08 November 2016

Understanding the EU Civil Service


    In 2014, as the ten-year leadership of president José Barroso was drawing to a close, the European Commission did something unprecedented: it granted two researchers from UEA virtually unrestricted access to all its staff.

    Professor Sara Connolly and Professor Hussein Kassim led a team that were given permission to survey all 31,280 of the Commission's staff, as well as to conduct face-to-face interviews and focus groups with any staff prepared so to do, with the aim of discovering more about the people who make up Europe's chief public administration, and how they perceive the Commission, its goals and its culture.

    The findings, presented in the research report The European Commission: Facing the Future, represented the most comprehensive review of the Commission's staff and their attitudes ever conducted by an external body. That the Commission agreed to this at all is significant, challenging a perception – at least in some parts of the media - that the administration operates in a bubble and is resistant to public scrutiny.

    This is only one of the myths that Professors Connolly and Kassim's report dispels. As the EU is such a salient issue in the UK and debate is often poorly informed, academic, evidence-based research is vital.


    Of the 31,280 Commission staff who were sent the online questionnaire, 5,545 completed the survey in full, representing around a sixth of the workforce. To establish the demographic makeup of the Commission, respondents were first asked a number of questions about their professional and educational backgrounds, countries of origin and positions within the administration.


    graph showing previous work experience of commission employees

    Figure 1 – Previous working experience of Commission employees by staff category

    Next, they were asked a series of questions regarding the working culture and practices of the Commission and their views on its management and reform, as well as their reasons for joining the administration, feelings about significant events in EU history (such as the 2004 "Big Bang" expansion, which added ten new member states), and their views on the future of the EU.

    From the demographic portion of the survey, one of the most striking findings was the variety of professional and educational backgrounds within the Commission – particularly given the perception that the administration is made up of career bureaucrats. In fact, 97% of staff had held other positions before pursuing a career in the Commission, and well over half were recruited from the private sector.


    Figure 2 – Trends in recruitment of staff by subject of highest qualification

    Figure 2 – Trends in recruitment of staff by subject of highest qualification

    While a third of the modern workforce did indeed have a background in public administration, over a fifth came from academic and research careers, and just five per cent were from legal backgrounds. Additionally, the most common degree-level qualifications were in Business and Economics, STEMM subjects and Humanities (including language subjects) – painting a much more varied picture of the Commission's collective areas of expertise.

    The survey also contained some interesting insights into the kind of European Union Commission employees want to see – for example, in stark contrast to familiar media narratives about "Brussels' diktats on farmers", respondents from all member states indicated that they wanted to see less European involvement in agricultural policy.

    Additionally, respondents from newer member states tended to favour free markets over government intervention, compared with their counterparts from the original 15 member states. They were also less likely to support the idea of the EC as a future governing body of Europe, instead being more inclined to agree that member states should play a more prominent role.

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    The survey generated many responses that could help to inform the public's view of the reality of the Commission, but there were many more that will be of interest to the organisation itself – or indeed to any large public sector organisation. Many questions focus on the day-to-day experience of work at the Commission, covering ground familiar to anyone who's worked in an office: performance appraisals, deadlines, management structure, career progression, and responses to change.

    Motivation for pursuing a career in the European Commission

    Figure 3 – Motivation for pursuing a career in the European Commission

    Yet there are also a raft of challenges and situations that are specific to Commission, and the responses suggest that for many employees, it is more than just another job. As the Commission generally cannot compete with the private sector for remuneration, "International experience" and "Commitment to Europe" were cited as the two most important motivators for working there, each cited by 61% of staff.

    The report authors make a series of recommendations for how Commission decision-makers can respond to their findings. For example, regarding the general perception among staff that the 2004 "Big Bang" was not well-handled and has had negative consequences for the organisation, Professors Connolly and Kassim recommend that the Commission leadership makes available the results of independent research concerning organisational change, so that staff can base their views on evidence rather than hearsay.


    Responses to questions on effectiveness of external communications in the Commission

    Figure 4 – Responses to questions on effectiveness of external communications in the Commission


    Additionally, the report identifies communications – particularly those issuing from the very top level – as a problem that the increasingly presidential leadership of the Commission needs to address, recommending that all priority-setting and decision-making be accompanied by an effective communications strategy. This is not just limited to internal communications: the survey revealed that over 60% of Commission staff believe the organisation fails to adequately communicate its priorities to the EU citizenry. This is a shortcoming that the new Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, sought to remedy when he took office in late 2014.

    Furthermore, the report finds that the Commission, like many organisations, needs to make the best use of people with a wide range of skills, experience, attitudes and aspirations. Its authors put effective management of what they call the Commission’s "wealth of human capital" high on the agenda.


    Responses to 'A review of the staff regulations was a necessary response to the European economy and the climate of financial austerity'

    Figure 5 – Responses to 'A review of the Staff Regulations was a necessary response to the European economy and the climate of financial austerity'

    The Commission experienced a number of big changes during José Manuel Barroso's presidency: while the accession of 13 more member states to the European Union was arguably the greatest, the organisation also had to contend with a financial crisis, prompting in 2014 the first major review of staff regulations in a decade. Some of the reforms included a special levy on salaries, an increase in the minimum retirement age, and an extension of the working week with no commensurate increase in pay - reforms that would be challenging for any organisation, public or private, to push through without an effect on morale or performance.

    If there is a key takeaway from Professors Connolly and Kassim's report, it's that the Commission and the people who work for it are very different from the frequently negative portrayal of the organisation and its staff in popular discussion, media coverage and debate. The reality is that the Commission commands a workforce with considerable expertise and experience, and with a variety of views about the role of the Commission and the powers of the EU. At the same time, like other organisations, particularly in the public sector, there are challenges in talent management, communications, and management, that it needs to confront.


    Professor Sara Connolly is Professor in Personnel Economics at the University of East Anglia, and the university's lead for the Eastern Academic Research Consortium in Quantitative Social Science.

    Professor Hussein Kassim is a Professor in Politics at the University of East Anglia's School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication.

    Other members of the research team are:

    Professor Michael Bauer, Germany University of Administrative Science, Speyer
    Professor Renaud Dehousse, Sciences Po Paris
    Professor Andrew Thompson, University of Edinburgh

    Research Assistants

    Dr Henry Allen, University of East Anglia
    Mr Stefan Becker, Speyer
    Dr Vanessa Buth, University of East Anglia
    Dr Suzanne Doyle, University of East Anglia
    Ms Helen Fitzhugh, PhD candidate, University of East Anglia
    Ms Nuria Garcia, Science Po
    Ms Francesca Vantaggiato, University of East Anglia
    Dr Nick Wright, University College London

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