Why working for the European Commission drove me up the wall

How fence-sitting, bureaucracy and indecision drove one official out of Brussels back to the arms of UK local government

First published anonymously in The Guardian Public Leaders Network 13th January 2015

Having previously worked only in the UK public sector – specifically, local government – I thought a large, multicultural body like the European Commission would be light years ahead in terms of its organisational culture.

But no. I had somehow overlooked the Commission’s foundations in the stodgy, bureaucratic public administration principles of the French civil service in the 1950s.

This was hard to deal with, and seriously jarred with my preferred working style. These are the things that drove me most up the wall when I worked for the European Commission:


I am analytical yet decisive; I like to take decisions based on facts and evidence. This did not bode well in an organisation which seems to endlessly discuss and debate things without ever wanting to make an actual decision.

At times, when I wrote minutes in meetings, I had to call a halt to proceedings to push someone to declare whether or not a decision had been reached. Usually not.

Endless bureaucracy

I like policy and strategy: they reduce the risk of duplication and wasted effort. I thought I would enjoy a place full of rules and procedures, but there’s nopoint in following rules unless they actually add value. Doing things “by the book” because nobody wants to take any actual responsibility for their actions is less attractive.

I am also results-oriented. My motto is: “do it now and get it finished”. At the European Commission I had never seen so many pilot projects in my life, and I was not sure of the point of any of them. It seemed there were no mechanisms to kill a pilot if it wasn’t working, because nobody wanted to admit failure.

Passing the buck

I don’t do work arounds. If I can’t see a clear pathway to achieving an objective, I hack one out with a machete. I’d always rather ask forgiveness than seek permission. Which is why I once had to sit in a meeting and justify why I took action I believed to be simple and straightforward. Apparently, it should have gone through a chain of command first. Urgh.

Lack of clarity

I am clear, to the point of being brusque on occasion, about my opinion. For better or worse, you will never be in doubt where you stand with me. My impression was that the European Commission did not find this a desirable quality for management. I lost count of the number of times I came out of a meeting unsure of whether anything was agreed or not, or whether an idea was accepted or rejected. It’s anyone’s guess whether it was a “yes – yes” or a “yes – no”.

Hierarchical culture

Even more important than the working style is the culture, and no amount of arguments about efficiency and effectiveness will gain any traction if it’s not part of the overall ethos. This is why I feel much happier in UK local government and why I have come back to it. In my experience, councils tend to be flatter and less bureaucratic, there’s more autonomy, more scope to mould your own role, less micro management, and authority is based on knowledge and skills rather than a position in the chain of command.
Having said all this, things are changing within the Commission, and the last six months I was there, I was involved in a programme of culture change – though it didn’t come to fruition quickly enough for me. I was a square peg in a round hole and didn’t want my sharp edges whittled down.