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Vice-President of the European Commission
Ethics and the European Commission
Meeting with the Commission's internal ethics correspondents and the Ombudsman
Brussels, 7 March 2013
Dear ethics correspondents, dear Mr Diamandouros,
I am very happy to be here today to discuss the very important subject of ethics with you. It is also a great honour to have among us Mr Diamandouros, the European Ombudsman. I have invited him to be with us today, because I consider him to be a key ally in our continuous drive to maintain the highest ethical standards within our institution.
I would also like to thank all of you for being present here. The existence of your network is a vivid demonstration of how important ethics and integrity are to the Commission, and you are very much in the front line of our ethics policy.
First, let’s reflect a while on "Ethics in the public administration". Why is this such an important issue?
This is because citizens have high expectations of their public administrations, be it at regional, national or European level. They expect public servants to serve the public interest with impartiality, loyalty and integrity and to do so in all aspects of their daily work. They shall not look for their own advantage or for driving their own agenda, but they are there to serve the public and the democratically elected members of their institution.
If you follow the media, you see the debate of the alleged influence of lobbies in the decision-making in the EU, but also on national governments and parliaments; we have regular criticism from some NGOs, MEPs and media about alleged conflicts of interests and we must take this very serious, even if we think it is not true.
It is not only important that the professional behaviour is without reproach, but also that the greater public perceives it like this. This is essential to have the trust of the people.
The vast majority of OECD countries have established core values that guide the judgment of public servants and the decision making of public administrations. These core values are often laid down in written codes that define standards for ethical behaviour.
The objective is to gain, and to maintain, credibility by guaranteeing that the staff in public administration will do their job and deal with citizens in an impartial and accountable manner.
In the current difficult economic situation, which greatly affects citizens in many Member States, people want to be and need to be reassured that they can trust public services.
European citizens want to be sure:
And the thing with trust is: it is hard to achieve, easy to lose and terribly difficult to re-build. You can see everywhere the economic, social and political difficulties in states where the people have lost trust in the independence and integrity of their government and public administration.
I don't think we have problems with the ethical behaviour of our staff in general, but of course individual cases always happen and one case is always one case too much and can harm the reputation of all. In general, the sensitivity of our staff is very high and sometimes staff are even overly sensitive following the very bad experiences at the end of the 90ies.
That is why we need to have clear rules, guidance and support for the members of our staff. Rules are not enough to cover all the situations that an official will meet along his or her career.
People need to understand the values of our institution and the European civil service, and this is challenging in an organisation composed of 27 different nationalities.
Let me remind you of the values and principles which we promote at the Commission, and that staff signed up to when joining this public organisation.
Independence: this means acting solely serving the public interest away from any instruction coming from outside the institution,
Impartiality: no bias when deciding and a fair and equal treatment in all cases,
Objectivity: a thorough analysis of the facts, of the legal background prior to any conclusion or decision,
Loyalty: loyalty to the Commission, always, at all levels of action
Respect: for the reputation of the institution and also for others working in it
We can also mention the need for circumspection and a sense of responsibility when putting these principles into practice.
We also promote openness because connecting to the public is essential. Openness, courtesy, helpfulness, are key values without which efficiency alone would never suffice to serve the public interest.
The contact with interest representatives or lobbyists is a particular challenge in this regard and often seen with suspicion by some. It is perfectly legitimate that people defend their point of view and want to convince decision-makers of it. Institutions need to be open and need to listen, but this should be as transparent as possible.
Therefore, we created the Transparency Register which allows lobby organisations and everyone else trying to influence the decision making in the EU to declare who they are, what they do and how much money they spend. In short, to do their job in a transparent way, showing that they have nothing to hide. You should use this register and advise colleagues to use it and ask interlocutors if they are registered and if not, why not.
The values I described should drive the behaviour of our colleagues, allowing each individual staff member to have the reflex to raise the right questions at the right moment before dealing with an ethical issue. In this case, our institution and staff should not be exposed to any risks
Promoting these values across the Commission requires continuous awareness-raising, making sure that we reach all staff.
A lot has already been done in this area. Let me recall:
Ethics trainings are mandatory for all newcomers, and ethics is part of the mandatory training for financial agents;
Managers recruited from outside the Commission are expected to sign a statement that they are aware of their ethical obligations;
DG HR has produced regular articles and frequently asked questions in the internal Commission magazine and has provided easily accessible information for all staff on the special ethics website. This website has been completely modernised and features a video section;
Master classes on ethics, by outside experts, have been held for Commission staff;
Regular awareness raising visits to DGs take place with the help of the ethics correspondents;
Some DGs prepare their own ethics events and others draw attention in internal communication to an ethics issue of particular importance for that DG;
More and more DGs have their own code of conduct, which explain the Commission rules and deal with matters of particular interest for that DG;
A few years ago, the Commission organised a Commission-wide ethics day; plans are under way to organise another major ethics day later this year.
While there has been an overall increase in awareness of ethics issues among staff, there may still be certain staff that are not "up to speed" as regards recent developments, or there may be certain areas where staff awareness in general may not be sufficient. The following ways and means to further increase awareness are planned and are in part already on-going:
We are intensifying staff information using modern communication media: Intranet, facebook and other social media, guidelines, FAQs and shared sites;
We are reflecting on a strengthening of the obligatory learning and development at all levels: newcomers, regular "refresher" possibilities, pre-departure information for all staff at all levels, using diverse learning and information techniques;
We will be expanding and increasing the use of electronic tools to make it easier for staff to report ethical issues, via the electronic ethics module in Sysper 2. This year will see the introduction of a module which will allow staff to encode the activities of their spouse or registered partner.
We are exploring the setting up of an automatic system for all staff, to remind them regularly of their obligation to notify or to request authorisations for certain matters.
The most recent audit shows that the Commission has a clear overall set of rules in place, even if a need was found for some further clarifications, based on practical experience. We have done this by issuing clear guidelines for staff and by stepping up our awareness–raising efforts. In this respect, we see no immediate need for action going beyond the Audit recommendations.
In order to clarify the rules for staff, we have already issued guidelines on gifts and hospitality in March of last year, and guidelines on whistleblowing in December. These guidelines were well received and have been accompanied by extensive information campaigns.
During my mandate, I have deliberately chosen to have a gradual roll-out of initiatives, in order not to overwhelm staff with information.
There is a close link here to the importance of clear rules and underlying values for Commission staff and of awareness-raising: the more these are clear, known and understood by staff, the more strict sanctions are appropriate where it is established that they have been flouted.
And let's be clear – even with the best of our prevention efforts, things can and will occasionally go wrong.
The Commission already has a strict enforcement regime for following up potential wrongdoings – small, medium and big. There is a specific, centralised office within the Commission to which DGs and others can refer cases for assessment and disciplinary follow-up. OLAF also refers cases for disciplinary action. The large majority of staff manages never to become clients of the Investigation and Discipline Office of the Commission. However, for those that do, IDOC ensures that they are treated fairly but also that sanctions are imposed that are credible, that reflect the fundamental principles and values just mentioned, and also serve to discourage staff members from engaging in similar behaviour.
Last but by no means least, I would like to turn to your role as ethics correspondents.
I know that you have a tough job, as first points of contact for colleagues facing ethical dilemmas. I am aware of this, and I appreciate you all the more for it.
And you are not alone in this; DG HR is there for you, for support and guidance.
You are also part of a network, which I understand meets at least twice a year for updates and exchanges of best practice.
And the network is active: as part of an effort to improve customer service, a focus group of selected correspondents was set up to discuss better ways of favouring best practice.
This year, you will also come together in small working groups to discuss specific issues and to set up a confidential electronic shared space.
Of course, you are best placed to monitor what is happening in your own DGs and to point us to policy conclusions. We expect to be able to exchange ideas on monitoring this in the new confidential electronic space for ethics correspondents.
So I can conclude that you as ethics correspondents are now a vibrant and active group, able to take the ethics policy messages to all your colleagues in the DGs. You play a vital role therefore in this highly visible domain where the good name of the Commission and of its staff is at stake.
On a final and personal note, I want to tell you how much we rely on you and how much we appreciate the work you do and I wish you every success as we move forward.