Learning the lessons of ÉNA’s fall

By on 17/09/2019 | Updated on 17/09/2019
President Macron graduated from ÉNA. (Image courtesy: www.kremlin.ru).

France’s École Nationale d’Administration (ÉNA), which has educated generations of civil service leaders, faces an uncertain future under president Macron. Ian Hall considers why public opinion has turned against the institution, and compares French leadership development to the approaches of Britain and Belgium

When French president Emmanuel Macron announced in April that he wants to close the country’s prestigious École Nationale d’Administration (ÉNA), civil servants around the world were surprised. ÉNA has for decades operated as a finishing school for high-potential public servants – including the president himself – and it has both a global reputation for high-quality teaching, and a key role in developing the country’s senior leaders.

Its closure was among measures designed to calm France’s ongoing gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) protests, sending the signal that Macron wants to open up leadership positions to more people from outside the traditional elite. But in an era when civil service leaders are increasingly expected to possess professional, specialised skills in public sector management, the president’s decision seemed to run against the current.

So what’s going on? And as France considers its next move, is there anything to learn from how its neighbours manage postgraduate education for public service leaders?

Reform or abolition?

Robert Madelin – a former senior European Commission official, and a graduate of both the UK’s ‘Fast Stream’ leadership development course and ÉNA – suggests that Macron’s decision may be less revolutionary than it appears. “In French politics, announcements are real but often give rise to more nuanced implementation,” he observes. “We could well see a refunding: a ‘new’ Institute of Public Administration, with a new ‘statut’, different goals and a fresh culture.”

Indeed, Macron has since pointed towards reform rather than abolition, saying: “This is not about saying the ÉNA is a bad thing, quite the contrary. This is about ambitious reform, we need to build something that works better.” And here, Madelin is with the president: while ÉNA “was itself founded in post-War pursuit of a more unified, inclusive and professional public service,” he says, it never quite realised its meritocratic ambitions. 

“If it has become a symbol of elitism, it is partly because the founders of ÉNA stopped short of abolishing the Grands Corps,” he says; as a result, many of the routes to power continued to run through this handful of key administrative bodies, including the Conseil d’État, Cour des Comptes and Inspection Générale des Finances. ÉNA’s feeder colleges are another important factor, says Madelin: “ÉNA itself cannot dismantle the Oxbridge-style provision of elite education, which drives a disproportionately urban, middle-class share of places.”

Robert Madelin: “In French politics, announcements are real but often give rise to more nuanced implementation. We could well see a refunding: a ‘new’ Institute of Public Administration, with a new ‘statut’, different goals and a fresh culture.”

Nonetheless, says Madelin, “ÉNA itself has actually been a better social inclusion machine than the British civil service” – with quotas ensuring that a proportion of entrants arrive via “the ‘third way’, allowing mature entry from the world of unions and civil society.”

National differences

Guillaume Amigues, who works for London-based Portland Communications, is also able to compare two nations’ approaches to leadership education: he completed MAs at both France’s Sciences Po, and Germany’s Berlin’s Freie Universitat.

Amigues tells GGF that he observed “stark” differences between the French and German universities’ approaches. “French institutions focused on providing future civil servants with broad basic knowledge and skills applicable to the job, while the German approach was more focused on critical thinking and encouraging more diverse points of view,” he says.

So the French course was more directly vocational; and there, more of Amigues’ fellow students were pursuing a clearly-defined route into public administration. “There was greater diversity of backgrounds in Berlin, where fees were minimal compared to Paris,” he says. “Overall, it seemed clear that Sciences Po was a feeder for future senior civil servants; while one did not get the same impression studying at the Freie Universität, in part because senior civil servants in Germany tend to come from a wider range of universities.”

Amigues is clear that ÉNA lies at the heart of a uniquely French system, in which a fairly narrow cadre of future leaders are carefully nurtured in a purpose-built system. “The Grands Corps model sees top graduates of ÉNA and other elite schools join an elite caste at the top of the French civil service,” he says. “The importance and strength of that network is hard to comprehend outside France.”

Perhaps inevitably, ÉNA has become somewhat insular and academically-focused: “The main issue with this system is that it is neither dynamic, nor truly meritocratic,” Amigues comments. “The rank achieved upon graduation determines the career trajectory of top civil servants, and the uniformity of backgrounds at the top does encourage administrative group-think.”

Across the Channel

The UK civil service, on the other hand, has tended to take graduates straight after their first degree – developing them through the ‘Fast Stream’ training programme, which involves placements in different roles and departments. Further leadership development used to be provided by the National School of Government – formerly the Civil Service College – which offered residential courses; but it was abolished in 2012 under the Coalition government’s austerity policies. Its absence has been keenly felt, with a committee of MPs last year calling for its return.

Meanwhile, a handful of development programmes have sprung up to meet the need for leadership and specialist training – supplementing the web-based Civil Service Learning portal, which serves the wider government workforce. The Cabinet Office established a Civil Service Leadership Academy in 2017; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office opened its Diplomatic Academy in 2015; and the Government Digital Service’s GDS Academy offers training to senior digital professionals.

The UK’s universities supplement this offer with courses aimed at serving officials, including the London School of Economics – which teaches a Masters of Public Administration – and the Blavatnik School of Government, based at Oxford University. The latter prides itself on its international intake and perspectives, and has taught students from 119 countries and territories since 2012. Ruth Collier, Blavatnik’s director of external relations, tells GGF that the school offers “the chance to learn what works across the world. Very few ideas are genuinely new, so finding out what has worked elsewhere – and why – is enormously valuable.”

And in the middle

Image courtesy: Daniel X. O’Neil/flickr

One country that provides an interesting contrast to both France and the UK is neighbouring Belgium. The country’s famously complex governance structure – under which the regional parliaments hold many powers in a highly federal system – is reflected in the higher education system, which is also strongly regionalised.

The Belgian government agency Selor, based in Brussels, provides training and advises the government on HR issues. But Laurent Ledoux – a former Belgian senior civil servant who now runs a management consultancy – says the country lacks a really high profile centre of expertise and leadership development. Selor does “a good job, in the context of the scope it has,” he says, but Belgium has “nothing like ÉNA” to train civil servants in a “formal way” prior to their entry into the service.

“Speaking both as a citizen and as a former civil servant, I would argue that Belgium actually needs something like ÉNA, without falling into the traps of apparently creating a new elite, which can cause perceptions of cronyism and conflicts of interest,” says Ledoux. ÉNA has become a punch-bag for many French people’s resentment towards the elite, he adds, noting that many of its alumni actually end up in business rather than public service.

ÉNA does seem to have become an impediment to real inclusivity and meritocracy, if only through becoming so central to would-be leaders’ career prospects. But in both the UK and Belgium, senior leaders feel the need for a large-scale centre of expertise able to provide the intense, highly specialised training required by today’s leaders. “My hope is that France does not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” says Madelin, questioning whether “Masters courses can substitute for the nitty-gritty learning of the good old Civil Service College and ÉNA.”

“ÉNA can be reformed, for sure,” he concludes. “It would be a pity to abolish it.”

ÉNA: What happens next?

Image courtesy: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons

The École Nationale d’Administration (ÉNA) is one of France’s grandes écoles. Set up in 1945 by French president Charles de Gaulle, its top performers usually join France’s so-called Grands Corps (Inspection Générale des Finances, Conseil d’État or Cour des Comptes). Alumni include presidents Jacques Chirac and Francois Hollande, as well as Macron.

Since Macron’s announcement about its future, Frédéric Thiriez, a lawyer and former president of France’s Professional Football League (LFP), has been appointed to assess how to reform ÉNA – and, indeed, France’s entire civil service. “It’s not about destroying, it’s about building,” he has been quoted in French media as saying.

Separately, Frédérique Vidal, France’s minister of higher education, research and innovation, has called for “more geographical and social diversity” in the grandes écoles.

Caroline Girelli, a career French civil servant who most recently worked in France’s Ministry of Defence, shares Robert Madelin’s suspicion (see main text) that, despite Macron’s pronouncements, ÉNA may yet endure.

“Quite a few ideas are circulating,” she tells Global Government Forum. “One proposal is that we should not allow young people – 25-year-olds – to go immediately after ÉNA into the most prestigious administrative bodies with the fastest career tracks, [highest] salaries and select social networks, such as the Conseil d’État, Cour des Comptes and Inspection Générale des Finances.

“Instead, they should have worked for at least 10 years – in Paris and outside Paris – and [only] then people will be able to see whether they are entitled to have a senior position. They need to have the right management and negotiation skills, and also the capacity to think outside the usual box of administrative organisation and rules.”

About Ian Hall

Ian is editor of Global Government Fintech a sister publication to Global Government Forum. Ian also writes for media including City AM and #DisruptionBanking. He is former UK director for the pan-European media network Euractiv (2011-2018), editor of Public Affairs News (2007-2011) and news editor of PR Week (2000-2007). He was shortlisted for ‘Editor of the Year’ at the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) Awards in 2010. He began his career in Bulgaria at English-language weekly the Sofia Echo. Ian has an MA in Urban and Regional Change in Europe and a BA in Economics, both from Durham University.

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