you can do a lot in your processes. But scalable, is what makes it so difficult, because if you have hundreds, or rather thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands of candidates, how can you filter them in a way that you actually find the most suitable candidates without any bias or without excluding the right individuals? This is a very difficult thing and the report points this out. This is not new to EPSO, this is not new to anyone dealing with Human Resources or selection policies.
How this might change the system is anyone’s guess. Of course there’s a lot of internal processes and internal politics inside the Commission and various institutions about what process or what thinking this report will trigger. That is something we need to keep our eyes on.
Strictly speaking about the findings of the report there’s a lot of truth in it and they do point out valid problems.
AK: If we think about how the EU Institutions approach the recruitment process and its staffing needs, it seems like, at least from what we hear around Brussels, there have been some attempts to maybe open up a bit to people coming from the industry, or a certain tendency that can be noticed is maybe an increasing number of contract agents vs. permanent contracts. But are these really true attempts to modernise something or change something to respond to the need as well? Do they have this greater conversation, or interaction, between industries and the European Institutions? Or is it essentially a symbol of not knowing how to approach the overall process? Maybe precisely for the reasons you also mentioned, because it has to be scalable, it’s not so easy, and no one has come up with a better idea.
AB: I think one of the fundamental factors that needs to be considered is that this is a public institution. Obviously, the private sector or anything outside of the public sector has a lot of laws against discrimination, and other various laws, but still they are pretty flexible as to who they hire. Ultimately, if a company or a trade association would like to hire someone because they really like the school they went to or specific experience, they can just pick that person and go ahead. In the public sector, in the EU Institutions and especially international organisations, and especially EU Institutions who want to be at the forefront of best practices and show an example to all other public administrations of how selection and recruitment happens, these principles are extremely important.
Then, having the right person for the job - going back to the earlier point - becomes somewhat difficult from a procedural perspective. If it’s a contract agent that they can pick from a database, or some EU agencies are rather flexible and they don’t need to go through EPSO to do that so they do their own selection process, then what are the criteria based on which they are going to pick the shortlist and ultimately their candidates? Especially when there are just so many people they can choose from. It’s this very difficult, perhaps grey zone between a very legitimate objective and the risk of nepotism, the risk of picking someone based on any other criteria other than merit. Perhaps one more thing - speed. Because they cannot necessarily wait an entire year for a candidate to be hired and go through the process given the crisis, and all the things that are happening. Perhaps someone goes on maternity leave, or someone goes on long-term sick leave. You need to substitute those individuals quickly.
Again, I’m not the unsolicited lawyer for the institutions or their spokesperson, but I just wanted to say there are a lot of competing interests and finding a good compromise becomes a difficult task. But I completely understand, we hear it from candidates that they get very frustrated, understandably, if the process lingers on for six months, a year, a year and a half before they can realistically land a job.
One final point, just a small distinction to highlight. EPSO, the personnel selection office, they are selecting candidates. Whereas the Institutions are ultimately recruiting candidates. The difference being EPSO goes only as far as to create a Reserve List of the suitable, selectable, electable candidates. Then the Institutions will make their pick.
Again, we’ll see how the role of EPSO might change. I hear rumours and receive information from different sides that there’s a lot of pressure on them to reform or change the system, but they also try to be there as a filter against any sort of bias or nepotism, which is to their credit.
AK: I think it’s very clear that this is a difficult and complex discussion for all the reasons you have been mentioning. It’s not easy, in fact, to find a ‘golden’ solution. But if you could provide a word of advice, what would be your thinking on how to improve the system. Or maybe if there is indeed a need to differentiate for these more specialised roles vs. the generalist profiles. Based on your experience of working for years in this, what would be your word of wisdom here?
AB: Ultimately, the conversation will not be coming from EPSO. It will probably come from the Commission or the Institutions’ HR leadership, as to what sort of personnel they want. Will they want specialists or generalists who can be trained for specific jobs? Once there is a clearer idea, that can obviously impact the whole selection and recruitment process.
But if it comes to strictly speaking of the EPSO bit of HR policies, then it’s really about increasing efficiency, trying to minimise the steps in the process, finding ways that are accessible in the sense that almost anyone can do a certain kind of test. Whether you’re a physicist, whether you’re a sociologist, or you have no higher qualifications but you meet other criteria for the position. In other words, trying to find the minimum denominator of a selection test that is more accessible and streamline the process making it as quick and efficient as possible. And then on that broad basis you can perhaps do selections or tier the candidates and steer them into the right positions.
This is not radically different from what there is now, but I think it would make it more transparent and clearer to the average candidate regarding the kind of processes they need to go through and the kind of positions they can land. Good or bad, by this point it has blossomed, obviously good from our perspective since we help candidates as trainers, coaches, consultants, but bad for an average young junior professional who wants to land an EU job they are just utterly lost and completely confused about all the permutations of the competitions and exams.
So perhaps my final word of advice would be streamline the processes because that will help in getting more candidates and ultimately landing the right workers.
AK: Thanks for sharing your thoughts András, and I think the fact that the report is already out there, we are discussing this and that there is a general discussion that goes beyond word-of-mouth around Brussels is an interesting development. It shows that there is something to monitor and that things are hopefully changing, evolving and being adapted to the modern realities of the workforce.
Thank you everyone for joining. We look forward to seeing you at our next interview where we dive into another interesting topic about Recruitment and Public Affairs.