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The Normalization of the European CommissionPolitics and Bureaucracy in the EU Executive$

Anchrit Wille

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199665693

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199665693.001.0001

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(p.213) Appendix Research Design Conceptual Development

(p.213) Appendix Research Design Conceptual Development

The Normalization of the European Commission
Oxford University Press

The research for this book focused, at the outset, on the executive relationships in the EU Commission. Executive relationships remain notoriously difficult to study. The theoretical and methodological challenges are numerous. Theoretically, propositions remain ruthless simplifications of what for the most part are complex, variegated, and ambiguous political and administrative systems and processes. Perhaps the aim to develop causal generalizations—let alone an explanatory theory—about executive relations is not the most helpful stance to take for students of politics and public administration in the first place. It might be more fruitful to take an interpretive perspective: to penetrate the real-world realities of politics and administrative decision-making, coordination, management, and policy preparation in the richest possible ways to help us understand how key actors in these executive relations make sense of what they do, and why they do it, rather than impute fairly simplistic motivations and behavioural propensities about them.

As I worked out the relationships between commissioners, cabinet chefs, and senior officials, I became increasingly intrigued with the related but somewhat different question of how newly emerging accountability arrangements have affected these executive relationships and how this has impacted the institutional character of the EU Commission. As a result, the research shifted to become organized around a somewhat different, but I thought and think, even more compelling theoretical puzzle. As evidence in the research mounted of differences between the Commission’s executive relationships now and at the time of its original design, it gradually became clear that the institutional evolution had a clear face, with the emergence of new accountability forums and arrangements, introduced during the various political and administrative reforms, leading to a ‘normalization’ of this EU executive and of its core executive relationships.

This institutional evolution raised theoretical issues of import well beyond the confines of the EU Commission, touching on fundamental questions about institutional change, the establishment of new accountability arrangements as a result of democratization and administrative reforms. Taken as a whole, the book embodies an argument about institutional evolution and the interaction of political and (p.214) administrative reforms, and its impact on executive relationships, which I believe is also relevant to other executives. But spelling this out is a task that others may pursue in the future.


Methodologically, both institutional change and politicians and public administrators in executive relations are difficult to study. Institutional change is problematic to research because a fruitful yardstick that assesses qualitative alterations to an institution, and that allows for generalizations over time, is not easy to find. Executive politics is hard to study because of problems of gaining access, confidentiality, partial involvement, and post hoc rationalization which make it particularly difficult to uncover the political process inside the public sector through surveys. In-depth archival analysis and direct real-time observation are far more helpful methods in this regard (Rhodes et al. 2007). However, both require deep access that is time-consuming and difficult to obtain (Child et al. 2010: 126). An alternative that is opted for in this study is the use of interviews and an analysis of documents. This approach builds directly on past research in the Dutch executive with Paul ’t Hart and colleagues from Leiden University (2002; Hart and Wille 2006), in which we studied executive relationships.


Data have been drawn from primary and secondary sources. Most of the detailed working and official documents are available on-line. I have used the documentation published by the Commission, especially on the administrative reforms. Analysis of the new regulations and codes of conduct were used to gain more insight into the rules governing the selection and appointment procedures. Moreover, the use of biographical data provided information on the careers of key actors. Documents and biographical information were available on the Commission website (〈http://ec.europa.eu/index_en.htm〉). Further, I used the Commission’s White Papers and press releases, speeches of commissioners, reports by the European Parliament and its standing committees, as well as the two reports of the CIE, both published in 1999, in addition to a wide range of general and media sources.


The research relies on fifty in-depth, face-to-face interviews conducted with commissioners, directors-general, and heads of cabinet in the Barosso I Commission. The objective of this study was to provide an inside-out account of executive relationships in an era of change.

Effort was made to interview officials and officeholders with experience in working at the top; some officials had been working there for a long time, others were relative newcomers. Interviewees were distributed across a range of sectors and policy portfolios. In addition to their own affiliation, most officials had experience in more than one field. Individuals who were interviewed served in a variety of capacities, but they (p.215) all had professional-level leadership and policy positions. I interviewed more males than females and talked to officials from nearly all twenty-seven nationalities in the Commission. Fifteen additional interviews were conducted with relevant informants: MEPs, to learn about the accountability expectations of the EU Commission, and officials working at the apex, like assistants of the director-general and members of cabinet.

Most of the interviews took place in the interviewees’ office in Brussels in the period 2006–9. But other locations included conference rooms, cafeterias, coffee shops, and some off-site restaurants. Interviews typically lasted an hour or so; a few were as short as forty minutes, while others were over two hours in duration. Topics covered included cooperation and the working relationship, perceptions of daily practices, career routes, role expectations, and the contacts with the European Parliament.

The interviews were conducted face to face in a semi-structured (nearly conversational) manner. All conversations were recorded with a voice recorder with the permission of the respondents, and transcribed. In one case only, the respondent/interviewee withheld permission for recording, and the author had to rely on hand-written notes. All respondents were promised complete anonymity and confidentiality regarding their comments. The interviews were conducted on the understanding that the participants would not be named as interviewees. With these ground rules established there was usually no reluctance to talk, no leaving questions unanswered or avoiding topics. The main purpose was to build a sense of openness about what it is like to work in the EU Commission. The atmosphere during the conversations was relaxed, pleasant, and informal. Obviously, however, it was by no means a conversation between equals. During interviews, powerful, influential people—though in the ostensibly dependent role of interviewee—are quite capable of controlling the interview. Politicians and senior officials are skilled ‘interviewees’ who tell you what they want to tell you and no more. As a result, they are tough objects of study. They understand the decision process in the light of their own selective interpretations. They may rationalize the part they have played in cooperation, and the more politically charged the decision process, the more this is likely to happen (Child et al. 2010: 126). Even if there appeared to be virtually no no-go areas in the conversation, some topics were treated with professional generalizations.

I used the interviews for a number of reasons. First, since I sought information regarding the expectations and perceptions of commissioners, head of cabinets, and senior officials, it made sense to talk to them. The flexibility allowed by an interview instrument was a second reason to opt for this method. The questions were open-ended, and because the interviews were semi-structured, it was possible to add follow-up questions that followed logically from the interviewee statements. The interviews allowed me to cover a large number of topics in depth. I talked with interviewees about the key elements that generate a good relationship. To avoid problems associated with self-reporting, the interviews were not limited to self-reporting. The questions not only concerned the individual’s own attitudes and behaviour, but also those of their colleagues. Hence the interviewees were able to act not only as respondents, but also as informants and to talk about their counterparts. This provided the opportunity to reconstruct the parameters of the cooperation within political–bureaucratic dyads (p.216) and triads. The fact that their accounts were consistent with one another increased confidence in the frankness and accuracy of the accounts provided. The interviews and reports were especially useful, because it is nearly impossible to get information on these relationships on any other way.

As result of the precautions and the responses that the interviews elicited, I am confident that the choice of interview subject was appropriate to the task and that the findings reported in this book paint an accurate picture of the political–bureaucratic relationships at the top of the EU Commission during the Barroso years.


Interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed. The analysis focused on the communalities and differences between politicians and bureaucrats by focusing on recruitment and role expectations. I also paid particular attention to how people assessed the role of their counterpart in the triad, as well as how they perceived their triadic relationship and what elements were relevant for the relationship. In addition, I considered contextual elements, such as the working of the EP and the portfolio, and whether the interviewees could detect changes in these categories.

In coding the answers and interviews, I relied to some extent on the standardized coding scheme used in a previous study on political–administrative relationships in the Netherlands (Hart and Wille 2006). Armed with these interview data, I tried to answer some key questions about the executive relations at the top of the Commission.