The process of appointing leaders and senior management teams in International Organisations (IOs) is regularly criticized for elevating nationality and politics above competence and integrity. Attempts to address this issue often center on structural changes through altering voting processes. Let’s check out what the European Union could learn from other organizations.

Increasingly, however, improvements in IO management and leadership arise from subtler bureaucratic reforms. As the derision surrounding Jean Claude Juncker’s appointment as President-elect of the European Commission some years ago and his subsequent appointment of a new slate of Commissioners reveals, the EU falls short of best practices adopted elsewhere. Brexit is just one more issue that shows this.

So what might the EU learn from its counterparts? Firstly, one reform that is commonly accepted to have improved leadership in several IOs is to extend the almost universal concept of “job descriptions” to all the senior posts in order to offer clear guidance as to the experience, qualities and qualifications needed for specific portfolios including that of the executive head (as occurs at the World Health Organization and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research).

In contrast, the EU all too often tailors posts to fit appointees. When compared with the outgoing (Barroso) Commission (and eliminating from the analysis the President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs whose tasks are defined by treaty) 13 out of the 26 incoming Juncker commission posts have been redefined in whole or in substantial part to fit the perceived abilities of the proposed incumbents.

Furthermore, the shifting around of portfolios to ensure that all member states feel that their candidate has a suitably weighty responsibility results in overlap, misfits, and oversights. For example, Lord Hill, the UK nominee in those days, was criticized by the relevant scrutiny committee of the European Parliament for not having a good grasp of the complexities of his assigned financial services remit.

Likewise, the new Commission persisted with separate posts to deal with the linked issues of environment and climate, had two posts dedicated to energy but no Commissioner is now clearly responsible for fraud, a long-standing EU problem. Of greater concern there is a Vice-President responsible for the euro and a Commissioner responsible for fiscal affairs, leading to a question usually asked in respect of European foreign affairs policy: ‘who speaks for the euro’?

Secondly, it is now generally accepted that IOs are best served by a small top management team with overarching responsibilities. In the EU, however, the overriding need to have one Commissioner appointed from each member state creates an unwieldy 28-strong management team. Juncker has attempted to improve the Commission’s top management structure through nominating seven Commissioners as Vice-Presidents to “steer and co-ordinate” the work of Commissioners in particular “well-defined priority projects”. And this all in a time that IPOs are all around us. Would they be aware of this?

In the area of foreign affairs, his concept is clear and logical as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs obviously needs oversight of the Commissioners dealing with enlargement and EU-neighbourhood relations, international cooperation/development, and humanitarian aid. Nevertheless, where the thematic clusters covered by other Vice Presidents are less well defined, this approach seems ill-conceived and may exacerbate the problem.

For example, there are two Commissioners with a responsibility for different IT/digital matters, one of whom is a Vice-President; gender issues, Cultural Intelligence, and fundamental rights are handled separately and the Vice-President overseeing regulatory simplification (itself an over-arching mandate) also deals with the rule of law, surely, better a responsibility of the Commissioner for justice matters as was the case in the Barroso Commission.

At least one Commissioner will be reporting to four Vice-Presidents and in another case, there is a Vice-President with oversight responsibility for a single Commissioner which unnecessarily creates an extra layer of management.  Moreover, Juncker’s statement that the Commissioners are of equal status undermines the authority of the Vice-Presidents and leads to lack of management clarity in defining reporting lines at the Directorate-General level.

Thirdly, there is a need to create a suitable leadership style and ensure that the Commissioners have sufficient management experience. This has been achieved in some IOs through a very deliberate focus on management training for senior personnel and, in some cases, even contracting with professional mentors to work alongside key managers for a period of time and travel to the relative destinations.

On first sight, it would appear that there is considerable leadership experience in the new Commission which contains five former Prime Ministers. However, the qualities of leadership needed for a Prime Minister, with its command and control decision-making supported by a relatively independent bureaucratic apparatus, are different from those of day-to-day leadership needed to manage a large bureaucratic machinery.

Unlike many IOs, where the executive head’s leadership qualities or lack thereof, ripple down into the functioning of the organization, the EU’s structure and size mean that each Commissioner is an independent leader of a quasi-standalone organization in his or her own right. This requires that each Commissioner should ideally have proven experience in the day-to-day management of a complex institution as one of the necessary sought-after qualifications that should be defined in job descriptions.

Some of the incoming commissioners have previously served on the Commission and have this exposure but others, such as former Members of the European Parliament, are sorely lacking in management experience. Is this fear of success or fear of failure? At the other extreme, as the five ex-Prime Ministers are all in the leadership group of the President and Vice-Presidents, a difference in leadership style could lead to a self-enforcing redefinition of the role and management approach of the inner ‘cabal’, isolating it from the remaining Commissioners.

Given that IOs meld together the experiences and philosophies of several cultures, the above reforms in themselves will not overnight transform a new management team into a smooth working machine. Likewise, these reforms will not eliminate the political horse-trading that inevitably leads to square pegs being appointed to round holes.

Based on the experience of other international organizations, however, changes such as those proposed above, will shift the balance of probability in favour of member states nominating appropriately qualified candidates to Commission posts and thereby give the incoming President a better chance of constituting a team that fulfils the expectations of the peoples of Europe through favouring competence over national self-interest.