Commission plans to shake up its big research department

19 Jan 2019 | News

EU research chief Jean-Eric Paquet lays plans to refocus staff on policy goals, efficiency and cooperation with other parts of the Commission

Jean-Eric Paquet, the Commission's research director general wants his staff to work more closely with other departments

The European Commission is planning a reorganisation of its big research department, in an effort billed to the staff as streamlining management and increasing cooperation with other parts of the Commission.

On 15 January, Jean-Eric Paquet, director general for research and innovation, gave a 90-minute presentation of the plan to his staff, using a large Brussels conference hall with live Web-casting to other Commission premises. A leaked diagram of the new-look agency, and explanations of the plan, were soon circulating around the wider EU research community.

(After this article was published, Paquet replied to a Science|Business Tweet: “this reorganisation indeed breaks down silos & should deliver more #science for EU policymakinkg. Kudos to my #team for their hard work to prepare @EUScienceInnov for the future! Participatory work will continue so that we get the fine print right as well as the change of culture.”)

The reorganisation, to take effect in April or May – the precise timing depends on how long it takes to make the final arrangements – reorganises the staff into new groupings to deliver on three policy priorities: open science, open innovation and sustainable development. It also shakes up the usual Commission hierarchies, and reduces slightly the number of staff “units” from 54 to 50.

Conspicuously not included in Paquet’s presentation, however, was who does what. His line managers, or “unit heads”, have all been asked to redefine with their staff what their “missions” should be, and to give Paquet a list of three units they would each like to manage – in essence, reapplying for their jobs or seeking new ones. Likewise, the new organigram doesn’t name the higher-ranking directors who will manage the unit heads. Paquet’s decisions are expected in the next few weeks.

The reorganisation matters because the department – formally called the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, but to insiders known as DG RTD – is the Commission’s fifth-biggest, and oversees its third-largest budget: The €77 billion Horizon 2020, or Framework, programme. The Commission last year proposed a budget rise for the programme to €94.1 billion for 2021-2027, with a new set of policy goals.

Tear down the silos

In the past, however, the DG has been criticised for being too bureaucratic and operating in narrow policy silos:  competing, rather than cooperating, with other parts of the Commission. And with the Commission budget under pressure if the UK leaves, staff across Brussels are being urged to figure out how to get more done by working together.

Paquet, a French career Eurocrat who was previously deputy secretary general, was a surprise appointment in late February 2018 – and from the start made one of his goals making the DG plays nicely with other parts of the Commission. “The segmentation across organigram or departments – we should move away from it,” he told journalists last March. “For me the idea is to join up” its work more effectively with other policy areas, such as regional development, energy, transport and digital technologies.

That goal is visible through the plan. He has said he wants staff to spend 10 per cent of their time on efficiency and “horizontal issues” such as seeking synergies between different parts of Horizon 2020 and with other Commission programmes. In the new organigram, several units have new titles that emphasise topics like “coordination and inter-institutional relations” or “Horizon budget and MFF synergies”(a reference to the Commission-wide budget, the Multiannual Financial Framework.)

The DG, like much of the rest of the Commission, has been slowly trimming headcount. The last big reorganisation, in 2014 under Paquet’s predecessor Robert-Jan Smits, began that process by, among other things, moving some staff out into lower-cost executive agencies to manage the details of grants and programmes, while the remaining DG staff were to focus more on the broad policies. From 1,800 staff in 2014, the DG had 1,305 staff remaining on 1 January 2018. The target is about 1,200 staff by 2020.

Planet I and II

The renewed policy focus is visible in the new organisation chart. Four of the DG’s eight main groups, or directorates, will deal with broad themes with un-bureaucratic names: “Planet I” handles ocean, earth and climate research, while “Planet II” does energy and transport. Another, “People”, supervises life sciences and social sciences, while “Prosperity” handles industrial research and investment. Two other directorates oversee Horizon planning and implementation. Another handles infrastructure and community outreach, while the last does budget and logistics – optimistically renamed “innovative administration.” Separately, five units are grouped into a new, special “Task Force EIC,” to manage the pilot European Innovation Council.

The synergy goal is also visible, with various units tasked with coordination. But, to Commission old-timers, the most surprising change is the creation of what Paquet has called the “RTD Board” – a grouping of himself and his three deputies at the centre of the chart, rather than at the top. All the staff will report directly to Paquet rather than through his deputies, as at present. Instead, the deputies have been charged with coordinating the three policy goals – open science, open innovation and sustainable development – across the entire DG. Each of the 50 units are colour-coded to indicate which works with which deputy.

And a final challenge can also be read clearly in the new organigram: The creation of a new position, “chief negotiator for Horizon Europe association.” This diplomat post, with the management rank of a director, would be dealing with the headache of negotiating post-Brexit Britain’s participation in Horizon, and possible collaboration with other countries such as Canada and Japan.

For as bureaucratic an organisation as a Commission DG, all the changes have both unnerved and excited staff. The planning began with a series of workshops last summer with managers, and spread down the ranks with staff briefings and an invitation from Paquet to send him ideas directly. But many have questioned how well it can work in practice: A tendency to protect turf and shut out interlopers is deeply ingrained in Commission culture.

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