EU Insider in Brussels. A chat with a IT Coordinator

450px-Wetstraat

As with all important buildings in Brussels, you have to arrive early if you’re on a time schedule. Every time you enter a building, there’s the feeling a gate and a plane ready for take-off is not far away. Belts, laptops, cameras, pocket money. Put it in the basket please. Everybody could be a potential terrorist. After 10 minutes, i am cleared. Safe. Not a threat anymore. Relieved.

I am up for a chat with someone working at EU institutions quite a while. Starting as a scientist, this interviewee worked with lots of people and eventually ended up working as IT coordinator at the European Commission. Just like other conversations i had up till now, there’s protest on the use of ‘Brussels’ or ‘EU’. ” It’s a kind of a foreign enemy or ET figure. The best thing you can do is just open your windows and doors for people. Grab a cup of coffee and explain what we are doing.” So, we did.

I have seen people try to fight the system upwards. Very heroic, but eventually you kill yourself. Sometimes you recognize these kind of people, and you think ”oh no, what are you going to do”. There are other ways far more effective. You just don’t end up as the hero at the center of the universe.

” First of all, my presence here is a little bit odd. I started my career as a scientist, but during my studies I was already keeping myself busy with IT stuff and programming. A friend of mine talked me into the computer and informatics world. It’s a virus, and never got away. He involved me into all the political chit-chat as well at the university, and eventually asked me to work for the Commission. They where looking for young scientists at the time on a temporary job. I worked on data banks, established the first networks. Then the world wide web came up, so we worked on that as well. I was one of the first folks who got an e-mail address.

At the Commission that time there was only one computer. It was the start of the internet age. I was the only one who could manage these a bit, so that was my luck. We started to create packages suitable for different departments and courses for employees. Most of it was just experimentational. Nobody had any knowledge whatsoever. So, by practical means i worked my way up, and became IT coordinator and managed several groups of people over the years.

Around 2001 we experienced a very hectic period with more and more countries becoming part of the Union. A very exciting period though. Just like Olli Rehns reports this year, we used to prepare reports for every country. My team had to put them online all in a rush.
Looking back at the then candidate countries you can imagine that for example the Baltic States started at zero. But on technology, they were leading. In Estonia, it was all ‘paperless office’. With pride, they showed me their conference rooms, equipped with docking stations and the latest technology. We could only dream of that. We have WiFi in this building since one month now. Figure that.

A big advantage was that they could build everything from scratch. The elder generations had often worked too long in the old system and/or badly educated for the new era.. I had a conversation with a Minister of Finance who was 33 years old. Their first minister was 36 years old. The rest of their Ministry was 28, 29 years old. Imagine yourself a situation like that. And, after martial law in Poland for example, people came back with new ideas. It was refreshing.

Over the years, i worked with many people from different countries. I liked the world of diplomacy and politics behind the scenes. My job had technical aspects, but also the more organizational work such as conferences. Around 2004 everybody was exhausted after years of hard work and the enlargement of the Union.

How do you manage all these different cultures?

A real eye-opener was the book I read called Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind by Geert Hofstede. It’s about managing large groups of people with different cultural backgrounds. Their conclusion was that people tend to hold on to their own cultural patterns if they have lived in their own country for a certain amount of time. Right now, people have experienced different cultures at an earlier age. They have traveled the globe and worked in other countries. During my first years in the 80’s, that was a whole different ball game. When I read this book, i knew why I had so many arguments with my French boss at the time. We where hopeless sometimes, both of us.

Now people are managed more and better. During my first years, courses started to evolve. Lots of material was Anglo-Saxon. We looked at what the French used, but we couldn’t use that. Their system is so much different than the Dutch for instance. Their management style is not so much based on methods, but on education and wealth. A much more vertical style. Coming from Amsterdam, I was used to conquer every authority. For the French, that is turning the world upside down. A French colleague of mine would never make a bad judgement about his boss. I questioned everything. My boss was used to rally support and implement his policies. We had late night calls, out of despair, not knowing what to do with each other.

The same problem on cultural difference counts for politicians visiting the institutions in Brussels. The Dutch voice their opinion thinking everybody is interested in them. They are seen as a necessary evil. Italians are the ones who just want to make a clever intervention, even when the topic is of no interest at all. The French can speak for an hour, thinking they are the center of the world. So, everybody with different backgrounds has its pro’s and cons. At a certain moment you are familiar with this situation. You cope with it. Over the years I have found my way around. You can fight the system, but then you are a Don Quichotte. I have seen people try to fight the system upwards. Very heroic, but eventually you kill yourself. Sometimes you recognize these kind of people, and you think ”oh no, what are you going to do”. There are other ways far more effective. You just don’t end up as the hero at the center of the universe.

If you would like to fight the system. What is your advice? What should be the goal?

Look, you can use the system. There are 1600 people working in this building (the EEAS building). A third of the people are diplomats from the European countries. That’s quite unique, because we are a foreign service. At other institutions you have more EU-officials but also lots of temporary agents.

First of all you have people from different kind of administrative cultures here. Second, you have people who were used to work in other structures, like that of the Commission or the Council. Then you have people who where transferred directly from their Ministry into this building. You have people who have been put into leading positions without any training. All these different cultures with different languages are mixed up together. What a Frenchman says in English, is not what a Dutchman or Spaniard would say. So, you have a problem of interpretation as well.

You adapt yourself over the years, but you always stay close to your own nationality and traditions. Once and a while, i have said to people to get of my back and just take into account that i am from another nationality then they are.

Let me give you an example on how the bureaucracy works and how you can cope with it..

When Barosso started, we wrote a letter together with all our web masters summing up our ideas regarding e-communication, social media (although it not really started, but we had ideas) and so forth. I had published the letter on my own blog, so in the meantime journalists picked it up pretty fast and the Parliament got hold of it as well.

First, the letter finds it way to the President of the Commission. They have a team of people who look at all the correspondence. They stamp it and take a look at the subject. Another stamp will be given, and then they sort it out. They send it to other departments, stamp it again. In the end, you end up with five stamps and a small letter saying. ‘Please make a first draft answer for the President’. Then it goes downstairs. At the end it arrived at one of the people who wrote the letter in the first place. He called me up, and said: ‘we have to make a first draft from Barosso to us. So, we wrote the answer to our own letter. That went back upstairs. For a while we didn’t hear anything, and founded out that a Portuguese guy who was responsible for it left the organization. Another Portuguese, his successor, finally made a call to us to sit down with him. At the end we received a reply from Vice-President Reding containing the text of our own letter with minor changes.

So, like i said. You can be a hero and try to blow up the system (Like Paul van Buitenen did in 1999), but this is more fun. I am far more practical in that sense.

You talk about the daily bureaucracy and its workings. In times of emergency, what’s the procedure then?

Well, first of all I am responsible for the fact that you have to go out. Everybody should use the staircase, not the elevators. Then the cellphone I have as duty officer will start ringing and I will have to manage that as well to see if there is a problem of what they call business continuity.

Our approx. 150 foreign posts have their own departments of security and logistics. That’s managed by the Foreign Bureau. They are responsible for the public servants working outside the Union who are on the road all the time. We have a variety of security measures, of course. There is not much talk about that. Within this building, there is lots of hidden security, but also physical security. When Hillary Clinton visited, or when Catherine Ashton is in the building, security is all over the place. I love it. I am fan of opera, so a bit of theater is always enjoyable. With the whole military involved, you can’t imagine yourself a better show.

Right now I am busy setting up an emergency plan. Our director will get an office at the Berlaymont building if that happens. At another organization in the Wetstraat we will have a classroom with PC’s available for us. The plan will then decide who will go there. People will be sent home, the data banks will be checked, the telephone will start working. The biggest problem is to manage the people. When 9/11 happened the streets where full of cars and police escorts. It was one big chaos. People walked out of the buildings while they had other instructions. People become irrational. That’s a disaster within itself. People where convinced the next plane would hit one of the buildings in Brussels.

Cyber security is another topic. The Chinese or the Russians and many others will try to attack us in cyberspace on a daily basis. Both amateurs and professionals. The Council and the Commission didn’t want us to use this building at first. We are in a crowdy place, with stores around the building. What if Al-Qaeda started a coffee shop right next to us? Talking about our neighbors.. We had some problems last year when one of the neighbors had a leak. Water spilled over, close to out electricity systems. As a result we were 2 days out of the building!

The websites that you and your team have set up over the years… Besides the technical aspects, who is the audience exactly?

Everybody and everything. The general public! So, nobody in the end. (Smile!) As a public organization you are obliged to put into writing what you do. It’s tax-payers money. It has to be made public for the outside world. On a positive note, if somebody takes the time, he or she can find everything.

The Commission is responsible for europa.eu. That’s the top layer of all the organizations. I used to be involved, but not any more. Then you have all the separate web masters of the institutions who are responsible for their content. They have meetings with each other deciding what kind of topics overlap. But, sometimes such themes are just theoretical and have nothing to do with reality.

It maybe politically decided that ”grows and jobs’ will be the topic for this month. All right, we said. What do you want? ‘Grows and jobs’, they replied. The absurd thing about it, is that everybody, at every text, will ask you during a certain period: ‘is there something about ‘grows and jobs’ in the text? No? Then put it there’. Insane.

A Brussels language has evolved yet?

Every organization has its language. Especially at huge diverse organizations like these ones. This morning I heard somebody talk about an ‘instrument for stability’. Do you know what that is? If your table is unstable, you put something under the table to stabilize it right? I guess there is a small book with frequently used words in it.

On a last note. How is the national debate been followed here?

Lots of national political parties have branches here and conversations can be very intense. A lot of politicians back home will remember they have visited such meetings in Brussels. A lot of them have been bullied away. Meetings are being held between the people of the same party four or five times a year. Everybody knows how the game is played, so every time someone comes here, they can expect tough questions. You can call us the sort of “ European conscience” in the party. We have extensive knowledge on the subjects being discussed here.

Look, if you notice that an important politician even has no clue whatsoever about essential parts of the Lisbon Treaty, you can imagine discussion is needed. When they visit ‘Brussels’, they often visit the European Parliament. But with all due respect, those folks are also living a bit on an island. If you want quotes, you should go there. There’s always a politician in front of the parliament willing to tell you something strong in a bold way. That’s how the media-logica works. One member says something, and the headline is ‘Europe’ or ‘Brussels’ wants this and that. It’s a complex system, its hard politics and difficult. You can’t grasp that in a headline or short story.

We have a small group of old folks, drinking coffee in the morning and discussing everything. Guys who have been drivers for important politicians here are part of this group. Or people who are close with people involved in the latest negotiations. So, we hear things. The political process is something you get confronted with on a daily basis. I am active on Twitter as well discussing it.

It is a game.

To be active on social media? Of course. Communication and tweets are going back and forth. But I try to do it wisely. I never communicate about the Israel/Palestine conflict for instance. And, If I would tweet something on that subject, it’s a re-tweet from our boss, Catherine Ashton. Sometimes I overhear people chatting in the Metro about sensitive subjects. Guys, be careful, I often think by myself. You never know who the guy standing next to you is.

Trying to be careful in the Brussels metro. Hmm.. A tough job, I think by myself commuting back. Its half past 6, and most of the people are heading home. Gentlemen with neat suits, briefcases on the floor, and people preparing their presentations for the next day are surrounding me. All folks working in this Brussels biotope. Who’s who? Is the man with an iPod, just a man with an iPod? Is the lady across me reading, just reading? At least in the metro, being careful, is a good advice after all.

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