Q&A: EPSO's David Bearfield on HR evolving from administrative to strategic

David Bearfield, director of the European Professional Selection Office. Photo by: supplied

Under the leadership of David Bearfield, director of the European Professional Selection Office, the organization’s staff selection process underwent a two-year transformation which increased its capacity to deliver on talent needs and drastically reduced time to hire. Bearfield is also involved in organizing the annual Special Interest Group meeting for the International Public Sector which brings together human resources professionals from international and national organizations to discuss emerging trends and the challenges they pose in attracting and retaining talent.

Devex spoke to Bearfield to learn more about how these trends are impacting HR in the public sector, and the importance of employer branding in competing for global talent. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In your years working in HR, focusing on the public sector and working closely with international organizations, what changes have you seen in how HR is done?

“What we are doing now, in the way we are trying to attract people and remain attractive, is for me one of the key challenges that we face — and we have to engage the political leadership in that challenge.”

I think it was focused 10 or 20 years ago almost exclusively on a pretty administrative level, where it was really quite a transactional-based part of the organization, lots of manual and lots of paper-based transactions. I think that we have been on a curve of change over the last two decades and, in some cases, I still think the public sector is lagging a bit behind the private sector but, in any case, it has changed. What I see happening very much is that many of the things that were done manually are now done automatically, so that’s had a big impact. The paper systems have been largely replaced in the private sector, and I think the public sector isn’t immune to this either. There has been a push to reduce the headcount of people involved in HR and to lower the cost of that overhead. It’s still being seen as an overhead, and I think that’s a theme which has followed the financial crisis. We are living in a time of austerity. Anything that is seen as an overhead function and that you combine with the use of modern technology has been the focus of what we’ve seen in the private sector, but also in government, of a real push to bring down numbers of people, and speed up processes.

Now, we will continue to look to the future and see where that will go. I think we need a different HR skillset, because more and more of the transactional stuff is either being automated or outsourced, or done in such a way that fewer people need to do it. We need to be thinking in a more strategic way. How can we add value, not just minimize the overhead cost of the organization? How can HR add value in particular by trying to devise a clear people strategy that’s linked very much with the business or political strategy of whatever organization we are in?

You mentioned HR is still often seen as an overhead in organizations, why though, in your opinion, is it still so vital to organizations, and particularly in the public sector? 

I often refer to EPSO as the blood transfusion service of the European Union institutions, and I think that is true of many organizations. We have to keep bringing in fresh blood — it has to be compatible, has to be the right type, has to be high quality, because staff are the lifeblood of organizations. That’s hugely true in the public sector where we don’t have production lines or money in the bank and it’s all about the quality of talent that we have to enable our organizations. What we are also seeing is a number of trends converging all at once that I think make recruitment such an important issue for public sector organizations right here, right now. One of them is that we are becoming quite old as a series of organizations and over the course of this decade, in the European Commission alone, a third of the staff and two thirds of the management and leadership are retiring, so there’s an awful lot of expertise and experience leaving many organizations as the baby boom generation moves into retirement.

And then at the same time we are facing really sharp competition with many organizations because of globalization. Many organizations — public and private — offer global or international careers in a way they didn’t before, so there is competition for the brightest and best around the world and the top organizations don’t really care about national boundaries, they will go around the world trying to get the best talents. And very often for the recruitment in the public sector we tend to be a bit slower than the private sector and not always seen as particularly sexy — or not always very good at selling what we have. We see that challenge with the millennial generation because the HR attraction package has traditionally focused on the “golden cage.” There is a certain set of assumptions that you will have a career with some prestige, you’ll be doing interesting work but you’re probably not going to have a very rapid career. Salaries will be good but not stellar, you’ll stay in a job for life, and at the end of it you get your pension. What we see is that the golden cage is being eroded across the public sector, certainly in Europe, if not globally.

At the same time, the millennial generation isn’t very interested in that golden cage anymore, and in fact for many the prospect of a job for life is more off-putting. We are going to have to change the way we attract people so that we win that war for talent. If we are not able to get the brightest and best from the new generation workforce, we are going to have real problems. What we are doing now, in the way we are trying to attract people and remain attractive, is for me one of the key challenges that we face — and we have to engage the political leadership in that challenge. Our challenge will be to bring people in on the ground floor. I think that is going to be an issue for the future, where we see already that there are significant differences in how attractive we are in different locations around Europe and for different profiles.

So what’s the solution then? How do the public and nonprofit sectors compete with the private sector, or indeed with other global organizations to win the best talent?

“If you look at one of the top things that millennials want, it’s meaning in their work. They want meaningful work where they can make a difference and that’s one thing in my view where the public sector beats the private sector hands down.”

I think we have to think very hard about what we want, and what our selling points are. It’s not all doom and gloom, because if you look at one of the top things that millennials want, it’s meaning in their work. They want meaningful work where they can make a difference and that’s one thing in my view where the public sector beats the private sector hands down. So we need to focus on those things and I think that is absolutely crucial. And engage with people in a different way — we started making very heavy use of social media a number of years ago but then we noticed the younger generation is not on Facebook, they are somewhere else. We have to try keep engaging people in new ways, using new tools as they emerge.

What we are really trying to do is to overhaul our employer value proposition that we came up with in 2010. It served us very well and the EU as a body or group of organizations managed to rise very dramatically up the international employer brand rankings which is something we are very proud of. Our employer value proposition and the whole marketing strategy that we put in place after 2010 has worked, but six or seven years down the road we recognize that is has to continue to evolve. Just over a week ago, we had an employer branding summit here with my team, bringing in very experienced external experts to facilitate. We are looking again at how we can ensure that our employer value proposition remains relevant and is best positioned to play to the strengths of the organization and bring in the talent we need.

Under your leadership, the selection process for EU institutions underwent quite a transformation which improved the hiring process and reduced time to hire. How did that process of transformation look?

When I came here, almost ten years ago, it was with a clear mandate to improve the way that we selected staff. The selection process, which we call an open competition, was based on the French model of the “concours” [entry-test].  It took on average two years, at the end of which candidates were placed on a reserve list, or what the United Nations community calls a roster, with not much guarantee of a job. It was an incredibly laborious process, it was very off-putting for many candidates. At that time we only really ever selected sixty odd percent of the people we had been asked to select for the institutions, so we were too slow and there was a big shortfall.

What we did, was set out to change three basic things. Number one was the way we planned the selection procedure and anticipated the needs of the organizations so we put in place a strategic, forward-looking planning exercise over a rolling three-year period, where all of our customers in the EU institutions identified their needs. We were then able to put those together so that we could organize a selection processes in a kind of conveyor belt way and we were able to deliver the people when our customers needed them. Instead of organizing all our selections on an ad hoc basis, we said “look, we can identify a whole range of profiles that we need every year.” So we organized our selection processes on an annual basis, on a fixed timetable, which also made it easier for us to have a fixed presence in the recruitment market. It took less than two years from start to finish. And organizing these annual competitions, since 2010 we are now able to select the right numbers of staff. We got up to 99.7 percent of the numbers of people we were asked to select last year, and that target itself was set at 120 percent of the need.

The second thing was to transform the way we selected people from an exclusively knowledge-based process to a competency-led process. We moved from a very time consuming three-stage selection process — made up of multiple choice knowledge tests and other tests, and then a written test which was an academic style essay, and finally a long period of panel interviews — to essentially a two-stage process with a modular computer-based preselection test followed by a competency-based assessment centre. That has served us very well, and it really enables us, having first done a job analysis to identify the eight core competencies needed for people to be effective in the EU institutions, to be able to select the right people. We had an external study done three years after we introduced the system, and it demonstrated clearly amongst hiring managers that they were satisfied with the calibre of people we were selecting.

The third shift was what I talked about in terms of employer branding. We just didn't have an active employer brand or an employee value proposition, so we created one and that has been very successful in establishing us as an employer of choice across the EU.

How long was this process of transformation and improvement?

We called it the EPSO Development Programme and we got the mandate to start that process in 2008 and we delivered it in 2010. It was pretty brisk, we worked fast to move things. My first year in EPSO was in 2007, and it’s also worth noting that when I came here, morale was low. I spent that year in close partnership with staff in a bottom-up process to address the concerns of the organization from the inside, and to plug the holes in the boat and get it sailing.

Given the changes in HR and the role it will play in the future of organizations, what skills should young HR professionals focus on building?

It has changed beyond measure in terms of what HR is about, and what it’s going to be. The focus is about adding value and being strategic for the future so I think people need to work in areas where they really are going to be able to exercise some strategic thinking to develop that. It may also be interesting to start off in other parts of the organization, and to actually know what the business end needs. I think it’s important not just to have experience as the provider of the service, but also to understand the customer’s perspective. And certainly nowadays, it is a good idea to develop hard skills in human resources and preferably work somewhere where they have very good HR, so when you are starting out, think which organizations are really forward-looking or good and strong in HR, and go and work for them.

Over the next month, Devex, together with our partners will take a look at how human resources can be a real driver for innovation, efficiency, and impact in global development. Join us as we share the people and ideas leading the next generation of HR by tagging #HRLeads.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.