Interviewed by Caroline Dougherty
We had the pleasure of interviewing Pinuccia Contino, the Secretary General of WIL and manager in the Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers at the European Commission. Having held several different roles at the Commission, Pinuccia discusses what she has learnt from these various positions and how factors like intellectual curiosity and multilingualism have shaped her career. She also offers insights into how the Commission is ensuring product safety for European consumers and the creation of a new middle management network across the Commission that she has played an active role in creating. Read the interview below to find out more!
You have been working for the European Commission for over 28 years. During this time you had the position of Civil Servant, Head of Unit “Programming, Evaluation, Communication” and your presently so, Head of Unit “Product Safety and Rapid Alert System”. What made you change positions and what did you learn from these various experiences?
Within the Commission, there is the possibility to move from one policy field to another with relative ease. This is much unlike national administrations, where shifting from one ministry to another often poses problems.
This mobility within the Commission corresponds to my interests as I find it of value to understand and work in a plethora of areas which are of importance to European citizens. Consequently, throughout various points in my career, I have switched policy fields and roles: from working within a cabinet to taking up managerial positions within these differing fields.
I find it of value to understand and work in a plethora of areas which are of importance to European Citizens
These experiences resonated with my aspiration of life-long learning as I had the ability to transmit what I learnt in one policy field onto the other, whilst simultaneously feeding my intellectual curiosity. These factors combined were the driving forces which led me to change professional career paths.
You speak several languages and directed the unit “Multilingualism and Translation Studies” for over three years in Brussels. How has being multilingual shaped your career and why do you feel it is essential to promote multilingualism?
After my initial traineeship, I started working as an interpreter temporary agent, later becoming a civil servant. This would not have been possible had I not fully mastered four EU languages.
To delve into some examples, when I worked as an administrator within my first field, we focused on creating greater cohesion throughout Europe in respect to Education policy. This was a pivotal moment for Europe as the level of higher education throughout the Union was being increased. Due to my language knowledge and aptitudes, the Commissioner responsible for Education entrusted me with the area of multilingualism policy. I thus had the honor of leading the first communication on multilingualism policy, which was adopted by the Commission in 2005. This policy was being defined for the first time in history, so it goes without saying, my passion for languages indisputably shaped my career in many exciting ways!
My passion for languages indisputably shaped my career in many exciting ways!
This experience enabled me to get an understanding of the different areas within the Commission which later led me to be appointed as the head of a new unit in the DG for translation, known as “Multilingualism and Translation Studies”. Overall, knowing a lot about languages has been one of the threads that have positively shaped my career.
Being Head of the Unit “Product Safety and Rapid Alert System”, could you share ways in which the Commission is ensuring that the products we buy on the European markets are safe?
As with many areas in the European Union, the duties of the different actors and the legal obligations which need to be met mean that product safety remains a complex and sensitive issue. If the manufacturers were to produce only safe goods, regulating and intervention would not be required; consumers could happily buy and use products as they please. Unfortunately, reality is not always as the law prescribes and therefore it is crucial to make sure that the right of, consumers to product safety be enforced.
To say it in plain words, the enforcement system for product safety is made up of national authorities who are appointed by the Member States to verify the safety of products put on the market, and of the Commission who assesses and keeps track of the measures taken by the Member States against dangerous products. Once we have been alerted about an unsafeproduct, it becomes outlawed throughout the Union: this is recorded on a large database.
I like to tell my colleagues in the Member States that when they take a measure against a dangerous product they are not only acting on behalf of their country, but as a true European authority.
When a Member state acts against a dangerous product, they are acting as a true European authority.
My role is to make sure that the system works and every actor fulfils their role. My position allows me to help the Member States by funding some of their product safety activities and grants me the possibility of offering guidance on what the best practices are which they can put in place. Additionally, I discuss the potential risk of new products and technologies that come onto the market. I also do it with my international counterparts, another fascinating part of my job. In my unit, we could be considered as a “catalyst and service provider” in the field of product safety, serving Member States and ultimately, European consumers.
At our previous event at the European Parliament, you spoke about the Internet of Things. What is the Internet of Things and how safe are the products in the Internet of Things?
The Internet of Things can mean several things, but let’s talk about individual products which are connected to the Internet through WiFi.
To ensure the safety of connected products, tailored actions have been put in place to assess whether the current legal framework is as far reaching as is required. Similarly, protecting the system as a whole against hackers is of equal importance. My department within the Commission is helping analyse the product safety legal framework to ensure that it covers connectivity, hackin g or bugs. We can propose new legislation to combat the potential dangers.
Additionally, we are discussing and sharing concerns about the Internet of Things with organisations such as the OECD and with the United States. From the many fruitful discussions that have taken place, a consensus has been drawn that greater pressure needs to be put on the manufactures who design the connected products, to ensure they do not distribute faulty and/or easily hackable products.
Currently, you have an active role in the creation of a new middle management network across the European Commission. Can you walk us through the initiatives of this network and how it came about?
This is first ever initiative of its kind in the Commission!
Middle managers, otherwise known as head of units at the Commission, have always been considered as the backbone of the institution. They link operational work, political vision and the setting of political strategies and priorities, so need to maintain a strong line of communication in all directions. I form part of the limited number of managers who, together with my colleagues in HR, invested a lot into setting up this middle management network, so that the Heads of Unit could share their main challenges and theways they overcame them. The network also serves as a hub in which we explore and develop new tools and resources, as well as identifying areas for collaboration. This initiative demonstrates that learning from peers holds greater weight than learning from books and videos.
Learning from peers holds greater weight than learning from books and videos.
This network was started at the beginning of last year through a thorough co-creation process. Every month, two or three heads of unit on a rotating basis propose topics for discussion. It is an interactive process and involves a great deal of peer-learning where participants share ideas and collectively tackle challenges.
The initiative has so far been a great success and I am optimistic that it can bring more impact, effectiveness and ultimately greater happiness into the institution.
You have served as the Secretary General for WIL since 2008. What does it mean to hold this position and how has being a part of WIL’s leadership team contributed to your professional development?
To hold this particular position has been thrilling for me as I have met, and continue to meet, extraordinary women, not only from my field, but also from the private sector. Getting to share, develop new ideas and learn from fantastic women who have launched their own businesses or who have very meaningful jobs has been very beneficial to me. How? Mostly so by sharing innovative ideas and formulating new visions on how women can better contribute to the development of the European society.
In reference to my professional development, this network has helped me broaden my horizons beyond the Commission. Specifically, through the Women Talent Pool Program where I am exposed to younger and often more forward-looking perspectives on things!
To conclude, we have the tradition of concluding the interview with a question from Proust’s questionnaire: If you had to recommend a book to our network what would it be?
The book I have chosen is quite surprising. It is not just a book, but a series of books named “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George RR. Martin, which have been adapted into the widely popular series known as “Game of Thrones”.
It is the best saga on power I have ever read! So don’t hesitate and dive into it, you will not regret it.