Life of Agents in Delegations


Life of Agents in Delegations

Agora #87

An idyllic image that seems to be anchored in the minds of many colleagues at headquarters. But life in a delegation has its advantages for those who like a change of scenery.

The (not so idyllic) Life of Agents in Delegations and The role of the Head of Administration

Ah, life in the delegations in the tropics… lying on a deckchair by the pool or the sea, toes out, sun shining, drink in hand…

An idyllic image that seems to be anchored in the minds of many colleagues at headquarters. And yet, how many times have I had the same question, but you do not look any more tanned than that working in Africa? And no, it is difficult to get a tan under the neon lights of the offices… Because yes, we DO work in delegations.

So, of course, life in a delegation has its advantages for those who like a change of scenery: new horizons (although rarely similar to those on postcards) every three to six years, solidarity between colleagues which is undoubtedly stronger, new encounters, learning about different cultures, a field approach with the possibility of taking concrete action…

But it also presents many challenges that require flexibility, adaptability and resilience. For example, you will find that in delegation, the line between professional and private life becomes very thin. We are often housed with or near our colleagues and leaders in compounds to facilitate gathering in a crisis. Life with colleagues therefore often goes beyond life in the office. And so it will not be impossible for your boss to see you in a swimming costume one day (of course this means that the weather is good, but it is also because the places where to bathe are limited and so you will inevitably be confronted with regularly bumping into your colleagues and work partners in all the usual places of life – gyms, swimming pools, restaurants, shops…).

It means learning to spend an evening or even a weekend without water and/or electricity because the public network has crashed and you do not always have a back-up – or the back-up itself has failed – a far cry from the reliability of supply known in Europe. Our children, by the way, do not even react when we suddenly find ourselves in the dark in the middle of a film or a meal.

It is putting up with traffic jams in African, South American and Asian megacities where you are literally trapped in your means of transport (it is impossible to open your doors because the cars are so tightly packed together – it is best not to be claustrophobic) and the resulting air pollution impacts on your health. It is everyone’s fear: to have a health problem given the state of the health services in these beautiful exotic countries.

It means knowing how to adapt your choices to the market offer rather than the other way round, as in Europe: you do not decide what you are going to eat in the evening, it is the supermarket offer that will dictate your meal – and its price. Sometimes, in order to treat yourself or your children, you may be willing to pay an outrageous price for certain products (a raft of strawberries or six yoghurts of dubious quality at 15€-20€ or a box of cereals at 10€-15€).

Sometimes you will not have a choice: toilet paper or washing powder (usual brands) which often cost an arm and a leg in countries that import all their goods. And this according to the famous ratio: the more space it takes up in the plane, the more expensive it is.

Apart from these elements linked to the country, the management by the Delegation of a certain number of aspects of your life can make your life… hellish. In particular, you should be aware that in the Delegation, several life choices, normally private, will no longer be under your sole control, notably housing. According to a determination established by the head office, for which you will have no say:

  • Either the famous Article 23 will be applied to you (friends in delegation will understand… for the others, you will have to go and see Annex 10 of the Staff Regulations) and you will be assigned an area in which you can choose your accommodation, which will nevertheless still have to pass certain security checks to be validated and which will have to be below a price ceiling determined by headquarters, sometimes without any rationality.
  • Or they will apply the equally famous Article 5 and will automatically assign you to accommodation where the delegation will be the official tenant (signing the lease for you), thus giving you no status in the contract except that of “occupant” – you will be reminded of this by the landlord every time you want to talk to him. And then you will understand the importance of having a ‘good’ head of administration. You will realise that it is his or her standards that will guide and become your standards of living from now on; that it is his or her willingness and/or competence that will determine whether or not you have a good stay for the duration of your assignment. If you have a head of administration with low standards (yes, this is Africa, is it not?); little willpower/strength/competence; or even if he is himself in a state of near burn-out, your life can become a living hell…

This will be reflected in each of the situations requiring the intervention of the administration, for example:

  • Your move: various reimbursements, customs clearance procedures entirely under their control even though you are the one who signed the contract with the removal company (who will charge you for any delay due to these customs clearance procedures), preparation (or not) of the accommodation on arrival, reception at the airport…
  • Necessary repairs (in a country where skilled labour is scarce and not easily identifiable – Google will not help you there – and where hardware shops are non-existent): water leaks or “breakdowns”, electrical problems/failures, fans that do not work in 35-40 °C heat…
  • Installation of basic equipment: generator, water tank, mosquito net in malaria-prone countries… and any unfortunate event that may happen to you (security incident, physical or material accident…).

Of course, standards are set in principle at headquarters level, but if no one checks them (and no one – from headquarters – comes to check them in each delegation), that is the same as not having any. There is another recourse: the Head of Delegation. But unfortunately, it is not uncommon for the Head of Delegation to lose interest in and distance himself from human resources problems and to refer them to his “poor” Head of Administration, whose job it is.

Human resources management in delegation, if not well (better) supervised, can therefore have serious repercussions on individuals (as well as on the delegation’s “performance”). This mismanagement is often combined with a feeling of total abandonment by headquarters and a feeling of loneliness: being far away from Brussels, you will find it very difficult to elicit the slightest compassion and response for your individual case, especially as you are always imagined to be in the position described at the beginning of this article. This leads a number of staff to leave their ‘hell’ (by requesting a reassignment if possible, or even resigning) and plunges other colleagues into states of intense distress/burn-out/stress. In particular, those in precarious situations fear for the continuation of their contract (fixed-term contract not yet renewed, probationary period).

This demonstrates the importance of the position of Head of Administration and the whole ‘administrative’ section in general – in particular the colleagues in charge of accommodation and protocol issues (customs clearance, diplomatic status, entry and residence visas for staff and their families, car plates). However, at present it seems to be regarded as a second-class post. However, the wellbeing of everyone in the delegation, its functioning, and indirectly but obviously the working atmosphere and ultimately the quality of the work done by the delegation depend on it.

To do this, it is necessary to recognise the extreme difficulty of this position, which requires enormous human skills in listening, empathy and flexibility. It is also necessary to demonstrate real strength of character and willingness to seek and find solutions for the good of colleagues and not for convenience. In particular, you have to be able to stand up to any unscrupulous suppliers/owners/service providers as well as to very slow and often corrupt national administrations. The countries we are sent to are often poorly organised institutionally, corruption is rife at all levels and it is always, in a way, the law of the strongest (or at least of the least fearful) that applies (including in court, if you can call it “justice”). It is probably difficult to understand for those who have never left Europe outside of their holidays, but Europe (the West) is a small, sacred island when it comes to respecting the rule of law that are democratically adopted. Elsewhere, this is rarely the case and one must therefore be able to “bang the table” and “stand up” to get things done, or at least not let oneself be “eaten” completely, which few of today’s heads of administration seem capable of doing.

In addition to these indispensable human skills, the head of administration should also have a thorough knowledge of the rules, procedures and the system, to be able to give quick, clear and correct answers to colleagues. And this should be done in a spirit of seeking a solution that responds to the concrete demands/needs/concerns of the colleague and not for convenience.

This kind of post should therefore surely not be reserved for one category of staff but open to all those who are prepared to face such situations and who have the appropriate skills assessed before going on delegation.

Your feedback on this article is welcome so that these experiences are no longer taboo and so that the problem can be tackled head on by realising the difficulties that the staff in delegation can experience.


What can be done?

– Try to change the vision of the administrator’s post and the administrative section in the delegations by recognising the importance it deserves: by better choosing the people called upon to fill this role, via knowledge tests but also mental strength tests, by opening up the profile more widely to administrators, contract agents, etc. This may have budgetary implications which need to be analysed.

– Supporting staff in Delegations by making them more aware of the possibilities for support and recourse in the event of problems or questions: whether institutional (ombudsman, specific departments at headquarters to contact in the event of such and such a problem) and/or trade union, by clarifying who is responsible for what at headquarters with regard to Commission staff assigned to Delegations (EEAS or Commission departments).