Civil dialogue: the European Commission


  • Glossary
  • How is the Commission structured?
  • What is the general framework for civil society involvement in the Commission’s work?

  • How does the consultation process for the Commission’s policy initiatives work?

  • Experts groups and comitology

  • Example of good civil dialogue by the Commission

  • Recommendations

  • To wrap up 

  • Take the quiz!

  • Materials and resources

Expected learning outcomes


  • To be able to navigate through the structure of the Commission.
  • To explain the different stages of the consultations of policy proposal by the Commission.
  • To be able to navigate through the Commission’s expert groups and the comitology.

How is the Commission structured?

The Commission is the executive body of the European Union and, within the legislative process, it has the monopoly of legislative initiative (it is the only institution that can propose laws). It also adopts an annual work programme with policy and legislative initiatives. The political leadership belongs to the College of Commissioners, led by the President of the Commission. In recent years, the structure of the College of Commissioners has been hierarchised: between the President of the Commission and the Commissioners, there are the Vice-Presidents (VPs), Commissioners who are in charge of overseeing the role of a group of Commissioners. The Vice-Presidents do not have a policy area assigned unless they are Executive Vice-Presidents. Each Commissioner has a cabinet, helping them to manage their daily work, which is led by a Head of Cabinet and covers the different policy areas assigned to the Commissioner. 

The administrative structure of the Commission is structured around Directorates-General (DGs), which develop, implement and manage EU policy, law, and funding programmes, and the Executive Agencies, which manage the EU programmes. Services aimed at specific tasks (e.g., OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office) also exist. The three types of structures are similarly organised, therefore one of the Directorates-General will be used as an example. A DG is led by a Director-General who is in contact with, at least, one Commissioner. Below the Director-General there are usually other senior positions, like Deputies, Directors, Principal Advisers, and then thematic departments, divided into several units. The units are those that conduct the daily policy work and have most of the contact with stakeholders. Each unit is led by a Head of Unit. An organogram of the structure of each DG is available on the webpage of the DGs. 

Other structures and agencies exist (e.g., Frontex dealing with the external borders of the Union, or the Fundamental Rights Agency), with different kinds of structure: a list of all EU institutions and bodies can be found here.

The coordination of the whole Commission’s structure is ensured by the Secretariat-General, led by a Secretary-General, under the oversight of the President of the Commission.

What is the general framework for civil society involvement in the Commission’s work?

There is no general framework, or guidelines, for the involvement of civil society in the policy work of the Commission. At the political level, following calls from civil society before and after the European elections in 2019, during the 2019-2024 European Commission, the Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, has been assigned the task of ‘maintaining an open, transparent and regular dialogue with other EU institutions, citizens, representative associations and civil society’. That has not been translated into specific policy work involving different departments, but has been understood as the Vice President being available to meet with civil society.

At the level of the DGs, the structures in place to involve civil society vary. Based on a report by Civil Society Europe in 2018, few DGs had units dedicated to civil society involvement, while others used contact persons within their inter-institutional relations, or gave that task to their communication units. Certain DGs had implemented mechanisms to foster civil dialogue on specific issues, while others relied solely on expert groups or events to engage with CSOs. Only a few DGs collaborated with civil society within established policy frameworks, and while some DGs actively sought to engage with civil society, others lacked a culture of dialogue and internal strategy.

How does the consultation process for the Commission’s policy initiatives work?

The rules to carry out consultations are laid out in the Better Regulation communication, guidelines and toolbox. As a rule, the consultations must be open and public, unless they are deemed too technical or not in the interest of the public: in that case, targeted consultations with stakeholders are allowed. The portal for the public consultation is Have your say. Many policy initiatives have a two-step consultation process: input for the impact assessment, called ‘call for evidence’, where it is possible to send documents in the format of policy contributions based on the accompanying document, explaining the scope of the proposed policy initiative; and the public consultation, which is made of a web questionnaire with both open and closed questions. Typically, public consultations (and accompanying calls for evidence) should stay open for 12 weeks (extended to 14 weeks if during holidays), while calls for evidence not associated with a public consultation should stay open for four weeks. Once the proposed policy is approved by the Commission, it is published on the same page as the public consultation. When presenting the policy, the accompanying document must report on the results of the call for evidence and the consultation, in a section called ‘synopsis of the consultation results’, which should also explain which proposals from the consultations were accepted, which were denied, and why. After the publication of the proposal, it is possible to give feedback on the proposal for  a period of eight weeks: the collected feedback will be summarised by the Commission and presented to the European Parliament and Council, with the aim of feeding those views into the legislative debate.

Such process has been criticised by CSOs on different grounds: language that could be too technical for the smaller NGOs; too long, too quantitative or politically biassed questionnaires; a high degree of discretionality from the Commission’s side on the participants to the targeted consultations, as well as not enough transparency on the results of the consultation processes in the synopsis of the consultation results. 

Experts groups and comitology

Another way to involve CSOs and stakeholders in the policy-making of the Commission is via expert groups. The expert groups are consultative bodies set up by the Commission, or its departments, to provide them with advice and expertise, composed of public and/or private sector members who meet more than once. They are asked for input both for the preparation of policy proposals, as well as for their implementation. They are considered a forum of discussion based on a specific mandate involving different sources and stakeholders.

There are five types of participant in the expert groups: Type A) individuals appointed in a personal capacity; Type B)  individuals appointed to represent an interest common to several stakeholder organisations; Type C) organisations, in the broad sense of the word, including companies, associations, NGOs, trade unions, universities, research institutes, law firms and consultancies; Type D) Member State authorities, national, regional or local; Type E) other public entities, such as authorities from non-EU countries (including candidate countries), EU bodies, offices or agencies, and international organisations. Apart from public entities, the participation in the expert groups is decided via a selection after a public call for applications, which are published in the Expert Groups register for a period of four weeks. Individuals acting on behalf of stakeholders (Type B) and organisations (Type C) must be part of the Transparency Register to be selected.

Critiques of the current system of expert groups are linked to the perceived imbalance between the representation of economic interests and that of civil society, as they are both put under the same typology (Type C). Moreover, several expert groups are only composed of Member States and other public entities (Types D and E), while the contribution of experts from the stakeholders and civil society would be useful when issues of general interest, or affecting specific population groups, are covered. Finally, while minutes of the meetings exist, their level of detail varies.

While only the Member States are involved in the comitology meetings (where the Commission prepares delegated acts), it is useful to monitor them, as the minutes of those meetings can provide information in advance, before they catch the public eye. The list of comitology meetings and documents are provided in the Comitology Register

Example of good civil dialogue by the Commission

DG EMPL maintains ongoing and structured thematic dialogues with CSOs active in the employment and social areas, which are attached to upcoming initiatives of the EC. These have improved in the past years, noteworthy for being organised online and thus allowing national and local CSOs that are not based in Brussels to participate more easily (in the past, they needed to pay to travel to Brussels themselves). One participant of the focus group, organised by CSE, appreciated the transparency, regularity and structural approach of DG EMPL:

[…] in DG Employment, it’s better in a lot of ways than the other DGs because you know who’s taking the decision and how the process is going. They have processes in place where they engage [with] you ahead of launching a policy, like a proposal. […] We know when, what, and to whom to send [something] and how to engage. It’s more transparent in this sense because you know what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, while other DGs are different […]

(EnTrust Report on practices of enhanced trust in governance, 2023, pp. 87-88)


  • Place consultations in a clearly defined civil dialogue framework.
  • Increase the visibility of consultations by publicising them in a timely manner and more broadly, including through collaboration with Member States.
  • Establish a clear separation between consultations aimed at individual citizens and those targeting interest representatives and, when including both, ensure that tailor-made roadmaps are available to each group, guaranteeing their meaningful contribution. 
  • Promote transparency in the selection and invitation of stakeholders to consultations, clearly outlining the criteria and methodology used. 
  • Ensure that the minimum time frame of at least 12 weeks for submissions is respected to allow different stakeholders to provide meaningful input. 
  • Ensure that consultations are easy to understand and answer, of reasonable length and free from any bias in the way questions are phrased.
  • Establish clear criteria and methodology for processing consultation input, including mandatory feedback on the input provided. 
  • Improve balanced representation by clearly defining guidelines for selecting representatives based on the interests they represent and the expertise they bring to ensure a diverse and inclusive representation of stakeholder perspectives.
  • Make it mandatory for EU decision-makers to provide justifications for not incorporating recommendations from expert groups into decision-making processes. 
  • Promote consistent openness of meetings to the public and ensure the publication of comprehensive and meaningful minutes and/or summaries.

To wrap up


  • The Commission is structured around a political leadership, the College of Commissioners, led by the President of the Commission with the support of the (Executive) Vice-Presidents in charge of coordinating a group of Commissioners.

  • The administrative structure of the Commission is articulated in Directorates- General, Services and Executive Agencies, internally constituted in departments and below that, thematic units, led by a Head of Unity.

  • The Secretariat-General of the Commission coordinates the whole organisation, under the supervision of the President of the Commission.

  • The Vice-President for Values and Transparency is tasked with the role of maintaining an open, transparent and regular dialogue with civil society.

  • There is no common framework for civil dialogue across the DGs; they organise themselves as they see fit.

  • Open consultations are the main way to gather input from citizens and stakeholders, with targeted consultations conducted for more technical matters.

  • Consultations are typically made of a call for evidence (to send policy documents) and open consultations (to answer a questionnaire), open for 12 weeks (public consultation, possibly accompanied by a call for evidence) or four weeks (only calls for evidence) on the Have your say portal.

  • The result of the consultations is indicated in the ‘synopsis of the consultation results’ published alongside the final policy proposal by the Commission.

  • Expert groups are consultative bodies that advise the Commission on policy design and implementation: they can include individuals and organisations, Member States and public authorities, but they do not distinguish between different types of organisations (e.g., industry and civil society). 

  • Calls for the expert groups are open for four weeks to those registered in the Transparency Register.

  • Comitology documents are a little-known, yet useful source of information on more technical aspects of EU policies.

Take the quiz!


Test your knowledge of "Civil Dialogue: the European Commission"

1 / 6

1) The Directors-General are the political leaders of their DG:

2 / 6

2) In the 2019-2024 mandate, the Commissioner in charge of civil society is:

3 / 6

3) There is a common framework for civil society involvement across DGs:

4 / 6

4) The portal where the consultations are published is called:

5 / 6

5) Expert groups are always open to new members:

6 / 6

6) Apart from the Commission, only the Member States are represented in the comitology committees:

Your score is

The average score is 42%


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Project information

Project Type: Collaborative Project

Call: H2020 SC6 GOVERNANCE-01-2019: Trust in Governance

Start: February 2020

Duration: 48 Months

Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Christian Lahusen,
University of Siegen

Grant Agreement No: 870572

EU-funded Project Budget: € 2,978,151.25