The New 2022 EPSO System: What We Know So Far | EU Training

The New 2022 EPSO System: What We Know So Far

The New 2022 EPSO System

What We Know So Far...

Written by Jan De Sutter (Senior EPSO coach and trainer)
Edited by András Baneth (Co-founder of EU Training)

A Bit of Context

There is nothing permanent except change.” Heraclitus

As most candidates reading this article would know, the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO) has been overseeing the selection of new EU officials since 2002. Having passed the EPSO competition, these laureates are recruited by EU institutions as civil servants. 

EPSO is committed to seeking suitable candidates in a broad, diverse candidate pool, aiming to find different profiles (specialists and generalists in different grades), thereby diversifying the current population of civil servants, and responding to institutions’ evolving needs. In this respect, EU institutions regularly communicate their recruitment needs to EPSO, which establishes a yearly plan to run competitions and defines selection methods and procedures, including marking rules for each competition. The checks carried out upon recruitment guarantee that all recruits meet the highest standard of ability, efficiency, and integrity.

A significant milestone was the introduction of the assessment centre model (AC) in 2010. An AC is a ‘process employing multiple assessment components, multiple assessors, and the use of simulation exercises to produce judgments regarding the extent to which a candidate displays proficiency on selected behavioural constructs.’ The most important advantage of an AC is its reliability (the laureates who are selected meet the pre-established profile) and validity (standardised, unbiased, scientifically validated and systematic process). However, an effective AC requires a considerable investment in time and resources not just from the candidates but from EPSO and EU staff as well. 

Language has always been a critical component in the system: in 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJUE) found EPSO’s linguistic regime objectionable on the two grounds raised by the Italian and Spanish governments. Consequently, EPSO adapted the language regime of the assessment centre.

Due to the Covid-19 outbreak in March 2020, EPSO had to interrupt and suspend all its assessment centre activities within its premises in Brussels and Luxembourg. Given the situation towards the end of that summer, it was still not possible to organise tests with physical presence in EPSO premises, also due to travel restrictions. To conclude the ongoing competitions within a reasonable period, EPSO decided to organise online testing - remotely - for the assessment centre tests. 

In 2020, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) concluded that the time had come for EPSO to adapt the selection process to changing recruitment needs. ECA observed that large competitions run by EPSO broadly deliver the right people for the right jobs on sound financial terms but EPSO’s selection process for specialist profiles is not suited to the current recruitment needs of the EU institutions. 

Why Change the EPSO System?

On 16th of March 2020 - at the beginning of the pandemic - the new Director General for Human Resources and Security of the Commission, Gertrud Ingestad, took office. She immediately started the preparatory work for a complete overhaul of the Commission’s HR strategy, together with the Greening of the Commission mandate. Her ‘case for change’ is based on the following ideas:

  • The world is changing, and the speed of change is accelerating.

  • The Commission needs to lead by example and implement internally the policies promoted at the European level.

  • The challenges are increasing, but the resources are shrinking (2014 reform, Long-term EU Budget 2021-2027).

  • The Commission's HR services need to be improved.

  • The Commission needs to offer attractive career opportunities to recruit the best talent in Europe.

  • After the pandemic, the ‘new normal’ will be different.

The Commission’s main objectives are clear:

  • Gender equality, diversity, and inclusion.

  • Recruiting from all backgrounds.

  • Improving the geographical balance.

  • Faster and better recruitment:

    • Simplified and shortened EPSO competitions.

    • Simplification of the selection process for temporary and contract agents.

  • More career opportunities inside the organisation:

    • Regular internal competitions.

    • Extend the maximum duration of contracts.

    • Establish the Junior Professional Programme on a lasting basis.

 

EPSO’s Transformation Plan

EPSO works under the strategic guidance of an inter-institutional Management Board. At present, the chair of the board is occupied by the Commission, it used to be the Council, and before that, it was the European Parliament. EPSO’s Management Board has approved a 5-year roadmap to implement the transformation of the service. The roadmap translates EPSO’s objectives as defined in its Strategic Plan into concrete actions planned over five years:

  • Year 1 (2020) of the roadmap was a period of observation, mapping, collecting information and preparation. EPSO mapped its organisational strengths and weaknesses and collected feedback from key stakeholders. 

  • Year 2 (June 2021 to June 2022) is devoted to piloting time. EPSO has already put several important projects envisaged in the roadmap on the rails. The main efforts are divided between two lines of action: 

1. An emergency plan is being implemented to clear the backlog of competitions accumulated during the first months of the Covid-19 crisis 

2. EPSO is putting in place the foundational elements to facilitate the transition to the new way of running EPSO competitions. These foundational projects focus on establishing a sound and stable planning system, piloting innovative test delivery modes, creating new tests and test methodologies, facilitating the journey for Selection Board members, and modernising the IT infrastructure. 

  • Year 3 (July 2022 – July 2023) will mark the launch of the new competition model based on the results of the pilots. 

  • Year 4 will review the progress until that time and adjust where necessary. Based on a comprehensive consultation process, it will revisit the mission, vision and roadmap. 

  • Year 5 will plan forward for the next few years considering the results of the consultation and analysis of the objectives and their achievement. 

 

A 2022 Emergency Plan

To improve the current situation (massive delays observed, cost-efficiency to be optimised), EPSO has reviewed all ongoing competitions to determine what measures could be taken immediately. The objective was to speed up the finalisation of all ongoing competitions and to publish the reserve lists as soon as possible.

Regarding the Assessment Centre phase, the number of tests has been reduced: a single-measurement method was introduced (meaning that each general competency is assessed with one test only). These changes affect all candidates for a given competition in the same manner and do not impact their chances of success.

At the time of writing (June 2022), the emergency plan has reached the implementation stage. Some heavily delayed competitions (INTPA, 2019 generalists, EU law) finally had their Assessment Centre. Several other competitions (Health, Schengen Acquis, OLAF …) have started or are about to enter the AC stage. 

 

The Brand New EPSO Competency Framework

In its 2022 Management Plan EPSO endeavours to be quicker and simpler without compromising on the quality of the laureates. Competitions need to be legally sustainable and technologically up to date while thinking critically about the skills and competencies staff will require in the future. To this end, EPSO has put forward a proposal to its Management Board on a new competency framework

The differences between the existing and the new competency framework are analyzed in the e-book “The New EPSO Competency Framework – Old Wine in a New Bottle”, available for free download on EU Training. 

Our main conclusion was that the new competency framework does not significantly change the selection process or the assessment centre. It is, at best, a modernization of the jargon. The impact on the candidates will be minimal. 

 

The 2022 EPSO Competition Model

On March 10th 2022, EPSO’s board of directors approved the new model. There are two options, each aiming at different types of profiles.

Option A: entry level and generalists

This model would be used to recruit entry-level officials: AST3 and AD5. They are viewed as making their first steps toward an EU career.

  • First, create an EPSO account.

  • The application period is also going to be longer than one month.

  • Once done, candidates participate in remotely proctored Verbal, Numerical, Abstract reasoning, EU knowledge (new), and Digital skills (new) tests.

  • Candidates will have to obtain a pass mark for each test and the results will remain valid for 2-3 years. This is a major novelty as candidates will no longer need to re-sit tests for each and every exam once they pass the threshold.

  • Frequency of testing periods is not yet decided but it may be every month or every two months.

  • Candidates can take the tests several times, but a “cooling off” period (to be determined) may have to be respected in between the different attempts.

  • There is likely going to be a “documentary” phase during which applications and CVs are screened for eligibility and there is a Ranked Talent Screener (RTS) or MCQ test in the field.

  • Only the best scoring candidates proceed to the next phase.

  • During the assessment centre:

    • candidates are tested on selected general competencies using the tests in EPSO’s catalogue

    • there will be maximum 3 tests used, and

    • each chosen competency is assessed only once.

  • There is a final eligibility check before placement on the Reserve List; declarations made in the online application are verified against candidates’ supporting documents. 

On the technical side of the system, the idea is also to create a service catalogue, with tests that the Selection Boards can use. Once the competition is published, all the tests and exercises are ready (not created after the competition opens, as is the case now).

Once the Reserve List is established, recruiters will have the possibility for a further, refined screening based on specific requests, and they can use a catalogue of services to assess specific skills, e.g., commitment to EU values/integrity, linguistic skills, etc.

Option B: specialists

This model will be used to select highly specialised talent in niche markets. 

The number of applicants will be limited by setting a high threshold for participation based on qualifications and or experience. 

The “first step” outlined above could be by-passed, partially or altogether. This model will require an intensive involvement of recruiting services as subject matter experts.

 

Timing and Roll-out of the New EPSO System

On 21 April 2022, a competition for linguistic assistants in Estonian, Croatian, Italian, Dutch, Polish and Portuguese (EPSO/AST/152/22) was published. From the Notice of Competition we learned that the following tests will be conducted:

This looks like a first try-out for the new competition model, even though the general competencies are still in the “old” competency framework. Also, note the unusual language regime for the different phases/tests (which makes sense, given the field of the competition).

Apart from this Linguistic Assistants competition, the following competitions are scheduled for the rest of 2022:

  • Space and defence specialists AD7-AD9 - already announced

  • Heads of administration in EU delegations AST4 for EEAS - 14 July 2022

  • Finance, accounting, and communication AST3 – September 2022

  • Energy, climate, environmental fields AD 7 – October 2022

  • Security (security officers, technical security, safety) AST3 – November 2022

  • Economics AD7 – December 2022

Following the timing of the Strategic Plan, these competitions would have to follow the new model (Option B), including the new competency framework. Let’s wait and see if EPSO sticks to their plan. 

 

What Does it Mean for EPSO Candidates?

As external observers, we’re happy to share our insights with you to increase your chances of success.

Transformation Plan

  • By setting objectives and creating a clear roadmap, organisations can decide how to use time and resources to make the most progress. Without goals, it is difficult to determine how to work toward an expected outcome. So having a detailed and comprehensive plan in place is all positive. 

  • EPSO is taking a very cautious approach in its transformation plan, and we believe that the set objectives are achievable and realistic. However, 5 years is an eternity in this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous EU environment. So, in our opinion, the timeline should be shorter. 

The New EPSO Competency Framework

  • As mentioned earlier, we think the new EPSO competency framework is “old wine in a new bottle,” and it will have only minimal effects on (the preparation of) the candidates. It may, however, influence the timing for the roll-out of the Transformation Plan as all the tests for the AC will have to be reworked, especially because EPSO has the intention to create a “service catalogue.”

The Service Catalogue

  • The idea of building a (universally usable) “service catalogue” is, for sure, very laudable as this will, in time, speed up the selection procedure.

  • It will also reduce the workload of the selection boards and guarantee that the tests are of good quality because they will be constructed by AC experts (the so-called “permanent members”). However, in the Dimitrios Pachtitis v European Commission ruling, the Court made it very clear that only the Selection Board, and not EPSO, has the power to determine the content of the (pre-selection) tests.

  • Proceeding with the idea of service catalogue would most likely require an amendment to Decision 2002/621/EC of 25 July 2002 on the organisation and operation of the European Communities Personnel Selection Office.

Single Measurement

  • The introduction of a single-measurement method (meaning that each general competency is tested only once, not in two different tests) is not in line with international psychometric practice. It is going against the very essence of a well-balanced, effective, and fair Assessment Centre which requires a robust testing system. This may result in a reduction of standards of ability, efficiency, and integrity.

Single Scoring

  • There are unconfirmed rumours that EPSO would also apply a single scoring method (meaning that the scores are given by one assessor, not in pairs of assessors). This is compliant with international selection methods, but it deviates from the admin/staff committee setup in each pair. Furthermore, in combination with single measurement, it reduces the objectivity and effectiveness of an assessment centre.

Remote Online Testing

  • Remote online Assessment Centres are less effective than face-to-face, in-person ones.

  • The very essence of an AC is to observe a candidate’s behaviour in simulated but realistic working environment situations. Despite telework and as Covid is slowly behind us (hopefully!), EU officials still work for a big proportion of the time in physical offices, having face-to-face contact with their colleagues and other stakeholders. 

  • It is a pity that the former “group exercise” was abandoned and replaced by a “situational competency-based interview” (which feels like a role-play exercise, not a structured interview).

  • Online group exercises are indeed at risk for technical or connection issues, but so are the other exercises, and technical issues can also happen in real life. Seen like that, one could say that having a group exercise online is a realistic simulation of an online meeting.

  • A pragmatic solution could be to reintroduce in-person oral exams for internal competitions where travel restrictions and expenses are less of an issue.

Maximum 3 tests

  • Reducing the number of (assessment centre) tests will shorten the lead time and relieve the assessors’ workload. Still, it is very constraining for the quality of the process.

  • We would suggest removing the artificial barriers between the phases and between general or field competencies and have a more holistic view of the candidates. For example, reintroduce a Situational Judgement Test – or an e-tray exercise – in the first phase (options A and B). These tests could be considered for the total score of the general competencies. (This idea was already put in practice in recent AD5 generalist competitions.)

  • Another example could be assessing some general competencies (Communication, Analysis and Problem Solving, Prioritising and Organising, Resilience, Leadership) in the Field-related tests. What is the difference between a Case Study and a Written Test in the Field, or why can’t we look at the general competencies in a (structured) Field-related interview?

  • Finally, why not use “standard” IT tools (Word, Excel, Teams, …) to assess digital proficiency (new framework) at the same time with any of the other written tests? 

  • In this way, not only would the exercises become more realistic simulations of the working environment, but the “single scoring” and “single measurement” issues could be resolved or at least relieved.

Other observations

  • We are currently not seeing any initiative to promote ethnic, cultural or other diversity, and this is an important issue because current EU staff doesn’t really reflect the diversity of the EU’s population.

  • Finally, in EPSO’s plans, there are little or no indications on how to address the reduced attractiveness of an EU career, or to guarantee recruitment from the broadest possible geographical basis from among nationals of Member States of the EU as required by the Staff Regulations. This remains a major challenge until today, with large geographical differences among EU candidates. 

 

As a Final Word

From the available information, it appears that EPSO has made a serious effort to address the concerns of its management board, and this despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Timing and main ideas for faster and more efficient selection procedures are clear now. For the candidates, nothing fundamental will change because the same, or similar, tests will be used. However, we still have some doubts about guarantees that all recruits will meet the highest standard of ability, efficiency, and integrity.

We’ll keep monitoring the developments and publish updates as we learn more about the new EPSO system. (Have some news to share with us? Contact us now, even anonymously.)

Good luck for your EPSO exam preparation.