30 June 2014
When I started my term as EPO President on 1 July 2010, I found a situation of stark contrasts. The Office had evolved successfully over the previous decades as a recognised technical institution, yet in some strategic areas it was facing a crisis of maturity. While some IT tools and services, such as EPOQUE and Espacenet, were highly praised, our IT system as a whole was over-complex and showing signs of age. The social framework of the Office, originally conceived for a small organisation, had developed haphazardly and was no longer in line with recognised standards. Relationships with national patent offices in Europe were unclear in their scope, and their development was slowed by bureaucratic obstacles. Urgently needed renovation work on our buildings, especially the main tower in The Hague, had been postponed for too long. Although the Office had no problem in financing short- or medium-term projects, immediate action was required to address its long-term liabilities. Finally, the Office was opening itself to the outside world, but fell far short of expectations in the age of the internet.
I am often asked about my style as a manager. My approach is simple and pragmatic: identify the issues, analyse them thoroughly, and then define a programme of concrete actions with a clear timetable. After an open discussion, decisions are taken and everyone commits to deliver. Our governing bodies receive regular progress reports, giving a fully transparent account of steps completed and difficulties encountered. At the EPO, this approach led to the definition of strategic orientations based on Quality and Efficiency, translated into five roadmaps covering a wide range of measures in key sectors (IT, Buildings, Human Resources, Quality and Cooperation). Moreover, since the EPO’s budget is financed from the fees paid by users, there is a vital need to control costs. All these elements were approved by the Administrative Council of the EPO in 2011 and 2012.
I think it is fair to say that the implementation of these roadmaps, combined with other actions, has delivered many of the expected benefits. At last week’s meeting of the Administrative Council, I presented the achievements in all five of the key areas and outlined the way forward for the coming years. I shall not try to list all of the steps taken or initiated: the updated roadmaps are available on our website for those who are interested. However, some examples stand out, including: the start of building work on our new tower in The Hague last week; the modernisation of our social framework (part-time home working, internal appeal system, sickness management, strike regulation, social democracy); the development of new IT services and tools (Patent Translate, CPC, New EPOQUE, CCD, Federated Register, Global Dossier); the reassignment of posts from support services to core business (freeing up resources to recruit new examiners, accounting for 170 of the 500 examiners recruited in the past four years); the smooth integration of unitary patent protection into the European patent system; and the continuous fall in our internal unit cost index. Most importantly, the quality of our products and services has improved, as internal audits and external user surveys have repeatedly shown.
Opening the Office to the public sphere was also an important task over the past four years. I put particular emphasis on the improvement of relationships with users, multiplying the channels for receiving their input (with the IP5 Industry Day, regular surveys on important issues, and meetings and video conferences at all levels). The raising of patent awareness among the general public was supported by a broad-based media campaign around the European Inventor Award. In response to the call for transparency regarding our activities and working conditions, we now publish Administrative Council documents on our website, together with a comprehensive Social Report. Finally, the EPO has set up an Economic and Scientific Advisory Board as an expert body to investigate the impact of patents on the economy and society at large.
I am pleased to say that the updated roadmaps and programmes were unanimously approved last week by the Administrative Council, which also decided to extend my mandate for three years, to the end of June 2018. Obviously, this clear sign of confidence is personally gratifying; above all, though, the extension of my term as President will offer the Office and the Organisation the necessary stability to carry out our ambitious reforms and implement our plans. Obviously, too, the achievements from the roadmaps are not the outcome of a single person’s actions. Here, I must pay tribute first to the staff and management of the Office, whose commitment has been so instrumental in the successes of the past years. Externally, too, I have found many partners (in the European Patent Network, OHIM, IP5, national patent offices and users’ associations) who impressed me by their willingness to cooperate with us and seek common solutions for the benefit of the global patent system. Much remains to be done, and only a collective effort can enable us to reach our goals.
Two weeks ago in Berlin, we were privileged to hear Artur Fischer, an unparalleled inventor, who received the European Inventor Award for Lifetime Achievement, speaking about his constant quest for finding ways of making life easier for his contemporaries, and paying tribute to the patent system. His words were a lesson in intelligence, creativity and perseverance, encouraging us all to continue in our efforts to improve the patent system and better serve innovators, the economy and the public interest.