Madelin: ‘I have been appointed to this job to be creative’

Robert Madelin

Robert Madelin [Lisbon Council/Flickr]

On 1 September, Robert Madelin, until now director general at the European Commission, moves into a new position as policy advisor on innovation. In a wide ranging-interview with EURACTIV, he speaks about his new role, the digital single market and the contingencies of civil service.

Robert Madelin is the former director general of the European Commission’s DG Connect, which deals with digital matters and telecoms. On 1 September, he becomes “senior adviser for innovation” at the European Political Strategy Centre, the internal think tank which reports directly to President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Your departure from DG Connect was one of the big surprises of the recent reshuffle at the European Commission directorates. What do you think was the reason for this? Was your mission accomplished after the publication of the Digital Single Market (DSM) strategy last May?

This was a decision of the College, and as I said when I arrived here, equally precipitately, the civil service is like the military, in that you pack up and go somewhere else when the time comes. So I don’t have any difficulty with that.

My personal perspective is that with the end of Barroso II, with the successful on-boarding of the Juncker team, and Mr Oettinger, this mandate was at the end of its natural cycle. In 2010, I launched the Digital Agenda for Europe, and now we have launched the Digital Single Market.

As for my own personal career goal of lasting two solid mandates as a DG, that’s a watershed. My personal preference of course, like many human instincts, was to go on and on, as there are certainly lots of new challenges in the digital arena, but I was equally ready to do other things.

So my perspective about that is very logical. I’d done five and a half years here, and actually the idea of doing a sort of staff consultancy job is attractive.

Looking ahead, what do you see as the major challenges for the Digital Single Market strategy?

What distinguished the Digital Single Market from the Digital Agenda for Europe is that it is very focussed and much more ambitious.

Between 2010 and 2015 we cleared the ground, we laid the foundations, with 138 actions. Strategically, Juncker went from having the strong vertical approach under Neelie Kroes to having a sort of T-shaped digital policy, which is more mainstreamed, with more focus and more risk-taking.

The 16 actions under the DSM are almost all in areas where there is real political judgement to be exercised about what the market will bear in terms of the speed of change. So the thing to watch is the timetable for delivery – we have pinned ourselves to an 18 month target with the first proposals before Christmas – and the quality of the political judgement inherent in the degree of ambition in each proposal.

This means that more is not necessarily better. Aiming for the moon and falling on your face is not the goal in politics. And I actually think we are off to quite a good start in terms of the project team approach. We are getting better at balancing internally our analysis of the pros and cons of each option, and I hope we will be getting significant successes as a result. So it is the overall pattern you have to watch.

The political judgement you mentioned also means political risk. Could you mention a few areas where you see this political discussion being more present?

As I said, because we have gone from 150-ish to 16 proposals, none of them are trivial. And they all involve political judgement.

On data protection for instance?

Data protection is not one of the 16, it is already going on. But I think data and the free flow of data, which is the goal of the DSM, is a big new vision. Everyone would agree that getting data right is crucial for the digital age. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will be part of that, the data retention debate that’s hotting up again will be part of that, the level playing field arguments – to who do these rules apply – is part of that, so the platform aspect. So it’s part in and part out.

On 1 September, you will take on your new role as “senior adviser for innovation” at the European Political Strategy Centre, the Commission’s internal think tank. A lot of initiatives have already been taken on innovation under Barroso, including the creation of the European Institute of Technology and more recently, the Horizon 2020 programme. Do you have an idea of what your contribution will be? Did you receive a mission letter?

I did receive a very clear mandate, yes. That mandate firstly is to be an advisor in the Commission President’s staff, so it is a completely different job. The last time I did a staff job was when I was in the cabinet of a Commissioner. So it’s that sort of change – moving closer to the President – and that carries lots of implications.

In terms of the mandate, the content is pretty broad. It says, “How do you make Europe a global pro-innovation actor? What policy, regulatory and financing changes could be made at EU level to support that vision?”

Part of this is spotting trends – so, horizon scanning –, and then there is a networking and silo-busting role, working with the three vice-presidents: Katainen, Ansip and Šef?ovi?. So, five core DGs: EAC, GROW, CONNECT, JRC, RTD (not necessarily in that order). And of course there might well be other DGs that have innovative things to share as well.

To your other question about how this fits with other stuff done in the past, I think what makes this very timely is what Moedas is doing about his 3 O’s —open innovation, open science and open to the world. His approach has been to start with the question of how the Horizon 2020 world can become more supportive of innovation.

But I do share the vision he puts in his speech, when he says that innovation is also about the context. So how do we get the regulations, the skills and the capital markets right for innovators? And so in practice what he is speaking to and what I have been asked to advise on, and the value I could add in my role as an advisor, would be to build up the non-Horizon 2020 part of that vision that he already included in his speech.

So I see that as the synergy. And it’s an internally focussed advice to the President — it’s not a Royal Report that will be published in the media — and I have a year to do it. But the machinery of government is the big question. There are lots of theories of innovation, we know where the H2020 process is going. There is stuff we don’t know, and above all we don’t know if we need to do more on this: should there be more of a project around innovation?

So do you see some obvious gaps in the constellation of initiatives that have already been taken – the EIT, the Small Business Act, Horizon 2020, regulatory aspects including Better Regulation, the Capital Markets Union, etc.?

It’s a good question but the answer is I don’t know. To be honest at the moment, I am still very much transitioning out as opposed to transitioning in. But the first question we could ask is, does the map of activity match the map of need? So gap analysis. Secondly, like the new tunnel under the Baltic, are there any connections we could make, any new “synaptic links” we could make between different areas of work? And the third question is, are there things we are doing that are already connected up, but we are not doing them fast enough, or not doing enough of them? — So a scale question.

Do you think this horizontal approach to innovation could lead to some sort of new narrative about the EU and what it brings? Or is this something much more technocratic, a thing for specialists or people into innovation?

I am neither a narrator nor a technocrat. My test would be to look for things that are politically feasible and impactful at EU level. So I don’t think a new narrative is necessarily what we need, and if we did need one, the hearing speech by the research Commissioner would provide a pretty good narrative.

In this College we have a narrative. The Commissioners have been talking about the innovation narrative. In terms of the technocracy, the Horizon 2020 mid-term review, which is beyond my mandate, will no doubt carry out a technocratic review. What we are looking for is impact investment for political capital. Is there anything new and feasible that we could do to increase the pro-innovation impact? So it’s a bit more to do with strategy than either narrative or technocracy.

The European Institute of Technology (EIT) was probably the boldest policy initiative to be launched in recent years at European level. They are now enjoying a big increase in their budget. But when the budgets were voted in Parliament, MEPs were quite reluctant to throw so much money at something that has not produced much. Broadly speaking, what is your view on that? Is it too early to say whether the EIT has succeeded or failed?

If you look at what we have done for innovation over the last ten years, I’d say there are two pillars. One is the creation of the EIT, and the second is the Innovation Union vision, and the two sort of interact.

The EIT started relatively small and relatively fast, and a lot of people asked what it could really do. And the fact that the budgetary authority gave it a lot more money, with the agreement of the Council and Parliament, reflects the fact that it has moved to cruising speed and is pretty well established.

We are now talking to the people who will be setting up the next knowledge and innovation communities around health, for example. You say it hasn’t done very much, but you could argue that it doesn’t have clear enough EIT-level key performance indicators. If you go down to the individual communities (for example the one I work with most is the ICT labs KIC), they know what they want to do, they have a serious business plan. And you could see over the last five years a new network maturing: more leading university ICT labs coming into the network, more big actors from the business world coming in, and more product, especially in terms of skills, secondments, summer schools, graduates…

So in that area I think we are beginning to do the right thing. And the next challenge is to scale it. If we look at the next KICs that are coming, particularly on health, they are very much looking at accelerating the growth path that has been slightly slower in pathfinding for the first wave of KICs. But I’m fairly confident that we will see some interesting stuff around health in the next six to 12 months.

So even though I wasn’t involved in the initial decision on the EIT and only really began working with it here, I am pretty much a believer I have to say.

Do you think a stricter timeline should be imposed on the EIT in delivering visible results?

I don’t think so. Remember, the EIT is a community. It’s not like a consortium delivering a grant-funded project. Therefore, the things it develops will be innovative and emergent. So what the ICT labs are now doing probably couldn’t have been predicted four years ago. So that is what I see as a beneficiary of those networks. Afterwards, I am afraid I am not expert enough to have a view on what the EIT itself should be doing.

So setting targets could even be counter-productive?

That is an interesting question that really goes to the heart of innovation: does innovation just happen, and appear like manna from heaven? I don’t think so. There are purposeful things you can do to get ready for the joy of discovery, but in the end the discoveries themselves may come by accident, or they may be planned. In digital it is a bit of both.

The Key Enabling Technologies were a conscious decision by the Commission designed to focus the EU’s innovation efforts into some key emerging technologies. That was seen as a way of trying to encourage the emerging European champions in some of the key areas. Is that a view that you share and do you think that is something that is desirable?

I must say I don’t have a very developed view on KETs. We do understand data analytics to be a key enabling technology, so in that respect anything digital is a KET. But it depends how DG GROW wants to structure it.

In answer to your question about national champions, the Innovation Union differs from the seven previous framework programmes by wanting to bring European ideas to market more effectively, in greater volume and faster. Part of that in the digital sphere is public-private partnerships, which we have multiplied in the last five years.

We now have more, bigger, long-term projects, including robotics, data, the internet of things, connected cars, factories of the future, etc. And here we have real Airbus-type consortia, so strategic alliances between the key European technology leaders in each field. This logic is still working for us, but what we still need to achieve is the clear flagging of the work coming out of these PPPs as projects of common European interest, where appropriate, with all the accommodating stamps that that would imply, in terms of structural funds, spenders supporting these efforts, state aid people looking benignly at these efforts, etc. And the way the Juncker Plan will be rolling out in the autumn will be a test for that.

But we need not simply to label something a key technology, we need to establish new clusters of knowledge and a new intent to bring that knowledge to market, and that’s what the H2020 financed PPPs are trying to achieve. I would see the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) flaghsips, both graphene and the human brain project, as similar. The approach is different, so we are not beginning from an industrial-academic partnership; we are beginning from a grand challenge approach: map the brain, use graphene. So these are very different challenges, but very interesting, innovative experiments.

But the KETs goal of creating an environment where European champions are able to emerge goes in the direction of creating champions, doesn’t it?

Let’s go back to the idea of European champions. The cycle of public authorities’ self confidence in their ability to drive innovation and pick winners is a cycle. It is a bit random and not entirely driven by knowledge or politics, but I think that in the last five years you can say that, worldwide, the belief in industrial strategy has increased.

The reason is not that the ghost of Keynes or the new economic policy of Lenin is stalking the world, but rather that we are at a time of such pervasive disruption and accelerated change thanks to digital, that anything might be the next big winner. That is very different from deciding we are going to have a European Google or a European Huawei tomorrow.

Actually I think that it would be very much a mistake to pick winners in that way. It’s clear therefore that the outcome of a much bigger number of European ideas getting much closer to market faster, with more hundred million euro investments to get the start-ups across the valley of death, would be more bigger players in the global economy. But this is different from saying that this or that ailing incumbent should be a national champion, which is more like an excuse for subsidy and protection.

One of the big challenges these days is the lack of large European “champions” in the digital sphere – whether on hardware, software or services. There are notable exceptions like Spotify but all the big disrupting innovations, like Uber, are usually American. Will this feature among your objectives – putting in place a regulatory environment that nurtures the emergence of “European champions” in the digital sphere?

Absolutely. We already have European equivalents of Uber, but they are maybe not scaling up as fast as Uber. There is always a risk in trying to plan an uncertain future by looking at what is growing in the garden already. Five years ago we were saying different things about Nokia, and ten years ago we were saying different things about AOL. So whether the companies we can see today are going to continue dominating the world or not has always been unclear, but these days it is unclear in a shorter time cycle than it used to be.

One of the policy buzzwords of the day is “Big Data” and the industrial internet – otherwise known as industry 4.0. Big data is being cited as a game changer in areas as varied as farming, medicine, or energy. How do you see the privacy issue being dealt with in each of those sectors? Is the data protection regulation going to single-handedly deal with all of these, or do we need separate approaches for each sector?

The first thig I’d say is that Big Data – the idea that there is more and more data that we can use more intelligently at lower cost – is going to come everywhere. So the question of which sector will grow fastest is very hard to predict. But I don’t think that anyone would dispute that the notion of data and data analytics taken together is here for ever and in all sectors.

Secondly the data protection part is always about personal data, so wherever the data generated is personal or personalisable in the sense of the draft legislation – the path to market will simply have to take account of the rules.

We probably underestimate today the proportion of data available in a decades time that will not be personal data; that will either be anonymised or be a-personal in any case. For example the data from sensors on a road bridge will be extremely important, or the data from the next generation of antennas. That data will not be personal, although it will be extremely important.

The biggest data at the moment is from things like the Pluto fly-by and the Large Hadron Collider, which is also not personal. So we shouldn’t assume that all the instances of big data that matter will be B2C and therefore have a personal data component.

The big point about personal data protection in Europe is that the person has to consent – effectively, explicitly, case-by-case. There, the technology will get better at tagging and controlling the personal data brick by brick, in accordance with an individual’s preference as to how each brick should be used.

Does this not mean a sectoral approach?

No, what I mean is that the technology will enable the legal principle of consent to be fulfilled at ever lower cost and with ever greater control by the individual.

At the moment we are living through a phase of transition, where part of the moral panic is related to the profound disruption of the data age – society is being challenged with questions like “what does it mean to be human in a hyper-connected age?” – but the technology is going to deal with half of the problem.

And in answer to your question, we should absolutely not go sectoral, but implement horizontal, principle-based regulation at the highest possible level. Sector-agnostic, technologically neutral, future-proof regulation is far easier for innovation to accommodate than very specific stuff.

The Uber problem is that the regulation has got too much related to a particular form of delivery of transport for payment. You could then argue about regulation for other issues like self-employment status, security, taxes etc., but the over specification of regulation guarantees you will get in the way, so I would always try to avoid a sectoral approach if possible.

So you are not worried that personal data about people’s health, maybe generated by their mobile phones, may be misused and traced back to individuals? Do you think the anonymisation of data would be sufficient to deal with such cases?

Anonymisation is a legal principle that we are still defining at the moment. So as a legal positivist, Europe will define anonymisation and people must deliver it. Then technologists and tech development may require us to further refine that definition.

In any case this will not mean that suddenly you are invisible, because you are not. My way of thinking about all the health data I generate for example, is to take an extreme example in the future and think about it in an open way. If we take my genome, the most possible health data, and ask the question: if big data plus my genome plus everybody else’s genome can save lives, do I have the right to say ‘no I don’t want to share my genome with society’?

When you take the current technological changes to their moral conclusion, the real moral question is what a human being should responsibly and ethically do when sharing it will save the lives of fellow citizens.

But should your prospective employer know for example that you battled cancer a couple of years ago?

Indeed, I was coming to that. So the next question is: with whom should I share it? Is there an ethical case that I should share it for research, and if so, what guarantees exist that it will be securely held and not further re-used? Let’s assume that whatever the guarantees are, there is always a risk that my insurer or my employer can find my genome and understand things that might make me unemployable or uninsurable. That’s a social problem that cannot be fixed by putting more and more effort into hiding.

In my view, if there is no hiding place, society has to ask itself: if there are more and more people that are uninsurable, how shall we prohibit or limit premium variation, or increase the amount of social provision to cover the insurance that the market will not provide for certain individuals? Those are the real questions.

Chasing the idea that privacy will save you and then society will not have to step in is very short-termist. It’s utopian. Because the real problem of society is not enabling citizens to hide, it is giving citizens solidarity.

Returning to the champions issue and the recent takeover of the Financial Times. Do you think this good or bad news for the European media industry?

To me, this shows that Europe is an increasingly integrated economy open to the world. One of the success factors of any innovation policy is to be very explicitly open to the world, to get the best of global capital and talent into European innovation. That has been the success factor for Singapore and Israel and so on.

In the same spirit I think remaining not a fortress but a world partner is the key. So as long as the editorial values remain compatible with European expectations, I don’t think it matters where the capital comes from.

Do you think the ownership of a big newspaper like the FT could influence important debates, for example on the Brexit referendum?

I can’t conceive the link. In the media world, I think there are no exceptions to the rule that Europe must be an integrated economy open to the world for trade and investment. So the fact that non-European investors take a major stake in a newspaper that is read globally, but that many people like to think of as European, doesn’t worry me.

The second layer is about transparency: do we know who the owners are? In this case the answer is pretty much, yes. But there are other cases where the answer is less clear.

The third set of questions is around editorial control and media pluralism, and these are issues that have to be looked at very carefully. In UK legislation media concentration must be looked at in parallel as both an economic and a pluralism issue, not mixed up, and at the market level, which is usually at the country or language level, and not at EU level. I think that is a convincing system.

Do you think some kind of European strategy or coordination is needed to deal with such issues?

I believe Europe needs to be better at coordination and be more agnostic about harmonisation in many areas. In media in particular, this DG has in the last few years successfully reinforced coordination. We now have a quite formal structure of national media regulators who come together quite regularly, and we are currently asking ourselves the question of whether this is enough.

The other interesting straw in the wind around comfort letters for corporate tax management – the notion that everybody shares their comfort letters with everybody else – that is the degree of default sharing between dispersed regulatory nodes that I think we need to make natural in many walks of life in Europe.

That would contribute to increased transparency is what you are implying.

Yes, but the media regulators have agreed to talk together in a much more structured way in the last few years, so we are going in the right direction. As to where we will go next, we will suspend judgement until we have received input on our consultation for the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD). This is the regulatory piece around which the media pluralism debate tends to cluster.

Turning to your advisor role at the Commission, your new job title as of September is officially “senior adviser for innovation” at the European Political Strategy Centre, the Commission’s internal think-tank. Adviser roles are often reserved for ageing officials. Were you getting too close to retirement age?

That’s a very interesting and personal question! First, I have never met anyone in any walk of life that is not getting older! Second, I think that public service is a way of life, but that does not mean that an institution like the Commission should be offering a job for life.

Pensionable age when I joined the civil service in the UK in 1979 was very clear: in that country, everybody retired at 60. Now everybody is retiring later, and in the Commission the pensionable age is anything from 60 to 65, and the retirement age is 65 but could be 66 or 67.

But what we don’t do as well in the EU institutions as they do in the French civil service for example, is an up and out system. This is where people can be promoted quite early into senior posts, but there is no assumption that they will then sit there for the next 20 years if there is more, better, younger talent coming through.

Therefore, the notion that people should not always be managers is healthy, the idea that you can go both up and down and in and out of line management in a cyclical way. I think Mrs Georgieva is beginning to think about that. But in any case I don’t believe the system should give anybody the automatic right to stay until retirement age.

Then you get to the question of whether this means an American-style revolving door system, which I think would be extremely unhealthy for the civil service. This does happen in Europe too with partners in law or accounting firms, for example, come to senior positions in the civil service where you risk having conflicts of interest. At the Commission I actually think that public servants leaving at retirement age or before is pretty well-managed. So I don’t honestly feel too old, I think I have a good decade ahead, the question is how should I spend it.

Do have an idea of how roles will be shared between you and the EPSC head, Ann Mettler? Unlike you, she’s not a civil servant by career, so how does that make you feel?

Ann Mettler is head of the service, she’s my accounting officer, which means I report to her. That is fine, I have known her for five or six years and dividing roles will be very straight forward. I have to produce a report next summer on innovation and she has to run the EPSC.

So that will be your next deliverable. How thick will the report be?

I can’t tell you how thick it will be! The key thing is that its content will probably not be published, a bit like it is done at the Number 10 think tank.

Do you expect to have more or less freedom and creativity compared to your current role?

Neither. I think creativity comes from the individual person, so I expect to continue being just as creative in my new position.

The real question is what happens to your creativity. In a big public sector organisation, creativity can come from anywhere. So I would regard DG Connect as being a relatively creative peripheral actor. We rolled out social media stuff that other people picked up, we rolled out some internal communication stuff that other people picked up. So innovation can happen in many different places. Here as a creative person leading a team, I have tried to foster that creativity and to lead it.

In my new job the way to be creative will be to produce good ideas. Firstly by listening and trying to tease them out across the Commission from others that are actually doing innovation – finding out where the gaps are, where we can build bridges, what are the scales and the timings – and trying to find out what everybody else thinks.

So I see the challenge for creativity in the next phase as being to find effective ways to acquire knowledge from the system. I haven’t been appointed to this job because I am a big expert on innovation – I’m not – I think I have been appointed to this job to be creative.

Maybe this appointment is a recognition of your own creativity?

Maybe. The underlying sense of your question was ‘surely this is bad’. And I actually think this is pretty good. I have only ever accepted jobs that I believed in and wanted to do, and this is something I believe in and want to do.

Otherwise, you could have gone through the revolving door, I guess…

No. Obviously the discussions that feed into the College’s decisions are not in the public domain. But I don’t think that was an option I considered.

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