Event: certification – mission (nearly) impossible

The 2023/24 certification exercise has been launched, your have sent your applications (the deadline was 06.10.2023 at 23.59) and it’s now time to start preparing for the first interview,  without yet knowing whether you’ll even have one. Many assistants (ASTs) are optimistic about being among the 50 Commission ASTs who will get onto the certification programme this year, even if it’s their first attempt. It’s a long journey and rather opaque one: that optimism will help!

Please find the video recording of the event

and the PowerPoint presentation here.

Extinction of ASTs on the way?

For some context: the figures clearly show that the AST function group is being phased out, largely replaced by Contract Agents (CAs) or secretaries and clerks (AST-SCs) in order to achieve additional savings in the administrative budget through hiring less-expensive staff to do the same work: the famous ‘doing more with less’.

As you can see above, the total population of ASTs decreased between 2015 and 2023 by 3266 colleagues: that’s about a 32% reduction in 8 years. According to the latest HR figures, there are currently only 6882 colleagues in the AST staff category comprised of 6188 officials and 694 (Temporary Agents (TAs)). From the chart above, we can observe that CAs (7523) have already surpassed the number of the AST staff count, and the number of AST-SCs is steadily increasing. If this trend continues, the ASTs could become extinct in a decade or two – contingent upon a retirement wave of the first generation of those hired after the 2004 staff regulations reform which created the AD and AST function groups (see Special report no 15/2019).  One could, therefore, question for how long the certification exercise will be needed and, in the meantime, is certification a lifeboat?

Taking on additional responsibilities

All staff working above their pay grade are hopeful of some day occupying that grade, regardless of how unlikely that may be. This is no different for AST colleagues exercising AD duties on a regular basis (something expected of all c. 300 who apply for certification, even though only 50 will be successful in getting on the course). Why wouldn’t that be so? Many such colleagues accept these tasks with a hope of advancing in their careers or doing more interesting work when they can demonstrate that they have the skills, knowledge or diplomas. Whatever might be the reason, they should be given a fair opportunity to progress towards the higher function group (a leap that may soon also be possible via internal competitions). In an ideal world the reverse would also exist: those who do not get the opportunity to partipate in the certification must be able to let go of the additional responsibility taken on in the process, if they want to, without it impacting their yearly evaluation/appraisal. One of the biggest attractions of the certification process is of having both the responsibility AND the benefits of ADs: as ADs they will typically require fewer years to be promoted compared to colleagues at the same grade of AST function group and, contrary to the situation for ASTs, ADs have fewer limitations on the grade they can attain.

Success and failure in the certification programme

In the chart below, you can observe the number of Commission colleagues who have managed to pass the certification since 2014. Remember that this is also an interinstitutional exercise and that to the c. 50 Commission colleagues there will be c. 25 from the other institutions. The very first exercise (2005) was open to 116 Commission colleagues (it peaked at 120 in 2010) and is now remains relatively stable at around 50 admitted each year to study. The number who successfully complete the certification process (2 interviews, 2 blocks of training and 3 exams) varies from year to year.  Not everyone is fortunate enough to complete the process on their first attempt. Those resitting exams explains the higher numbers in 2017 and 2019.

Overall pass rate and failed exams

It is notoriously difficult to calculate the definitive success rate: even HR had difficulty to account for the differences between the figures published in different locations and they suggested some differences may be due to AD nominations in December (see footnote 3, here). In 2021 HR promised to look at how to correct these discrepancies and since then they have discontinued the publication of one of the sources of those figures: General Report on the activities of Human Resources and Security (last published edition 2020). There is no alternative source for this information.

There are a number of candidates who still have unlimited resits (normally it is just two resits for each of the 3 exams), there are candidates who postpone their exam resit and candidates who choose not to continue, all of whom might skew the results (this effect is cumulative and, since the 2023/24 exercise will be the 18th edition, it is possible that it is now significant, but this is difficult to confirm).

So, taking the published summaries exam pass figures in comparison to the number of colleagues on the course as a rough guide: between the exercises from 2015/16 to 2019/20, the average overall pass rate stands at c. 50%. In both 2017/18 and 2019/20, this rate appears to drop below 50%. It is somewhat disheartening to find individuals who are highly educated and often possess more than 10 or even 15 years of professional experience encountering difficulties in this program: what is being tested? And why are our AST colleagues with PhDs not even getting onto the course?

Little oddities

On one hand, these colleagues are already performing AD duties, which encompass all the activities (such as negotiating, drafting, presenting etc.) that are subject to the certification programme. On the other hand, after completing this extensive certification training, colleagues should, in theory, become even better at these activities, as they are subsequently being tested in three exams. In practice, this is not linear: the training is provided by one entity (the European School of Administration (EuSA)) while the exams are carried out by another (EPSO). EuSA states that it is training colleagues to be ADs, not to pass exams, but it is necessary to pass the exams in order to become ADs, how to square that circle?

Colleagues demonstrate a higher success rate in English (averaging 52%) compared to French (averaging 43%) overall: though the group studying in French is so small (sometimes only 12% of those following training in any given year) that small fluctuations in results can appear to be disproportionate. Please also consider that the large number of  activities undertaken as the whole group >70 (presentations, question and answer sessions) are done almost exclusively in English (Langues de communication avec les candidats et activités « bilingues »).

The majority of colleagues who did not pass the certification failed only one exam (but we cannot know whether it was their first, second, third or more attempt at that exam i.e. we cannot know whether they can still pass). A few struggled with two exams (again, was it their first go at either of those exams?) and a very small number failed all three exams (but do they have any opportunities left to resit?) It appears to us that those experiencing connection difficulties which prevented them from participating in/completing an online exam (e.g. writing) are shown in the EuSA overview among those who failed.  We present the available information in the chart below.

More information on training can be found on the EuSA website. Please use the dates published there as an indication of the dates for the next exercise: no absence is permitted and it would be terrible to get though the interviews and find that you are unable to attend the training due to prior commitments.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact us, we’ve been through many of these processes.

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