The Kinnock reforms have unsurprisingly attracted attention, but important aspects have been overlooked in existing accounts. Closer inspection reveals three puzzles: an atypical pattern of administrative change, where a ‘big bang’ reform followed four decades of inaction; the adoption of a more radical set of measures by the Commission than was demanded of it; and the successful implementation of a far-reaching reform programme in defiance of the expectations of leading theories of administrative change. This article argues that these puzzles contradict the conclusion suggested by a casual reading of the developments. They reveal not an arrogant institution oblivious to its shortcomings and forced to change by external diktat, but an organization in a reform predicament: aware of its failings, but unable to remedy them through its own action. When crisis forced member governments to intervene, the Commission in a case of self-reform under delegation seized the ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity to implement an internal reform agenda.