Another raft of reforms at the troubled European Patent Office has come to light and, yet again, the main purpose appears to be to enhance the power of EPO president Benoit Battistelli.
The structural changes are just the latest in a long series of changes pushed by Battistelli over the past two years, and will be considered at the next meeting of the EPO's Administrative Council at the end of this month.
This time around, rather than awarding himself greater powers over his staff, the EPO's appeals process or its independent appeals board, Battistelli is proposing that the EPO's departments be restructured, with several of them combined and their new chief operating officers reporting directly to him.
The proposals, already opposed by the EPO's staff union, have picked up strong opposition from a group of anonymous EPO staffers (anonymous because of Battistelli's continued harassment and firing of critics), who have written a detailed criticism of the proposed reforms.
Most notably, the criticism attacks the president's claim that the reforms were recommended by a report into the EPO from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), by highlighting that the BCG report in fact warned against such changes.
"In their final report of January 2017, [the BCG] did not recommend the option now chosen, which, according to BCG, will not increase efficiency/productivity, or clarity and simplicity, but probably at least have a negative impact on external user orientation, and decrease workload flexibility," the EPO-FLIER group notes.
It points out that expanding the responsibilities of directors to cover both examiners and formality officers (FOs) – the people who shepherd a patent application through to completion – is likely to cause significant problems, since "about 75 per cent of the work done by FOs relates to external users."
Directors stem from the patent examination world and so have "little understanding for this part of the formalities work and tended to prioritize the relatively small part of the formalities work that concerned the examiners," it warns.
The change looks appealing to EPO management, however, since it would more than halve the number of directors from the current 150 to between 65 and 70.
The EPO-FLIER group notes that while EPO management wants to start the reforms immediately and finish them by January 1, 2018, the BCG report highlighted "reform fatigue at the EPO" as a significant risk factor in their likely success. The report warned that the "more profound the desired reorganization efforts, the more negative the expected impact on employee engagement."
Not only that, but the BCG – which had been specifically asked to consider structural reform – noted that it didn't see much value in the proposal, saying that "the new structure will not fundamentally change the work of patent examiners and formality officers." In other words: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Considering that the EPO is already being taken to the European Court of Human Rights by its own staff for disciplinary proceedings that break the laws of the countries in which it is based, it would make sense for the EPO to hold off creating further internal stresses.
So why the push? There are three reasons:
- The reforms will reduce headcount, enabling cost savings – although EPO staffers point out it will mean yet more workload on fewer people.
- President Battistelli's term ends in June, 2018 and he wants to enact as many reforms as possible before he leaves.
- The reforms will put yet more power into the hands of the president by removing a layer of management and having them report directly to him.
"If implemented, [the changes are] likely to have a negative effect on the quality and harmonization of PA services delivered to external users, while increasing the work pressure for the majority of the formalities officers," warns the EPO-FLIER group.
It adds: "The introduction of a direct reporting line between the new COOs and the president would give him even more control over the patent examination process while marginalizing the role of VP1 and VP2."
In conclusion it notes: "There is one person who is the winner from this reorganization: the President. That is, if gaining power is something he considers a gain." ®