The French Administration Reflected by Words – and Safe from Crises – Gérard Timsit

Gérard Timsit, Paris, France


The French Administration Reflected by Words – and Safe from Crises

Words say it all – and perhaps give away more than we would like.  It’s often enough just to read between the lines. And sometimes beyond the words.  It’s strange to think that a language, just by naming things, could hold up a mirror to reality, expressing it neutrally, translating its existence by submitting to it and recording it. The truth is that languages have a dual function – to communicate, certainly, but also to invent, structure, and create.  The order of the language doesn’t only express the order of the world.  It is capable of transforming it, thus going a step further than thought and making human action possible.  Words are not mere labels attached to objects, which would mean that language was a mere inventory.  They designate concepts, but also form categories which are in no way inherent in the nature of things. Language, it has been said, reconstructs “ the objects and concepts of the external world for its own use, by adapting them for itself”.

As reflected by its words – those used by the administration in its work, often worn out from overuse, and those used in its definition, which are sometimes out of date before they have even been properly put to use –  the administration can be seen to have a dual role.  Here, in fact, adaptation has two meanings: adaptation of the world – appropriating the world for oneself, to ensure mastery of it – and adapting to the world – making a thing or an institution more suitable for any use or purpose.  In these two relationships, in these two meanings, the administration plays completely different parts, each with a different status . In the first, the administration is the subject, the participant, active – in charge. And the words of the public administration then translate its rule, its imperium, this transcendence of the administration in relation to the society whose workings it governs. In the second – “adaptation” as balance, adjustment to the world –  the administration is no longer just the active participant, the power. It is no longer transcendent and external, but immanent and internal, in relation to the social universe.  It is no longer in an overlapping situation.  On the contrary, it is immersed in society and tries to melt into it. The concepts of public administration referred to here reflect a different view of the administration, less focused on the imperium and power, and more focused on the management and regulation of the working of the social body by itself. Words thus translate or traduce the characteristics of the administration within society. At the same time, they expose, by their very existence and by their age, the dominant concept on which the administration is built, while – if they are lacking in the language, if the language does not know them – their origin or recent appearance give away lacunas and new problems in the organisation and the management of the administration of which the language wants to render account.  Querying the words of the administration – meeting them head on – is thus, beyond the phenomena of adapting the world they describe and adapting to it, bringing up to date a part of the foundations on which the administration is built (I), while revealing the mutations it undergoes – particularly in crises (II), and the mutations as they arise henceforth, set aside for the administration until the actual problem of legitimation of the action it carries out (III).

I Foundations  The concepts used in the French language to describe the phenomena of public administration reflect to some extent the sacred respect in which the State and its administration have long been held France, which has inherited the dual traditions of imperial Roman and liberal democracy.

Two pairs of basic concepts – public service / public power, legality / equality – are in fact characteristics of the French law on the administration. What do they say? What do they admit?

They are exact counterparts, perfect mirror images of each other in structure and meaning.  The public power / public service pair expresses both the omnipotence of the administration and the justification for it in France.  It is not because the administration is working for the public, for the general interest, that the administration is invested by the public power. This public service / public power pair is however only another aspect of the legality / equality pair, which is also basic to the juridical theory of French language. This second pair, in fact, translates into principles the very structure of an administrative system designed and still operating in a strictly uniform manner under the authority of the Law. In democratic countries with written laws and positivist traditions, the law appears as the product of the wishes of the Legislator, and the Legislator alone.  It then arises from these premises that the legal system thus formed can only be pyramid-shaped and hierarchical, built along two axes. a vertical axis defining the relationships of strict subordination of inferior laws to superior laws, and of the latter to the original wishes of the sovereign Legislator, thus placed at the top of the pyramid, and a horizontal axis defining the relationship of strict uniformity in which recipients are placed with regard to these laws.

A legal structure of this nature refers to an institutional and organic analysis of the administration which, due to this very fact, is designed as a monolithic administration, a whole entity standing alone, in charge of implementing the decisions of a political power of which the administration is only the controlled and subordinate instrument, which is rationally organised. Instrumentality, unity, rationality: these are the characteristics of this concept of the administration. The concept of public powers, voluntarily used in an approach of this nature to the administration, brings together precisely in a single term – but always used in the plural – the two powers, political and administrative, inseparably, and, furthermore constitutionally, bound together – as is shown by Article 20 of the French Constitution of 1958 which states that  the Government determines and conducts the policy of the nation. It is in charge of the administration and the armed forces. This is the dominant vision of the administration.  In fact, it is the reproduction of a myth, the fantasy of an imperial, aggressive figure of the administration – which makes the administration, under the authority of the political power, the instrument that adapts the world they are in charge of governing. A grandiose vision – but one which, over time, may have become incomplete.

II. Mutations Another image of the administration has, in fact appeared, where it is no longer as an instrument for adapting the world, but one for adapting to it. This is the aspect taken into account in the recourse to new concepts which, although incorporated in our language, do not always succeed, in the conditions in which our administration operates, in saying or really making it be or become the instrument of adaptation to the world that one would like it to be.

The integration of new words in a language really reflects on the gaps in the language and the situations it wishes to take into account.  If concepts as diverse as management, regulation, governance, agency, receptivity, and governability have, at various times (certainly very recently, and with varying fortunes) taken such a place and aroused such keen interest, it is because they effectively corresponded to needs which the dominant administrative language was hard put to it to express in its own concepts, with its own instruments. So what the recourse to new concepts introduces is the end of the solar myth of the administration of all public action, of an administration creating and illuminating the power and legitimacy of the Law and the political power which establishes it.

If it appears that the form and the usage of some of these concepts have imposed themselves, this is because it has been almost unconsciously realised that the administration as it had been designed was affected by two sorts of problem, matched by the two types of word that have appeared most recently in the French language of the administration; these are problems linked on one hand with the solar concept of the administration, at the centre, the heart of the State apparatus, and, on the other with its externality in relation to the social body.
While the solar concept of the administration made it obligatory to consider that one was dealing with whole structures subordinate to the law and arising from a strict rational legal juridical logic, the concept of management, with the trajectory we know in our societies, on the contrary showed the rigidity and inadequacy of such rationality. The theorists of the analytic paradigm, re-reading Weber (or its Vulgate), insisted on the other aspect, the other logic, which could and should take account of the functioning of social organisations: a logic of economics and management. Then a set of concepts and instruments slipped into the shadow of this management, and was claimed (and this is now confirmed more than ever) to be vital for the good management of public organisations. Here one could mention the old R.C.B.  -rationalisation  (ah, Descartes!) budget choices, transposition of the planning-programming-budgeting system  (P.P.B.S.), the Budget Base Zéro technique, the DPO or Direction Participative par Objectifs (management by objectives) and nowadays, even more ambitiously, after the LOLF (the organic law on the finance laws) and the programming techniques it imposes on budget and financial management, the RGPP or Révision générale des politiques publiques (General Review of Public Policies).  Rise.  Revision.  Revolution?

The other major category of new words appearing in the language of the French administration is linked with the awareness that has appeared here of the need to rebalance public action, which until now has been exclusively designed to a far too great extent as transcendent and external to the social group.  A whole new generation of concepts has therefore taken its place in administrative analysis – regulation, govenability, governance, receptivity – and many others which derive from, or are attached to these. Here once again, the need for a new approach to public action to make the administration more able to adjust to the world has become clear. The concept of governance is characteristic in this context.  Emphasising the failures of the government – its difficulty in governing – it refers in particular to the idea that the management of a society or  community “does not run in a single direction, from the top downward, purely based on a credit of trust which the government leadership could draw on and which it could create by a ripple effect. Managing means [in effect] simultaneously offering (allocating) something and demanding (insisting on) something” (J. Leca). This type of analysis implies that the power exercised over a community can only be effective if it is understood not as a purely unilateral action imposed on the members of the social group but as the product of involvement of the members of society in the choices involving them. The theme of governability, of receptivity, thus become the expression of this new vision of power – that one cannot govern a group unless this group is governable – receptive to the power exerted over it – and that it cannot be governable or receptive without the consent of its members to the exercise of the power exercised over them. “Consent”, did I hear you say? The problem is raised – all right, raised again – of the legitimisation of public action.

III.  Yes, Legitimisation. The problem is all the more acute as the administration will now be hit by the full force of the crises – the globalisation crisis, for example – which throw doubt, through the concept of legitimacy, on another of the features of the traditional image of the administration.

This idea that the administration drew its legitimacy from that of a public power to which is was strictly subordinate is, in fact, now being contested on two fronts. First of all, there is the political power itself.  The idea of an administrative legitimacy which was purely derived was only valid if the public power itself was recognised as having true legitimacy. Now, in our societies – and France obviously is no exception here – under the effect in particular of globalisation and the economic and social problems it has caused or brought with it, a new theme has emerged and spread, linked with what is referred to as the crisis of representative democracy: the representative democracies are, it is postulated, only episodic – democracies where the general will is only expressed or becomes reality at the time of the periodic elections that punctuate the lives of the political regimes that have recourse to them.

The crisis of representative democracy also has another aspect – leading to the implication of another of the basic principles of our democracies – the very principle of the majority. In our societies, a principle of this nature means that the policy implemented is the one wanted by the people, in other words the majority of the population. Now the “people” cannot, it is claimed, be restricted to just the majority portion of the population; the term “the people” certainly refers to the majority who won the elections, but also covers – and this should not be neglected in a democratic society – every part of that society, including minorities, every community, even recent arrivals (just think of the size of immigrant communities – another aspect of globalisation) of which the population is made up. On this basis, how legitimate would the public actions taken to benefit just the majority be?

The second front in the dispute over the traditional idea of legitimacy – the legitimacy of the administration derived from the legitimacy of the political power – is that of the Administration itself.  While this idea was at least partially justified by the existence of strict subordination of the Administration to the political power. an unbroken chain of legitimisation from the political power to the Administration, today we see a break, or at least a considerable weakening, of this chain.  There are several reasons for this.  First of all, under the general (globalised?) influence of the ideas of the New Public Management, and due to the externalisation and systematic delegation of administrative functions and tasks to private organisations or agents – the loosening of the links in the chain which secured the empowerment and control by the political power of the tasks it entrusted to agencies on the periphery of, or outside, the State apparatus. At the same time, the increase within this apparatus of the independent administrative authorities, with the obvious consequence (as the very name “independent authorities” suggests, while the reasons for which they were created says it all) of multiplying decision-making centres and setting them free, to a greater or lesser extent, from the authority of the public power.  And to this must be added one of the effects of the construction of Europe, however beneficial it may be for the economies and the peace of the countries involved –  a further loosening, for this reason, of the link between the political powers and the administrations of the countries in question, where, due to the implementation of European policies, national bureaucracies are freed in part from the control of the national political powers, but do not come further under the control of European political power.

2. It can be understood that in this situation, the administration, seeking to re-establish its legitimacy, would attempt to endow itself with legitimacy: a new legitimacy, a legitimacy of dialogue, anchored in its constant dialogue with the constituents. This is in fact how the administration can try to re-establish or reinforce the consent of the constituents to the policies it implements – as these policies are no longer sufficiently guaranteed consent by the community which is only expressed through intermittent mechanisms of expression of the general will…

So two movements have been undertaken for this purpose. The first, the remodelling of the State, designed to remove some of the weight of the State from Society and some of its prerogatives in its mission to define the general interest. This is a movement which, primed by neo-liberal doctrines, with the measures of privatisation, deregulation, outsourcing, devolution, and so on, may have found its high point in the present RGPP.  These are all policies which, to a greater or lesser extent, have the aim or effect of reducing the perimeter of the State and, by reducing the weight of the State, of – making it more “humble” in its relationship with Society (Michel Crozier).

A parallel movement has also taken place, although it has come a little later – the promotion of the community. For a true dialogue to exist, the members of the community must be put in a position where they can speak loud and clear and make themselves heard by the State. This is the whole meaning of the work we are witnessing today in France and which aims here as elsewhere to promote the development of associations of citizens, consumers, producers, NGOs, businesses, economic players, etc. so that they can express their opinions and, in doing so, be associated with and even be a part of the process of drafting legislation. So this is no longer just another vicissitude, just a rather more sophisticated form of consultative administration. What is really taking shape is a new normativeness:    a normativeness of dialogue, in the form of what is now specifically known as regulation of public action, with its particular forms of joint and self regulation. A normativeness of dialogue, as opposed to the imposed normativeness of the traditional regulation of the State and the automatic, spontaneous normativeness of the market. A normativeness of dialogue which would rise rapidly in the case of the multiplication of what we have seen developing, burgeoning and proliferating in France in recent years under the title of “forums”, of states general – States General of Industry, Security, etc., or under a title made famous in the political and social history of the French events of May 1968, “Grenelle”; these titles cover great meetings which, for discussions which are, in principle, extremely free, and have directly normative purposes – bring together the representatives of the State with the representatives of the private sector and the most diverse associations –  Grenelle Environment Forum, Education Forum, etc. A new normativeness for a new legitimacy  – a procedural legitimacy.

At least one question remains –  procedural legitimacy, illusion or reality?

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