written by András Baneth
Smart countries around the world understand that having a nice airport is more than just a functional requirement: it’s a marketing tool that creates the first impression for newcomers.
Similarly, those looking to become EU officials need to be given a positive experience when “landing” an EU job and trying to pass the EPSO competitions. This is currently not the case.
Selection procedures are the first contact candidates have with their future employer, and having a bad experience will impact their will to join the institutions. As there are internal and external candidates, a bad selection procedure experience impacts not just the ability to attract talent but also the retention of those who already work for the institutions with fixed-term contracts, putting the selection procedure's credibility at risk - and that of the institutions too.
Thousands of would-be EU officials experienced the frustration that the ‘remotely proctored’ Prometric exams, and more specifically the bugs, technical difficulties, freezes and occasional privacy intrusions have caused. The backlash was overwhelming, the mood was desperate. Many exams had to be rescheduled and re-taken. Lose-lose for candidates, EPSO, the EU public service, and ultimately, the EU’s image.
How did this happen?
Since 2003, when EPSO was created, there have been lots of changes to the way EU staff was selected. In 2010, the competency-based selection process was introduced, ushering in a golden era: an objective and modern selection system and scientifically validated methodology, which made EPSO the global leader of public sector recruitment, acknowledged by several international awards.
EPSO has been under constant pressure from Member States and EU institutions alike to give them more power to select their own staff, raising the specter of nepotism and/or unprofessional, potentially biased or less standardized systems to be introduced. Despite lots of criticism, some justified, EPSO has been rigorous in ensuring a ‘blind’ process where candidates are not favored or disadvantaged on the basis of their country of origin or if they have their uncle working in one of the institutions.
Given the pressure to make the procedure shorter, corresponding to the needs of EU institutions (ultimately, they are EPSO’s “clients”), and taking into account the technological changes, a reform was widely discussed and eventually adopted in January 2023. Aside from speed, another key component was cutting the budget needed for the selection process: the result was the introduction of a one-step, exclusively computer-based, remotely proctored testing.
While this sounds positive in principle, it didn’t work so well in practice.
So much so that if this fiasco and defunding trend continues, it can have catastrophic consequences for the selection process. Fiefdoms around the Schuman Roundabout may be happy in the short run, but it would be devastating to the image of European institutions’ professionalism, and it would usher in a future of EU public service selecting new staff based on connections, nationality, or other non-merit criteria.
The current selection system is far from perfect. Suffice it to say candidates can pass the exams without saying a single word, i.e. interviews and assessment centers have been scrapped and no interpersonal communication takes place during the selection procedure, even if/when ‘video interviews’ are introduced. One can also flag the ‘in-sourcing’ of certain test creation processes that should have been left for professionals. And yet, it’s a system that is color- and passport-blind, is based on competency and knowledge-based elements, most of it validated by professionals such as occupational psychologists, and seems to work well to select the best and brightest.
No doubt that EPSO has proven that they are capable of managing a modern, objective, effective and efficient selection system. Why aren’t they trusted with sufficient funds to run the selection system and improve the EU's brand image?
EPSO needs to be given proper funds.
They may use it to cover the cost of test centers (again) or to find a way so that the selection method is truly candidate-friendly, and despite the exam’s inherent stress, offers a positive experience for most candidates. For many applicants, this is their first direct interaction with and first direct impression of EU institutions. It's an opportunity not to be missed.
It’s not only the future of EU civil servants at stake, and that alone is quite a responsibility. It’s the image of the EU itself in the eyes of those who want to be actively part of it, and even if they don’t pass the exam, would still need to have a positive attitude about it.
Give EPSO what it needs to do its job properly, because the alternative is much worse.