Agreement reached on public sector bosses
“There always has to be drama, especially when important people and significant sums are at stake.
The plan has been on the government's table since 2007, and my predecessor Paul Magnette's plan was what started it. It's important to name new managers so that they can take action. We will be able to begin reforming the SNCB." In those few words the federal minister of public companies, Jean-Pascal Labille (PS) encapsulated the summer's political soap opera. The various parties' vice-premiers reached an agreement last Sunday concerning the people to select to lead most public companies and fill vacant presidencies of certain boards of directors. They also agreed on salary levels for new bosses which will be limited to an all-inclusive €290,000 per year.
For several weeks rivalry between the Flemish SP.A and Open VLD parties kept the plan from being completed. Overall, the CD&V will gain a term for a CEO from the PS (Belgocontrol) and the SP.A will gain a term from the Open VLD at the National Lottery. Political balance has to be maintained on a grand scale. To ensure this the terms for public companies will not end at the same time. Nevertheless, all of the majority public parties have staked their claim to a company or a board of directors, except for the CDH, which was completely absent from the debate. Was it already satisfied by having Melchior Wathelet, the elder, named as prosecuting attorney for the European Court of Justice? Several consistent combinations have been created by this plan. For example, the future SNCB group will be led at the executive level by the socialists (one PS candidate and one SP.A candidate - more comfortable with the unions?), and the National Lottery (a PS candidate as president, an SP.A candidate as CEO).
For the minister, Jean-Pascal Labille, political balance is not what's important, even if it was why so much time was lost. "There are three basic things to note now that the issue has been decided," Jean-Pascal Labille continued, "a kind of return to justice in salary levels within public companies, a framework and rules that are more fair. Also, the state is taking on its role as majority shareholder in some companies. Finally, these appointments will allow the state to give precise missions to the directors, explaining to them in black and white what is expected of them. I will be calling those who are in my jurisdiction very soon, the SNCB in this case, to give them their marching orders."
Other than the political distribution between the Flemish parties, which provided the most suspense, the surprise came from one name, the new SNCB boss, Frank Van Massenhove, labeled as SP.A. His name was not on the initial list of five presented by the Egon Zehnder headhunting firm. The firm's reputation may have lost some of its luster because of it. The list of potential candidates had to be reduced to four names because of a mistake in verifying one candidate's level and, then, to three when one of the candidates (Michel Van den Broeck) refused to accept the position as head of the SNCB because the salary of €290,000 per year was too low. The current head of SPF Social Security, whose annual salary is about €200,000, was chosen to complete the list. For members of the kern this was not a break with procedure but simply a "reset" of the incomplete list. There were then no grounds to encourage appeals.
The new head of the SNCB wrote on Twitter that he was very surprised by his appointment. Frank Van Massenhoven, 59, is quite active on social media. Coming from minister Frank Vandenbroucke's office, he used this modern approach to extensively reform the federal social security service in 2002. Five years later, he was named manager of the year in the civil service. He promoted work from home based on results rather than presence and the evaluation of managers by employees. When he moved to SPF Social Security, the workforce shrank from 2,100 to 1,300. An avid traveler, reader and music lover, he is also author of a book entitled, "Work at home, obviously." It's not clear whether that will help him much in his new life or with Belgium's 210 million railway passengers.