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Middle management: forced mobility and new appointment rules

May 19th, 2016

Will forced mobility and the new appointment rules make it possible to use talent and guarantee the independence of heads of unit?

The Commission is preparing a decision on middle management, which concerns its 1126 heads of unit of all grades. The reasons given by the Commission revolve around two considerations:

  • The quality of heads of unit needs to be improved and requires professional support.
  • Mobility is necessary to make the most of talent. Although mobility is real within DGs (three and a half years on average), it is very low between DGs.

This decision on middle management is crucial because, over and above the very future of heads of unit, it will obviously also affect the day-to-day lives of thousands of colleagues in the civil service, temporary staff and contract staff. From this point of view, we can only welcome the fact that this decision, which was due to be implemented hastily on 1 January 2016, has been delayed, thanks to our action.

What has been proposed by the Commission can have far-reaching effects on the culture of the organisation. We must avoid the mechanical and impersonal application of imperative and authoritarian mobility systems, inspired by optimistic theories that are out of step with reality. We need a mobility system that highlights the potential of heads of unit or candidates for such positions, rather than a system that penalises them or makes them live in fear of irrational and uncontrolled change. We must favour an organisational culture based on trust and recognition, which aims to develop the potential of each individual. We need to avoid imposed mobility and the punitive and unexplained ‘reversibilities’ that characterise this project. To achieve this, we need to set up a pilot phase of voluntary mobility, evaluate it and then propose an appropriate mobility policy.

Two important elements of this draft decision merit further consideration.


This draft envisaged forced mobility for heads of unit who had already held two posts in the same DG for a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 12 years. This mobility would be supervised by DG HR, which would set targets for each DG and organise these collective moves twice a year. The heads of unit who are to become mobile would then be asked to apply to other DGs and then to attend interviews; on the basis of this, each DG concerned would propose a short-list of at least 3 candidates for each post. What is striking about this scenario is that:

  • This forced mobility is poorly justified. Admittedly, mobility is generally good, but the DG HR has difficulty explaining why forced mobility is necessary and what problems this forced mobility is supposed to solve. The DG HR has not provided any precise diagnosis of the problems that inter-DG non-mobility creates for Heads of Unit.
  • This forced mobility should be significant in volume from 2016. DG HR has made no secret of the fact that VP Georgieva wants to “shake things up”. No precise information was given by DG HR during the social dialogue, but it would appear that 200 heads of unit out of 1126 could be affected by forced mobility in 2016. Such a decision could have detrimental effects for the Commission and its staff if it were not strictly supervised for the benefit of all, heads of unit and unit staff alike. As many DGs have requested, negotiated multiannual objectives should be introduced instead, with flexibility and evaluation on a year-by-year basis. There should even be a transition period during which the system is tested on a medium scale and transparently evaluated by an ad hoc joint committee.
  • This forced mobility raises a serious problem of the use of skills at the very heart of VP Georgieva’s approach. Will there necessarily be interchangeable skills in the pool of Heads of Unit under forced mobility? Has DG HR committed to using derogations to prevent the loss of specialised skills at crucial moments? However, it is not certain that match-making will be perfect. What will happen when some DGs have no suitable candidates for certain posts? What will happen if unit heads on forced mobility are not deemed competent for any of the posts they apply for? What will happen if DGs have to take on ‘moderately’ competent heads of unit? Will they be supported by additional training resources, for example? What is at stake here is the effectiveness of the Commission.
  • This forced mobility is an opportunity for DG HR to play a major role in the appointment of Heads of Unit. In other words, it is DG HR which will make the appointments of certain Heads of Unit under forced mobility, thus taking away from the Directors-General their traditional power of appointing authority. We can certainly hope that the DG HR will play a positive role in policing mobility, but this change of Appointing Authority must be clear and allow for full consultation of the Directors General concerned in all circumstances.
  • This forced mobility leaves the door wide open to a fundamental innovation, which is the appointment to non-management posts of candidates who have failed to find a post during the forced mobility exercises. Admittedly, these candidates will be given a year’s reprieve to reapply for other Head of Unit posts, either during the forced mobility exercise or when Head of Unit posts are advertised. However, the framework for these heads of unit on probation seems vague, to say the least. It is important to ensure that forced mobility does not turn into the elimination of allegedly bad heads of unit on particularly dubious grounds. What is at stake, no more and no less, is the independence of heads of unit and of the European civil service in general.
  • This forced mobility only concerns the Commission’s heads of unit at its main sites, not the heads of representation and delegation, nor the heads of unit seconded to agencies. However, the project recognises that the question of sites is important: it is not easy to find candidates for Luxembourg or Ispra or candidates from Luxembourg or Ispra wishing to apply in Brussels; in these cases, it would seem that realism has prevailed. Interestingly, heads of unit on secondment are not affected, which means that the increasing number of heads of unit in executive agencies are destined to remain in the agency. This is not in line with the approach that has been advocated, particularly by the 9 DGs of the research family, of moving heads of unit from political posts to operational posts and vice versa.


The general principle of the draft decision on middle management remains traditional in that it enshrines the almost exclusive competence of General Managers as appointing authorities for heads of unit. However, a number of changes and omissions are worth noting.

The plan to appoint heads of unit says nothing about their prior training. It is interesting to note that current Heads of Unit are required to move outside the DG after two posts and at least 10 years in the same DG, whereas candidates for Head of Unit posts are not subject to any equivalent mobility requirement in order to be eligible. We would therefore be forcing mobility on people who have no previous experience of mobility within the Commission. We need to start at the beginning and organise inter-DG mobility for candidates deemed competent to apply for Head of Unit posts, which implies identifying and supporting talent. All candidates should have at least two periods of three years’ experience in two different DGs (excluding any sham reorganisation). Furthermore, it seems risky to appoint as heads of unit candidates who have no proven experience as team leaders (such as assistants to the Directors General and members of cabinets), when the Commission’s draft decision rightly emphasises the responsibilities and skills of heads of unit as “leaders of a team”. We therefore expect the Commission to follow up its statements of intent on the skills required of middle management with action.

The draft on the appointment of Heads of Unit provides that, before the final decision is taken, the Director General will consult the Commissioner responsible. The usefulness of this measure is not obvious. Is it possible that the Commissioner could oppose a sufficiently transparent recruitment process for political reasons? It goes without saying that we must avoid politicising the recruitment of heads of unit, which would mean ignoring the policy of identifying talent and making use of skills advocated by the Commission itself.

The draft on appointments of heads of unit provides that heads of unit may be candidates for AD9 posts from grade AD8 + 2 years’ experience. We can therefore foresee that AD8 candidates recruited on average at the age of 34 in AD5, with 2 to 3 years seniority per grade, could become Heads of Unit after sufficient experience of the working context of the European Commission. Contrary to the proposals of Generation 2004, it does not seem desirable to open up the career of Head of Unit to AD5 officials, even if they have proven managerial experience but not sufficient experience of the organisational and political framework and context of the Commission.

Finally, the draft on appointments of Heads of Unit provides that Heads of Unit may lose their post and their title of Head of Unit in the event of a reorganisation. The Director General is not obliged to find a post for existing heads of unit, and in addition, from now on, adviser posts can no longer be used to parachute in heads of unit who have become undesirable or cumbersome. The draft is particularly vague and provides only that the heads of unit concerned will be appointed to a non-management post with, for one year, the benefit of the provisions of Article 44(2) of the Staff Regulations. What could be called into question is the independence of the heads of unit. Woe betide those who are not “yes men” and “yes women” in their DGs. It is therefore essential to provide a very clear framework for the powers of the Directors General during reorganisations, so that serious decisions not to confirm heads of unit in their duties are taken in full transparency and with the necessary justification, and that these people are then offered support.


U4U agrees with the principle that increased and well-supervised mobility should lead to better use of talent and greater satisfaction for heads of unit and therefore for existing staff in the units.

Nevertheless, U4U has very strong reservations about the current state of the draft decision on middle management. On the one hand, this draft fails to provide serious analyses of the reasons for forced mobility and, in practice, guarantees on the use of skills. On the other hand, it seriously compromises the independence of heads of unit, by making forced mobility the antechamber to decisions to remove heads of unit from their posts if they are suddenly deemed no longer competent, and by giving Directors General the opportunity to downgrade heads of unit to administrators or senior administrators.

U4U accepts that Heads of Unit may, in duly justified cases, lose their functions, but this loss of functions must be the result of an objective and complete analysis of their skills. The philosophy of the mobility policy must not be to punish heads of unit or keep them in fear, at the risk of causing them to lose their independence and moral stature within the institution. It must be based on the use of talent and provide the means to achieve this ambition. As it stands, the plan fails to provide such guarantees and makes forced mobility and reorganisation stressful, even potentially punitive, experiences that risk greatly affecting the effectiveness and independence of middle management.

To counter all these risks, U4U proposes:

  • A pilot phase based on the voluntary mobility of heads of unit, followed by an evaluation after two years,
  • A solid policy of support for mobile heads of unit, to maximise the use of their talents,
  • The promotion of a voluntary opt-out for heads of unit who wish to leave their posts.

Middle management, unit managers