Last February, Stephen Quest was appointed Director-General of DG DIGIT of the European Commission. He was previously Director of the Office for the Administration and Payment of Individual Entitlements (Paymasters Office) and head of cabinet to Commissioners Dalia Grybauskaite and Algirdas Semeta (financial programming and budget).
We met the man whose administration is in charge of the IT strategy of the European Commission. He talked about his background and shared with us his thoughts about his new responsibility.
IT One: Mister Quest, what region of Europe are you from?
SQ: "I was born and brought up in Kent, in the south of England. That is the part of the country that is geographically closest to Europe so it is perhaps why I became interested in the idea of working in Europe."
IT One: What was your vision of Europe at that time?
SQ: "I remember that while I was at school we had a number of trips over to France on the ferry and hovercraft - the tunnel was not yet built! Funnily enough, my very first school trip was to Luxembourg, when I was 8 or 9. We spent a week in a youth hostel in Echternach, visiting Luxembourg, Trier and the surrounding area. I remember being surprised at how easy it was to cross the borders, even at that time. It was literally my first introduction to Europe and it obviously made a powerful impact, because I am back here 40 years later!
When I left school I went to university in York, in the North of England. That gave me an opportunity to discover another part of the country and explore some fabulous scenery. York also has the advantage of having the highest density of pubs per head of population in the country - and some great fish and chips!"
IT One: What are your academic background and early professional experiences?
SQ: "I studied history at University and was then recruited directly into the graduate entry fast stream of the UK civil service, where I was assigned to the Department of Employment. The UK civil service is a fantastic training ground – you are posted to a different job each year, and as such very quickly gain a lot of different experience.
I had the fortune to arrive at a time when European legislation was exploding in the area of social affairs, thanks to the Single European Act of 1987. Suddenly parts of Whitehall that had been protected from any real involvement in European legislation found themselves in Council working groups discussing employment and health and safety legislation with the other member states. Graduate entrants such as myself were therefore encouraged to familiarise themselves with European affairs, and I was posted to Brussels for two years to work on different aspects of European law. It was during this period that I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in the European public service."
IT One: How did the transition to a European career happen? Were you naturally destined for a function in the area of information and communication technologies?
SQ: "After six years as a UK civil servant I passed an EU competition and was recruited to the Directorate General for Employment and Social Affairs in Brussels in 1993. The Commissioner at the time was Irish - Padraig Flynn -, and quite soon after my recruitment an opportunity arose in his cabinet for a young official. I got the job and became the only non-Irish member of the cabinet; this was still the time when cabinets were exclusively nationally based, with one foreigner."
After the cabinet and a couple of other jobs I continued the Irish connection, taking up the post of assistant to the newly appointed Secretary General of the Commission, David O'Sullivan, in 2000. Once again, this proved to be an excellent learning ground, and it gave me a great overview of the way the Institutions work. Perhaps as a result of this, when the EU enlarged in 2004 the incoming Lithuanian Commissioner, Dalia Grybauskaite, who had been appointed Commissioner for the budget, asked me to become her Head of Cabinet. This opportunity came totally out of the blue (her selection criteria were someone young, ideally British, who knew how the Commission worked!) and was both a huge honour and an enormous personal challenge.
For the next 5 years we worked to help reshape and reform the EU budget – a somewhat thankless task, but one on which we did make some progress.
Mrs Grybauskaite went on to be elected President of Lithuania, and in 2010 I became the Director of the Commission's Paymaster's office, responsible for the delivery of corporate payroll and expenses and the management of individual entitlements. This was, quite deliberately, a complete change of scene for me – away from the political limelight and into large, backroom, service delivery job. I wanted to get a better understanding of how the machine worked and to play an active role in improving levels of service delivery. It was this job that brought me into intensive contacts with the IT department of the Commission (DIGIT), since they were responsible for the delivery of our IT systems. Over the three years that I did this job we carried out a major overhaul of our internal IT systems, and it was this experience that tempted me to apply for the post of Director General of DIGIT, which brings together my interest in IT, my belief in the importance of providing high quality corporate services, and my understanding of how the machinery of the Commission works."
IT One: What is your vision of your office of Director General of DIGIT?
SQ: "My priorities in DIGIT are, one the one hand, to ensure that we provide top IT quality services for the Commission and, on the other, to ensure that we provide IT leadership within the institution. I believe that IT has the power to help us transform the workplace, to become more productive, and to work together in new and different ways. The challenge we face in DIGIT is delivering this vision in a cost-effective and agile way. I consider myself lucky to have been given this opportunity and am very much enjoying the challenges of the new job."
The mission of the Directorate-General for Informatics is to enable the Commission to make effective and efficient use of Information and Communication Technologies in order to achieve its organisational and political objectives.
With this goal in mind, the Directorate-General, in partnership with all relevant stakeholders, has the responsibility to define the IT strategy of the European Commission, provide the EC and whenever appropriate other European Institutions and bodies with high quality and advanced IT infrastructure solutions and e-services, support services, and telecommunications facilities, deliver information systems required to support EC corporate business processes within the framework of the e-Commission strategy, promote and facilitate, in full collaboration with European public administrations, the deployment of pan-European e-Government services for citizens and enterprises.
Interview by Michaël Renotte
Publié le 06 juin 2013