AuthorEymeri-Douzans, Jean-Michel
  1. Introduction

    During half a century of New Public Management-driven administrative reforms in almost all OECD and EU Member States (for a critical analysis and assessment see Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2017; Eymeri-Douzans and Pierre, 2011; Christensen and Lxgreid, 2017; Bezes, 2018), political leaders and reform coalitions brought systematic discredit on 'old public administration', alternatively or simultaneously denounced as bureaucratic and/ or technocratic, and anyway low performing, non-accountable, and producing too heavy burdens on business that needed, in their views, to be removed to allow a new flourishing of market economy and globalized capitalism. In this period, reformers took their inspiration from neo-liberal slogans such as 'Government is not the solution, Government is the problem' (Ronald Reagan) and 'rolling back the frontiers of the state' (Margaret Thatcher), in an attempt to 'reinvent government' (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992) by enforcing a wide repertoire of neo-managerial tools and recipes (Eymeri-Douzans, 2011) and imposing a true 'cultural revolution' to the civil service. With variations in intensity from front-running Anglophone countries (UK and its former Dominions, USA) to some continental Europe 'laggards' (such as Germany), the 'NPM for all seasons' (Hood, 1991) paradigm favored a shift from a conception of the public servant as a State custodian, a Rule-of-Law steward and a Public Interest promoter, towards a conception of high and middle-rank officials as 'managers', accountable for their results in improving 'the three Es' (economies, efficiency, effectiveness) by means of generic organizational 'reengineering' and monitoring of performance indicators, while lower rank public agents were asked to become 'client-oriented' public employees, delivering high-quality services (in person and digital) to ever more demanding citizens-clients. One of the results was a terrible loss of trust within public administration, and between public administration and society (Bouckaert, 2012). In addition to such qualitative transformations, the neo-liberal agenda promoted taxes reductions, related public spendings' cuts, and thus, since salaries of public servants are among the major costs on any public budget, came the ideas of controlling and even decreasing the total amount of their payroll by freezing salary increases, replacing only a proportion of public servants going on retirement, and/or replacing them by contractual agents (with fixed wages) more than by statutory (titular) civil servants enjoying a right to career progression. It is an understatement to say that this NPM era, combining all these practical and ideational/ideological factors, has reduced the prestige and attractiveness of careers in public administration in the eyes of the generations born after the 'neo-liberal turn' of the late 1970s-early 1980s in Western democracies (Hall, 1986; Jobert, 1994). With a ten-year delay, in Central and Eastern European countries, the path of State (re-)building in post-communist context (Ionescu, 2009; Meyer-Sahling and Veen, 2012; Randma-Liiv and Drechsler, 2017), combined strong politicization of the higher bureaucracy (Andrei, Profiroiu and Oancea, 2012) with massive political corruption (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2006; Meyer-Sahling, Mikkelsen and Schuster, 2018) and the private economy boom, also discouraged valuable young people from entering administrative careers.

    Twenty years later, in a changing world where neo-liberalism and NPM appear to be nothing but obsolete solutions to ancient problems, any lucid observer of contemporary governance can easily notice, limiting ourselves to Europe, that the constant succession of crises such as the Eurozone crisis, the migrants' crisis, the Brexit crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the war back on our continent and its consequences (energy crisis, cyber-attacks, etc.) have provoked a necessary 'come-back of the State' or--better said--of the States, in the plural and acting in a coordinated manner, at EU level as well as at regional, meso-local and local layers of government and administration. As a matter of fact, to enforce a strict lock-down of our societies, to operate public hospitals under emergency, to distribute billions of masks and vaccines to our populations while boosting the restart of the economy by the biggest recovery plans based on public investment since the post-WWII Marshall Plan, public servants--from top officials who draft legislations to nurses who save patients' lives--have been, and are still at the forefront, handling with strong commitment, even with great abnegation, the main challenges facing our societies. Many crises are still to come, in a sort of enduring 'poly-crisis' (as former President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker coined it) which requires stronger resilience and robustness (Ansell, Sorensen and Torfing, 2021) of public authorities, and thus of public servants. And what about the even greater challenges that are on top of the public agenda for the next decades: saving the planet through the Green Transition, piloting successfully the Digital Revolution, redistributing its benefits to the many, and accomplishing these Herculean tasks in a democratic way that respects fundamental human rights? It is obvious that markets, or networks, are unable to succeed in such a complex endeavor without a proactive and hierarchical intervention of governments and public administrations, let us say of a post-NPM, Neo-Weberian State, as argued by several scholars for more than a decade (Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2011; Drechsler and Kattel, 2008; Eymeri-Douzans, 2010; Bouckaert, 2022). Thus, at all politico-administrative layers of government (United Nations, NATO, EU, Member States, regions, meso-local and local levels), skilful and highly committed elected political masters, as well as public administrators (senior officials as well as implementing agents on-the-ground), are highly needed. They may not possess 'the (one and only) solution' (which does not exist for 'wicked problems'), but they are indispensable, major actors who will continue to 'hold the pen' or the keyboard, writing the 'first draft' as well as the latest version of legislations and regulations, even in the arenas of interactive co-construction with networks of stakeholders (Torfing, Sorensen and Roiseland, 2019), since policy design is a complex power struggle (Peters and Fontaine, 2022) where State elites retain more 'chances of power' (in Weber's terms) than sometimes claimed by some radical wishful thinkers of 'New Public Governance'.

    Expressed in a stylized and provocative way, this means: whereas in the neo-liberal/ NPM era, a 'rolling-back' or even 'hollowing-out' State and a public sector being dismantled needed less and less young talents against a private sector, especially the net-economy, which needed more talents, on the contrary, the 'coming-back' State of nowadays and a public sector which remains, by far, the biggest employer in Europe, are in great need of attracting again 'the best and the brightest' from the new generations who are about to enter the job market.

    Alas! This swing of the pendulum occurs at a moment when the level of attractiveness of the public sector has dropped in almost all European countries, for many reasons that we shall diagnose in section 2. This situation calls for the setting up of a new public policy of attractiveness, whose target group must be well identified (section 3), and pertinent levers skillfully combined (section 4) to reach the overall objective to reconnect (young) people with the State and the public institutions (section 5).

  2. Diagnosis: an increasing problem of attractiveness that requires action

    Let us briefly recall the history of public administration as an employer on European soil and consider the historicity still sedimented in our actual systems of civil service. Modern public administration has been progressively invented, in the first established Western European states (France, England, the Iberic Christian realms) from the 14th century onwards, elsewhere in Europe in the following centuries, and until the late 19th century for the Danubo-Balkanic countries after liberation from the Ottoman yoke. During such a long-lasting State-building (Gellner, 1983; Rosanvallon, 1990; Hobsbawm, 1991), the Lumieres /Enlightenment/Aufklarung, culminating with the French Revolution (1789-1799) and followed by the Napoleonic era (1799-1815) happened to be a crucial period, when was invented the modern notion of fonctionnaire' to define the permanent public servants who enjoy a full career within public administration (see Dreyfus, 2000). The word and the notion were soon exported to other Latin languages and cultures (functionario), while Germanic cultures maintained but modernized accordingly the older notion of Beamter (and its variants, like the Dutch ambtenaar), meaning 'officer' as a tenant of a public office. To recruit these permanent, titulaires/titular/tenured public servants, our ancestors reinvented (since imperial China invented it far before to recruit its mandarins) a very specific mode of selection: the concours (Dreyfus and Eymeri-Douzans, 2012). Under similar names, concurso, concurs, or with some important variants (like the Germanic staatsexamen or the British Open competition), this form of recruitment has been widespread in Europe. The concours is in perfect affinity with a civil service organized according to the 'career system', which remains the most frequent among the EU Member States (Demmke and Moilanen, 2010). But we all know that several Northern countries (in Scandinavia, on the Baltic, in the Dutch low lands) have opted, like the United Kingdom, and a few others, for a 'position system' in which each vacant position within public administration is filled by an individualized and ad hoc recruitment procedure...

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