Tough Sledding for Proposed ESA Reorganization

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PARIS — The European Space Agency’s new chief had served notice well before assuming his post July 1 that, to streamline and save money, he wanted a broad reorganization that would slash the number of division directors.

Johann-Dietrich Woerner is finding out that revamping a 22-nation bureaucracy, while not rocket science, is sometimes just as difficult.

The proposal that cleared ESA’s ruling council has the same number of formal directors – 10 – but they are organized into five “teams” that Woerner said will bring the agency closer to his goal of a “United Space in Europe through ESA.”

In response to SpaceNews inquiries, ESA said July 27 that Woerner’s earlier plan “has further developed” into the current structure.

“Key words at the base of the strategy: inspiration for science and technology; stronger interaction within ESA [among directorates]; limitation of bureaucracy; [and] getting closer to the model of a United Space in Europe through ESA,” the agency’s statement said.

Woerner has said in recent weeks that while the 28-nation European Union continues to face obstacles in becoming a United States of Europe, ESA is not part of the EU and can make progress in this direction.

To realize a United Space in Europe goal, ESA must contend with its geographic-return policy, which guarantees member states that 90 percent of their ESA investments will return to their national territory in the form of contracts for their industry.

Grafted onto the United States, the policy would mean New York and Michigan, for example, could demand that 90 percent of their estimated contributions to NASA would lead to contracts in those states.

Unlike New York and Michigan, ESA member states keep close tabs on the amount of contract spending ESA delivers to their home territories. That does not appear about to change even if the agency in recent years has secured enough flexibility so it does not have to tailor each mission’s industrial consortium to member-state contributions.

Over time, the rule is strictly enforced by ESA governments.

The ESA statement did not spell out how the new organization would reduce bureaucracy. The five areas to be covered by the agency’s new focus are space applications; science and exploration; transportation; space technology and operations; and administration.

The agency on July 24 published formal notices that candidates for eight of these director-level positions had until Sept. 16 to submit their applications. The two areas not included, at least for now, are ESA’s Earth observation and launchers directorates, which are currently ranked one and three among the agency’s spending priorities as measured by their 2015 budgets.

The second-largest spending area is navigation. ESA is the technical manager for the EU’s Galileo positioning, navigation and timing program, which is now manufacturing and launching its first-generation constellation.

The applicants will almost certainly include current directors whose division perimeters have been redrawn. Some directors may apply for new posts and not be selected, leaving ESA to negotiate the terms of their departure depending on how long is remaining in their current contracts.

The ESA statement said the employment contracts for the eight directors whose divisions are being reorganized end in early 2016, and that therefore “there is no need” to renegotiate terms. “There will be a short transition period. The directors are eligible to announce their willingness to continue in their position.”

In addition to counting contracts to their local industry, ESA members keep tabs on how many of their nationals occupy high-level ESA positions. Aside from the director-general’s job, director-level positions are the most coveted.

Woerner’s predecessor, Jean-Jacques Dordain, had set as a goal a steady reduction in the agency’s internal costs and a spending profile in which 85 percent of the agency’s resources were spent on program contracts with industry, with the 15 percent remaining reserved for administration.

How well this goal has been adopted is a subject of debate. In a June 8 letter to Woerner, the agency’s Central Staff Association Committee – representing ESA employees – questioned whether the idea was working.

“[I]nstead of ESA becoming more efficient, it seems that the bureaucracy has increased,” the staff committee said. “The ‘efficiency program’ mutated… into an accounting exercise…. The 85/15 target had never been requested by member states…. [The staff committee] has repeatedly expressed its doubts about the efficiency project in its current form.”

Dordain also suggested in his final weeks as director-general that a 22-nation ESA that is likely to grow to at least 30 nations – all EU members plus Norway and Switzerland – could not maintain its one-nation, one-vote policy.

The four biggest ESA contributors, Germany and France followed by Italy and Britain – together account for 67 percent of the agency’s funding – and more if the annual contribution from the European Union is taken into account.