Who Will Shape Our Future Elite – Bernard Boucault

Bernard Boucault, ENA, France


The translation of concepts from one language into another is reductive, in that the social and cultural connotations of a term in one language can rarely be rendered into another in all their complexity. Thus, in French, use of the verb “former”  in conjunction with the word “élites”, evokes the development of certain skills and qualities in people called to high office.

Basically, this means, apart from personality and career, which differ in each case by their very nature, that they must be enabled to share a set of common values and to acquire the administrative and social skills vital for the performance of their future duties. So due to its normative dimension, the idea of “formation”, like that of “shaping” goes further than the more neutral concept of “training”.

In our democratic post-modern societies, marked by strong egalitarian and individualistic trends, the idea of imposing an intellectual framework – and one which, furthermore, is reserved for an elite – is the subject of lively debate. In France, as in most other European countries, there is no general consensus on the social role of the elite or how it should be shaped or formed, even where there are well-rooted practices and traditions such as the principle of competitive selection or distinctions between universities and the “grandes écoles”  system (although in the case of the ENA, they complement each other).

Criticisms mainly focus on the formalism supposedly arising from the way elites have been trained until the present day, the uniformity, conformity and technocratic aspect allegedly emerging, and even arrogance, and the separation of the elite from the rest of the population. The perpetuation of social inequalities due to the way in which elites are trained is in itself a constant source of discussion in the press.

All these criticisms have to be taken seriously (even if, in the case of the ENA, they may sometimes be excessive to the point of caricature), and the many reforms and adjustments that can be seen at present in this area bear witness to considerable changes. This being so, the matter of how the future administrative elite is to be shaped, and by whom, needs some clarification.

Specific Features of Training for Public Administration

At the risk of stating the obvious, the main characteristic of public administration as an area of activity is precisely the fact that it addresses and affects the entire nation, and that it is vital for the very functioning of our societies and political systems. In this sense, training the elite which will be in charge of the public administration in the future must go further than merely teaching management techniques, and this cannot be a simple everyday apprenticeship. For the exercise of public administration is accompanied by an imperative of performance and accountability, transparency and traceability, and adherence to values of public service.

These characteristics show clearly the existence of a two-fold responsibility underlying the issue of the training of administrative elites, with all the concomitant requirements. First of all, there is the individual responsibility of the future top management to society in general and to the people within their jurisdiction in particular. Because they are vested with vast powers and extended areas of competence in the service of the social cohesion of a country, and because they are in the pay of the nation, the future heads of the civil service have a duty to carry out their tasks flawlessly, and act in an exemplary manner.

By extension, the institution in charge of their training must not only provide the leaders of tomorrow with the knowledge and skills they need to do their jobs properly; it must also ensure that they have the qualities required for the exercise of this responsibility, in particular in terms of ethics and professional standards. This requirement is all the more vital now that there is increasing mobility between the public and private spheres, even though these two worlds operate according to rationales which are, to say the least, different.

The methods and content of the training given to the future administrative elites are therefore far from neutral and, indeed, could not be neutral. What is at stake is on one hand the ability of administrative managers to carry out their mission of public service to the full and to meet the expectations of the people, and, on the other hand, due to the training they receive, to determine the values and benchmarks for public action they will refer to. The same applies to the ability of the authorities to act efficiently and appropriately, as well as to the coherence and cohesion of their action.  In this sense, the training of the elites in charge of public administration clearly represents a need for society and a duty for the State.

The Central Role of the State

While the definition of the general interest no longer falls to the State alone, this does not mean that the rise in power of the technical regulatory authorities and networked governance means that the role of the State is reduced to being just one player among others. The political and economic reality, in fact, is still marked by confrontations and strategies for domination between competing interests. These situations in turn call for leadership, negotiation, arbitration and control by the public authorities, which must have the support of a civil service which is properly trained to carry out these tasks.

While it is undeniable that the State may in certain cases gain from drawing on business management methods, the recent financial and economic crisis has clearly shown the shortcomings of the policy of laissez-faire, as well as the mistaken belief in the self-regulation of the markets.

As the protector of the general interest, the State can rely for the training of its elite on the meritocracy; the legitimacy of this principle is indisputable, as it is based on reward for personal effort and the realisation of true equality of opportunity, not on inherited social privilege, which makes this meritocracy truly republican by nature.

If, from this point of view, the purpose of the public administration therefore requires the training of its top executives to be supervised by the State, it also requires quality, resources, and imperatives in terms of training content.

The French Approach and the Example of the ENA

Immediately after the Second World War, France made the choice of entrusting the practical training of civil servants to “écoles d’application” . This training complemented the studies already undertaken in universities or other colleges of higher education. The Ecole Nationale d’Administration was therefore set up in 1945 with the essential mission of providing initial training for top civil servants. The importance of work placements in positions of responsibility with the French and European public authorities, and the systematic recourse to teaching by practitioners (mostly from the top civil service, but also from the community), mean that ENA training keeps pace with the real needs of society and the major developments in the administration.

As the training of the future elites requires leaders to be prepared to meet the challenges of the future, the content of the teaching at the ENA is regularly adjusted. Nowadays, this means in particular broadening the knowledge and skills required of future senior executives to enable them to take and implement decisions in a complex environment.  Thus they must be able to lead teams, mobilise and motivate all the stakeholders, manage conflict, negotiate, and assess performance, while being able to communicate effectively on the issues, the resources used, and the results obtained.

Awareness of European issues and openness to the international stage are another aspect of this adjustment.  This involves internationalisation of the content of the teaching given at the ENA, through comparison with foreign experience and learning about the decision-making and conduct of European public policies.

Finally, greater diversification of the recruitment of future top civil servants should achieve the aim of greater social diversity. In addition to the need for a civil service more in line with the composition of society itself, the idea is also to enable government departments to benefit more from the diversity of individual careers and the wealth of accumulated experience when providing this practical training.

An integral part of the French administration, the ENA is aware that it embodies a specific model of education of an elite, in that it reflects a culture and a history in which the State played an important part even before the Nation came into being.  However, as a teaching organisation, it places great emphasis on developments in public administration beyond its frontiers, in Europe and world wide, as well as on the pooling of experience which enables it to improve its adaptability to training needs in this area.  Having acquired expertise and scientific monitoring abilities, it is also able to incorporate the development of knowledge of administrative science in the content and modelling of its teaching.  Finally, thanks to its active participation in several international education cooperation networks, it is working to make the highest ranks of the French civil service even more compatible with those of other European countries, and is contributing to the emergence of administrative elites able to take up the national, European, and international challenges that we have to face, here in France and elsewhere

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