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Decision of the European Ombudsman on complaint 152/2002/(BB)IJH against the European Commission
Case 152/2002/IJH - Opened on Thursday | 21 February 2002 - Decision on Monday | 28 October 2002
Dear Mr X.,
On 10 January 2002, you made a complaint to the European Ombudsman against the European Commission, concerning your interview for the post of Director General of the Commissions Joint Research Centre.
On 21 February 2002, I forwarded your complaint to the President of the Commission. The Commission sent its opinion on 5 June 2002, and I forwarded it to you with an invitation to make observations, which you sent on 21 July 2002.
I am writing now to let you know the results of the inquiries that have been made.
According to the complainant, the relevant facts are as follows:
The complainant applied for the post of Director General of the Commissions Joint Research Centre. The Commission contacted the complainant to arrange a second interview in Brussels. This contact took place about a week before the suggested date of 25 January 2001. No alternative dates were proposed. The complainant agreed to travel to Brussels at short notice and bought a return flight ticket from Helsinki for the day of the interview. The complainant used 40.000 air miles from a frequent flier programme to obtain a ticket that would have cost 7.682 FIM. On arrival in Brussels, the complainant was asked to stay for another night as the interview would continue the next day. The Commission promised that the hotel cost would be reimbursed. The complainant therefore decided to stay the night and changed the flight schedule.
The Commission has reimbursed only 297,29 FIM for travel expenses and has failed to pay the cost of the hotel, despite its promise to do so. The complainant sent an inquiry by e-mail to the Commission about the travel expenses, but received no reply.
The complaint to the Ombudsman alleges unfair and wrong procedures governing the reimbursement of travel expenses; inflexible invitation procedure for the interview; lack of information about procedures relating to the interview and lack of a reply to an e-mail inquiry.
The complainant claims that the European Commission should reimburse in full her travel expenses amounting to 9.328,76 FIM.
Furthermore, the complainant suggests, as general improvements to Commission recruitment procedures, that there should be full reimbursement of travel expenses for interviews and professional handling of recruitment procedures relating to key posts.
THE INQUIRYThe Commission's opinion
The Commission's opinion made, in summary, the following points:
498 applications for the post were received, a figure which far exceeded expectations. The applications were first examined by a Commission Selection Board, which drafted a shortlist of 19 suitable candidates, including the complainant. The Commission entrusted an external company, Mercury, with the task of carrying out preliminary interviews with these candidates. In the complainants case, the preliminary interview took place in Finland. Following this exercise, the Consultative Committee on Appointments (CCA) decided to shortlist 14 candidates for interview, again including the complainant.
The second part of the procedure involved interviews in Brussels with the CCA and the JRC Board of Governors. The Commission applied its standard practice, according to which all candidates are contacted by telephone, after which they are sent a written confirmation by e-mail. This practice has proved to be efficient and no candidate has ever complained about it.
The fact that the complainant received an invitation at such short notice and that no alternative dates were possible was due to the very tight planning for the filling of this important position and the high number of applicants that had to be dealt with.
The interview that the complainant had to attend on 26 January 2001 was organised by the Directorate General of the JRC. This part of the procedure is in line with Article 4 of Commission Decision 969/282/Euratom of 10 April 1996, whereby the Board of Governors of the JRC is involved in the nomination of senior staff. Due to an unfortunate internal organisational problem, all candidates interviewed by the Task Force of the Board of Governors on 26 January 2001, including the complainant, were informed of the interview at very short notice; that is, only the previous day.
As regards reimbursement of expenses, Article 6 of the Rules for reimbursement of travel and subsistence expenses for persons outside the Commission to attend a competition, interview or medical examination(1), provide for reimbursement on the basis of the most economical airfare and production of the air ticket. In addition, a lump sum of 50 per day is paid. The complainant was informed of these rules in the e-mail confirming the invitation.
The fare shown on the tickets presented by the complainant was 147 FIM, whereas the price of 5.200 FIM quoted by the complainant in her expense claim is the theoretical cost of an air ticket for the journey in question. The price of 7.682 FIM is the theoretical cost of the same ticket resulting from the change in the return date. The complainant did not actually pay these sums. The intention of Article 6 of the Rules for reimbursement is to reimburse candidates for the travel expenses actually incurred. In view of this, the complainant was paid 147 FIM to reimburse her travel expenses and 50 for each day she was present.
The JRC service took care of cancelling the complainants original return flight and booked another one for 26 January 2001. The cancellation fees amounted to 43.06 . Due to a misunderstanding between the services these fees were not reimbursed. Instead, a daily allowance covering the day 26 January was erroneously paid to the complainant twice. The Commission regrets these errors but considers that the cancellation fees amounting to 43,06 are thus counterbalanced by the overpayment of 50 . Measures will be taken to avoid similar mistakes reoccurring.
As regards the allegation that the Commission failed to reply to an e-mail sent by the complainant requesting information, the Commission has been unable to identify the e-mail in question. In order to allow the Commission to comment in full knowledge of the facts, it suggests that the complainant provide more precise details regarding the addressee and the date of the e-mail.
Normal practice is that, at the end of the selection procedure, all candidates are formally notified of the result by letter. The Commission can confirm that all the 479 candidates who were not short-listed were informed. However, it seems that the Commission failed to inform the unsuccessful short-listed candidates, since no trace of the relevant letters could be found in the file and another unsuccessful candidate has complained to the Commission about not being informed.
The Commission also enclosed a copy of a letter it had sent to the complainant on 16 May 2002, in which it apologised for the short notice of the interview on 26 January 2002 and for the delay in reimbursement of the ticket cancellation fee of 43,06 .The complainant's observations
The complainant made, in summary, the following observations:
According to the opinion of the Commission, the invitation procedure was equally inflexible for every applicant. This is not true, because the complainant was told in Brussels that the application procedure would be delayed because the days reserved for the interviews did not suit all of the applicants. This means that flexibility was possible in case of some of the applicants, which is discriminatory.
The Commissions opinion does not mention the hotel costs and the basis of reimbursement of the airfare adopted by the Commission is incorrect. The complainant paid the price of the flight ticket by using frequent travellers miles for the value of 40.000 points, which had been obtained by purchasing flight tickets to a total value of 80.000 FIM. The current price for the flight ticket was 7.682 FIM, which was confirmed by the representative of Finnair and presented in the complainants letter.
The complainant summarises the main objective of her complaint as promoting the effectiveness and professional handling of recruitment procedures for key positions in the EU. Her case is an example of an inflexible and non-professional recruitment practice, which should be changed in the future in order to recruit experienced and competent persons also from industry. Another important practice to be changed concerns reimbursement of travel expenses. The real expenses should form the basis for reimbursement. In the complainants case, the real economic loss was 1.500 (8.918 FIM).
Finally, the complainant stated that she no longer has information about the addressee and the date of the unanswered e-mail, but the address was the same as that given by the Commission for all communications concerning the interview. In February, she had discussed the case on the phone with a male person whose name she did not get.
THE DECISION1 Alleged maladministration in an interview procedure
1.1 The complainant was interviewed for the post of Director General of the Commissions Joint Research Centre. She alleges unfair and wrong procedures governing the reimbursement of travel expenses; inflexible invitation procedure for the interview; lack of information about procedures relating to the interview and lack of a reply to an e-mail inquiry. She claims that the Commission should reimburse in full her travel expenses amounting to 9 328,76 FIM, including a hotel bill which the Commission promised to pay and the full cost of an air ticket which she obtained using air miles. The complainant also suggests that in general, the Commissions interview procedures should provide for full reimbursement of travel expenses.
1.2 According to the Commission, the Rules for reimbursement of travel and subsistence expenses for persons outside the Commission(2), provide for reimbursement on the basis of the most economical airfare and production of the air ticket. In addition, a lump sum of 50 per day is paid. The complainant was informed of these rules in the e-mail confirming the invitation. The fare shown on the tickets presented by the complainant was 147 FIM, whereas the price of 5 200 FIM quoted by the complainant in her expense claim is the theoretical cost of an air ticket for the journey in question. The price of 7.682 FIM is the theoretical cost of the same ticket resulting from the change in the return date. The complainant did not actually pay these sums. The intention of Article 6 of the Rules for reimbursement is to reimburse candidates for the travel expenses actually incurred. In view of this, the complainant was paid 147 FIM to reimburse her travel expenses and 50 for each day she was present.
1.3 The Ombudsman considers that the Commission was entitled to take the view that the Rules for reimbursement of travel and subsistence expenses provide only for reimbursement of money actually paid by the complainant and not for the theoretical cost of a ticket obtained using air miles.
As regards the complainants allegation that she was promised reimbursement of her hotel cost, the Ombudsman understands that the 50 lump sum daily allowance referred to in the Commissions opinion is intended as a contribution to subsistence expenses, including hotel costs. The Ombudsman notes that the complainant has not provided details of who made the promise of full reimbursement. In these circumstances, the Ombudsman does not consider it justified to inquire further on this point.
On the basis of the information available to the Ombudsman, it appears that the Commission acted within its legal authority in establishing the Rules for reimbursement of travel and subsistence expenses and applying them in the complainants case. The Ombudsman therefore finds no maladministration as regards this aspect of the complaint. However, in view of the widespread use of air miles, the Commission could consider including, in the information given to candidates about travel expenses, an explicit statement that tickets purchased with air miles will not be reimbursed. The Ombudsman makes a further remark to this effect below.
1.4 As regards the complainants allegations concerning malfunction in the interview procedure and suggestions for general improvements, the Ombudsman notes that the Commission has acknowledged and apologised for a number of regrettable errors and has stated that measures will be taken to avoid similar mistakes reoccurring. The Ombudsman does not consider the Commissions response to the complainants concerns about the interview procedure to be an instance of maladministration.
1.5 As regards the complainants allegation of lack of reply to an e-mail, the Ombudsman considers that in the absence of information concerning the precise date and addressee of the e-mail, there is no evidence of maladministration by the Commission as regards this aspect of the complaint.2. The allegation of discrimination
2.1 In her observations on the Commissions opinion, the complainant argued that she was told in Brussels that the application procedure would be delayed because the days reserved for the interviews did not suit all of the applicants. The complainant alleges the invitation procedure was not, therefore, equally inflexible for every applicant and that this is discriminatory.
2.2 The Ombudsman considers that the complainant has not supplied sufficient evidence to justify examining this allegation in the framework of the present inquiry. The Ombudsman points out that the complainant has the possibility to make a new complaint and to supply evidence that could justify an inquiry into alleged discrimination in the interview procedure.3 Conclusion
On the basis of the Ombudsman's inquiries into this complaint, there appears to be no maladministration by the Commission. The Ombudsman therefore closes the case.
In view of the widespread use of air miles, the Commission could consider including, in the information given to candidates about travel expenses, an explicit statement that tickets purchased with air miles will not be reimbursed.
(1) A.N. No 656 of 28 January 1991.
(2) A.N. No 656 of 28 January 1991.
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