by Xavier Greffe
Among the main economies of the OECD, France is very likely the country with the strongest public sector. The public sector, including the social security system, represents approximately 50 percent of the gross national spending. That is, one franc in two is related to public activities -- a huge and important fiscal drag and revolving debt. Even though an important part of these figures is related to the social security system and not to traditional state administration, the result is still impressive: With an active population of about 30 million, France employs more than 4 million public agents, among which a million are teachers and half a million are postal workers.
Public servants in France exist in a kind of bureaucratic heaven. With very few exceptions, their employment is guaranteed and strictly secured, in direct contrast with the private sector, which has been exposed to strong and imposing downsizing. Public wages for the highest positions are generally lower than those in the private sector, but are vastly superior for the lower and middle positions. Similarly, pensions for public servants are much better than those in the private sector: The conditions required to benefit from the pension system are easier to satisfy, and the differential between pensions and past wages is much better.
To these two considerations a final one should be added. Instead of relying increasingly on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to take charge of some of the traditional functions of the state in sectors such as social protection and cultural activities, French bureaucrats are reluctant to recognize this trend so prevalent in other countries. Let us consider the system of the minimal income created in 1989 (Revenu Minimal d'Insertion). To prevent the negative effects of such systematic monetary protection, the French bureaucracy has defined an incentive to make the beneficiaries return to the labor market. But instead of relying on NGOs and private companies to implement this task, public servants themselves implemented it. It was, as expected, a failure.
A Non-agenda for Public Management Reforms
France has never seriously embarked on movements to reform its public management. Indeed, it has famously criticized countries that have, notably the United Kingdom and the United States. Just one important move has been introduced in the past 20 years: the process of gradual decentralization. But this decentralization has catalyzed the traditional bureaucratic features of the French bureaucracy; it has not helped to define and implement more flexible management processes. The statute of public servants of the local public authorities, for example, has been copied from the more rigid and more favorable statute of the central public authorities.
The timidity of reforms over the past two decades is evident. During the 1980s, the only item written on the agenda for public management reforms was the requirement for "improving the delivery of services." But this policy has often been reduced to the presence of representatives of those on the margin of the administrative process; it changed almost nothing. During the 1990s, another item was introduced by Prime Minister Michel Rocard: the creation of "responsibility centers." But the models for these centers were not the British agencies or the American profit centers. The main reference was the idea that a better mobilization of the different public services could be attained if some autonomy was achieved. This process was relevant and useful, even if it was far from being revolutionary. However, the control for this implementation was given to the Ministry of Finance, which strongly reduced the possibilities opened by the reform in an effort to give away any budgetary autonomy.
A French Paradox
The French situation therefore looks very different from other countries. The public sector is extremely important, and the budgetary cost of its privileges is well recognized by everyone, but public opinion polls show that few people are calling for any changes. Indeed, some studies have shown that French citizens strongly support the bureaucracy, even as they ask for limits on some rights, including the right to strike. How to explain this paradox?
The first factor deals with the French approach to the concept of the state. In France, the state has never been considered a sum of its citizens; it is instead seen as a specific entity that must produce actual equality among the formally equal citizens. This approach has had some strong consequences: Specific laws and specific judges exist solely for the bureaucracy; public servants are overprotected, even though acknowledgment of criminal accountability within the public sector has been made. For the citizen, the transaction costs for trying to change administrative decisions or to indemnify the losses suffered from public action are high.
A second factor deals with the "professionalization" of public servants. Since the French revolution, the recruitment of public servants has always been selective, and training policies have always been developed to empower them. This has produced highly qualified bodies and given rise to high levels of competence in the different fields of public administration. Whatever the criticism on the privileges and costs of the public sector, almost everybody agrees on the extremely high quality of the public services in France. This sentiment creates some seriously strong public management problems, since the coexistence of these qualified subsystems allows no horizontal coherence for state intervention. But this is a technical problem that remains invisible to most citizens.
France's myriad of public servants have a strong influence through the educational system (80 percent of schools are public) and the health system (about 60 percent of health-care facilities). It is interesting to consider that in French public life, the political parties are never very critical of public servants. Considering the ideologies of the left-leaning parties, this attitude is not surprising, since it is well known that the majority of the public servants also lean toward the left. But even the conservative parties are prudent in their criticism because they acknowledge the power of the public servants.
Strategies for Increasing Productivity
Must we therefore conclude that public management reforms are impossible and that France is heaven on earth for bureaucrats? This attitude would be misleading for both financial and technical reasons. It is difficult to believe that the benefits enjoyed by public servants can continue in a system in which the public deficit must be strictly within the 3 percent dictated by the European Union. Moreover, pressure for more active measures regarding the labor market is being applied. The pension system, too, will need to be adjusted--something that will require tremendous political courage.
Technical considerations are also important regarding prospects for reform. Ironclad guarantees for public employees seem to be the cornerstone of the French public management system. Eventually, France must deal with this or it will be forced to consider radical moves that are unrealistic in the current political system and environment. Since 1983, it has been decided that when a public servant retires, budget support for the department from which he or she departed is suppressed. This means an annual 2.5 percent reduction in the number of public servants, to a goal of about 100,000. This policy was effected for the first few years it was in place, but it quickly faded out due to political pressures and serious problems in the labor market. Last year nearly 350,000 young people were recruited on a temporary basis to reduce employment among the youth. And if history is any guide, this "temporary" policy will be progressively transformed to "permanent" status.
This pro-bureaucrat bias of the French system would probably be ameliorated if the quality and quantity of services were considered sufficient by the public, and if a realistic screening of public interventions was organized. There is no "prior option" system (a system in which public programs and spending undergo a systematic and rigorous assessment to determine whether they are still viable) like that found in the UK; this kind of system is urgently needed. The problem of privatization or subcontracting is managed from a theoretical point of view; efficiency considerations don't seem to be on anyone's mind.
Research on how to increase productivity should be intensified. In France, a productivity-centered approach traditionally relies on two hypotheses.
The first deals with the fact that public employees never have to interpret the situations they are confronted with, nor must they adapt to them. They need only to mechanically apply their regulations and the orders, whatever the context. This vision of the role of the public employee is outdated, and it has an unfortunate result: The public employee is never considered a factor of productivity.
The second hypothesis deals with accountability, a concept rarely accepted in the French context, whatever its dimension--individual or collective. Individually, accountability is associated with antisocial behavior; collectively, it is superseded by the view that the state does not make mistakes, since it represents the general interest.
The approach for productivity is a classical Weberian one; it has nothing to do with a postmodern perception of public action, in which we must tailor the public tools available to fit the increasing variety of situations in which we find ourselves.
In that sense, we must avoid both the image of a bureaucrat without any power and the image of one who maximizes his or her own interest.
The first step toward that goal is to stop confusing employment stability with immobility. In the French system, it is difficult to transfer employees from one post to another without their agreement, and even more difficult to move them from one administration to another. Over the long run, this creates entropy and discrepancies. Chains of mobility should exist and be respected. This challenges the high degree of specialization and professionalization among bureaucrats, as explained above.
The second step is to change the system of incentives for public employees. Many incentives exist within the French system, but they are formalized in such a way that each member of the public sector can benefit from them. The only factor of differentiation lies in the delay in reaching the goals.
The third is to accept the idea of collective local responsibility. This idea underlies the strategy of the center of responsibility mentioned above. But the failure of the bureaucracy to take collective local responsibility is probably explained by the inability of the administration to even acknowledge this idea and its budgetary consequences.
The fourth step is to consider the "users" (that is, the citizens) not as spectators who from time to time must dutifully fill out a questionnaire about the quality of services they receive, but as potential decision-makers regarding public services in any given context.
And the final step is to implement quality control through a permanent monitoring and assessment system in which all stakeholders participate. The problem is how to devise a system of this kind and not give priority to private interests. But the concept of public interest is so formal and abstract in France that its interpretation cannot remain the sole privilege of some hidden public employees.
Xavier Greffe is Professor, University of Paris I Pantheon, Sorbonne, in Paris.