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Gestion et management public

2014/3 (Volume 3/n°1)

  • Pages : 104
  • DOI : 10.3917/gmp.031.0075
  • Éditeur : AIRMAP

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1 - Introduction


Since the 1970s-1980s, as many Western countries weren’t able to control the public expenditure and to ensure continuous economic growth (Passet, 2010), they carried out a number of reforms in order to improve their public administration and reinvent government (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992). These reforms, which Hood called the New Public Management (NPM), have mainly tried to introduce private management into public organisations (Hood, 1991, Dunleavy and Hood, 1994). By means of market systems, as well as performance management, the public administration is supposed to become more economic, effective, and efficient. However, the evolution of the public expenditure and public debt shows that the impacts of the NPM seem controversial (OCDE, 2009). What is more, the 2008 and 2011 crises undermined the legitimacy of market systems in the public sector and many questions have arisen: did the NPM really improve the public administration performance? What are the impacts of the NPM-type reforms? Should the state and the public administration pursue the NPM type reforms in order to respond to an equivocal environment? Should we consider the post NPM?, etc. In a word, what is the current state of the NPM type reforms?


With such issues, a lot of studies already recognized that the impacts of the NPM reforms are limited. Pollitt and Bouckaert (2011) go even further. For them, the NPM is not the only reform. There are also other types of reforms such as the Neo Weberian State (NWS; Gay, 2005; Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2011) or the New Public Governance (NPG; Osborne, 2006). They show that all those reforms have controversial impacts, notably because of differences of administrative cultures, the starting point of reforms, the socio-economic and political situation, and so on. Thus, a state has implemented reform tools in different ways and has adapted a type reform to its local context, culture, people, history … In other words, it hybridizes a model of reforms in order to be put in place (Boyer, 1997). Hence, for example, there are different models of the NPM type reforms, such as the Australian model, the New Zealand model, the UK model, the USA model. Also, certain type of reforms seem to work better in certain countries. In the case of the NPM-type reforms, the NPM seems to work better in the countries of which administrative culture is more ‘public interest’ than ‘Rechtsstaat’ (i.e. legally-driven). That should be why reforms have limited impacts and why there are so many theories in public management (the NPM, the NWS, the NPG, the New Public Administration, Frederickson, 1996; the Public Value, Moore, 1994; the Public Service Motivation, Perry and Wise, 1990; the New Public Service, Denhardt and Denhardt, 2000). Thus, it is very difficult to determine what type of reforms works better than the others. Furthermore, according to Pollitt and Bouckaert (2011), reforms should be geared to politicians rather than the public administration, because several surveys about citizens trust on government show that it’s politicians who are the problem, not the public administration and civil servants.


In our opinion, these insufficient results of reforms could also be explained by our collective common memory (Halbwachs, 1925 and 1950). Actually, a society has to provide for its component members a minimum of stability and spatial continuity in order to keep on. It is precisely by means of the collective common memory that a society fulfils this function. To this end, the society members keep in their memory similarities and constancies above all, and not diversities or changes. Thus, they stay together with the same collective common memory and the society keep on this way. From this point of view, any changes, notably any sort of public administration reform, threat the social stability and continuity, because it brokes the links which tided the society members with each other. That should be why the reforms have limited impacts.


From this point of view, a question arises:


What do the citizens think about the public administration reforms since 1980?


In other terms,


Can any reform really make our understanding of the public administration evolve?


Answering this research question is crucial to define future public management action plan, because changing citizens’ understanding of the public administration is as important as putting in place reforms. To this end, this paper first gives a brief overview of what Halbwachs describes as the collective common memory and then lists assumptions to examine. Studying the French case, we then verify assumption. First, we made a survey of HR managers of private sector in France in 2013 by means of the technique of object recognition of social representation (Abric and Verges, 1994, Verges, 2001). We interviewed around 20 persons in order to construct the questionnaire on line and 225 people out of around 1200 participated with a return rate of around 19%. Subsequently, we analyses the French public administration reforms since 1980s, confronting the result of the survey about the French opinions on the public administration conducted by Rangeon in 1982 and the result of our survey in 2013. The comparison of these results confirms one main assumption of Halbwachs. Notably, French people seemed to consider that public administration hadn’t known any change since 1980. Finally, we answer the research question, “Whether any reforms can really evolve our understanding of the public administration?” We then conclude on other research directions.

2 - Collective common memory: a guardian of durability and stability of the society (Halbwachs, 1925 and 1950)


From an historical perspective, life is made up of nothing but changes. However, in order to persist, society has to persuade its component members that it does not change and remains the same. For Halbwachs, it is precisely through the collective common memory that society fulfills this function. To that end, the collective common memory first enables a group to remain together and unique as a group. In this context, collective common memory is linked above all to a physical place, because it is the sole medium which really lasts and to which memories can be affixed. Then, collective common memory gives a group the impression that it remains the same, exactly as the place it is attached to, and that changes happen only outside the group, and not within it. In other words, in order to remain the same, a group focuses its full attention on similarities and constancies above all, and not on diversity or changes. Hence, collective common memory ensures that society members remain in harmony, identify with each other and achieve common goals.


For Halbwachs, this collective memory is like the “only picture of similarities”. Indeed, this collective common memory is not universal for all groups. It is specific for every group, because it contains some characteristics which distinguishes it from other memories; that is to say, the fundamental characteristics of a group. From this point of view, the national or organizational culture (Hofstede, 1984) should be an excellent example of the collective common memory. However, the collective memory changes. Whenever a real change occurs within a group, notably when new members enter, or when a member dies/disappears/leaves the group, a new group begins with a new collective common memory. In other words, “new times” begin. “Old times” can persist simultaneously to the “new times” though. By this way, throughout the evolution of society, we are facing a number of collective memories, including old and new ones.


In the second place, collective memory enables the reconstruction of the collective past using common data or concepts taken from the present. First of all, when reconstructing the collective past, we do not recall only facts and objects from memory. Ways of our being or thinking result from social influence. From this point of view, our understanding of the world consists in a social construction. We observe and understand the world in the way we learned under the social influence, and not in the way the world actually is. Furthermore, while collective memory reconstructs the past, it does so using common data and concepts taken from the present, and not from the past. Indeed, in history, the past is opposite of the present, whereas in collective memory, the time is extended as far as groups remember. That is to say, the time is collective and continuous, which shapes collective memory in such a way that it always exists in relation to the present. Collective memory is significant to a group more in terms of its relations with ideas and perceptions of the present rather than in terms of its own contents, since it acts as the common interest around which a group gathers.


From these points of view, our assumption is the following:


The French citizens find the public administration unchanged in spite of actual reforms, because they focus their full attention on similarities and constancies above all and the French reconstruct their memory about their public administration through common data and concepts taken from the present.

3 - Methodology


To examine our assumption, we decided to conduct a survey and to compare our survey with the one made by Rangeon in 1982. In other words, we considered whether there was a change or not in collective memory of citizens about public administration between 1982 and 2013. To do this, based on Viaud (2003) and Bonardi (2003), we decided to use the object recognition method (Abric and Verges, 1994, Verges, 2001), a method of social representation. This method allows us to explore the collective memory of citizens about public administration. In fact, according to Viaud and Bonardi, while collective memory is a quite elusive concept, social representations are identifiable by means of different methods and make the concept of collective memory concrete. This idea is then referred to as “social memory” or “collective representations”. In other words, looking into a social representation signifies exploring a collective memory.


According to Abric (1976 and 2003), all of the elements of social representation are organized in a hierarchy (organisational function or a peripheral system) concentrated around a central core which gives their signification (generating function or a central system) within a given social representation. Hence, when studying a social representation, it is required to know its contents as well as its organization. In other words, identifying the “generating function” or “central cores” of a social representation amounts to determining common concepts and points of reference of collective memory amongst “ordinary people” (Viaud, 2003). Recognizing the “organizational function” of elements or “peripheral elements” of a social representation is equivalent to apprehend “relations between data” in collective memory. The summary table by Roussiau and Renard (2003) lists the characteristics of these two systems (see Table 1).

Table 1 - Characteristics of the central system and the peripheral system of a social representation (Excerpt from Abric, 1994: 80)Table 1
Source: Roussiau and Renard, 2003

With regard to all of the above, and in compliance with the object recognition method (Abric and Verges, 1994; Verges, 2001), we decided to conduct an exploratory quantitative study. To do this, we first conducted a pre-survey in order to identify the elements constituting a representation by means of eleven individual interviews and two collective interviews with a thematic analysis;


Secondly, we elaborated an on-line questionnaire via Survey Monkey with the themes identified in the pre-survey: a list of items was presented to an individual who was asked to indicate in each case whether the item characterized the object “certainly”, “maybe” or “not at all”.


Finally, we administered the questionnaire and analysed the results: thanks to the full cooperation of the Centre d’Etudes de la Fonction Personnel (Cefop), the questionnaire was made available on-line for its associate members between 01/03/2013 and 01/16/2013. In the analysis, three types of profiles were possible: central elements (massively chosen as the most characteristic, observed in the form of “J” curve), peripheral elements (“moderately” important in the object characterization, observed in the form of bell curve) and contrasted elements (contrasted judgments revealing the existence of sub-groups, observed in the form of “U” curve).

Table 2 - Quantitative study of an exploratory characterTable 2

4 - Results


In this part, we firstly summarize French main reforms of public administration, secondly the result of Rangeon’s survey conducted in 1982 and finally the result of our survey made in 2013.

4.1 - So many reforms the public administration in France since 1980s…


The French public sector consists of public administrations and public enterprises. Public administrations are the central public administration, the local public administration and the social security public administration. Each administration is governed according to Weberian bureaucratic ideal type. It had its own human resources classified in its own corps until the middle of the 2000s; which explained the important number of corps (1 800 at the end of 1980s). Since 2005, a current reform has reduced the number of corps. There are actually about 340 (2013) and the target is to reduce the number of corps to 230 in 2018 (Eckert, Gagnaire, 2012).


France political and administrative system is characterized notably by the common basis between politicians and senior officials, and Neo-Weberian elements. Firstly, the majority of politicians and senior officials are awarded a diploma of one of three grandes écoles[3][3] Before the current President, there were two grandes... (Ecole Nationale de l’Administration, Polytechniques and Business School), whatever his or her political position is. Hence, many politicians often were the former senior officials before entering in the political life. This common basis between politics and administration should explain the cue role of senior officials in the French reform history: it was senior officials, not politicians, who first introduced reform in French public administration, and since then, they always have strongly invested reform (Bezes, 2009).


Another character of French administrative system is that it’s Neo-Weberian (Pollitt, Bouckaert, 2011). In fact, like her neighbors, France has conducted a number of reforms in order to improve public administration since 1980s, even before, but in its own way. Opposing to the Anglo-Saxon NPM ideas, France has adopted progressively its Weberian bureaucratic process, instead of destructing the previous, to social-economic and political evolution by integrating some elements of NPM and New Public Governance. They consist in emphasizing more on results rather than procedure, holding better in account citizens’ view, needs and wishes by means of consultation, the direct representation, delivery of a better quality and service, simplifying the administrative procedure… The following table sums up mains reforms which have been conducted since 1980s to this end.

Table 3 - The evolution of the directions of reform of the French public administrationTable 3
(Source: Bezes (2009) completed by authors, 2014)

This table shows us that there have been a number of reforms of the French public administration of what impacts are effectively significant on organization of the State, the functioning of public administration, relation between citizens and public administration… However, according to two survey made in 1982 and 2013, very few citizens seemed to notice these reform’s effects.

4.2 - At the beginning of public administration reforms: Rangeon’s survey about the Picardy’s inhabitants’ perception on public administration (1983)

Sample’s characteristics


In 1982, Rangeon conducted a survey in Picardy in order to know what the French thought about their state, public administration and civil servants. He made this survey at the beginning of the French reforms to hold in account other actors, notably citizens. The questionnaire was sent by letter to all the readers of ‘The Picardy’s Journal’. He collected 481 answers. All the respondents participated voluntarily in this survey. The sample shows the following characteristics:

  • The sample was composed mainly by men (about 74%);

  • More than a third habited in centre;

  • Executives were over-represented whereas farmers and workers were under-represented with regard to the French social and occupational structure;

  • Almost all of them (about 95%) were more than 25 years old at the time.

Survey’s results


Even if its methodology does not allow us to compare its results with our survey so strictly as, these results reveal, though, the social representation of the administration that the Picardy’s inhabitants had in 1982 (see Table 4). Through this result, Rangeon noted the French people’ controversial, ambiguous and very multiple representations about their state, public administration and civil servants.

Table 4 - Social Representation of administration of Picardy’ inhabitant in 1982Table 4
(Source: Rangeon, 1983)

4.3 - After more than 30 year of reforms of public administration: our survey about the Frenches’ citizens’ perception on public administration (2013)

Sample’s characteristics


225 people out of around 1200 participated in this survey with a return rate of around 19%. They also participated voluntarily in our survey. As a result, the sample is not representative, but only indicative. The sample shows the following characteristics:

  • The sample consists of 102 women (45, 3%) and 123 men (54, 7%);

  • The respondents are all graduated from at least a Master degree;

  • 30% of respondents declare to have at least a single experience in the public sector, while 70% declare not to have any;

  • The age distribution of the respondents shows that the population below 35 years old represents about 60% and below 45 years old - about 80% ;

  • Only the “age of respondent” variable was discriminatory factor. In spite of indicative character of our sample and the one of Rangeon, they are absolutely independent from point of generational view.

Survey’s results


The results of our survey confirm the collective common memory and social representation’s concept by the obstinacy of the same opinions of citizens about “the public”. Furthermore, during interviews, when we asked participants the definition of the public sector, the public administration and the public management, they defined the public sector by its contents, while they “qualified” the doing and being of public administration and public management. In other words, the public sector consists in contents whereas the public administration and management consist in a way of being and doing of “the public” in collective memory of French citizens.


First of all, according to these results (see Figure 1), the public service, regalia functions, the central administration, public and semi-public institutions, as well as the three branches of civil service constitute the central cores of the public sector. All of these elements represent common concepts and a framework of the memories of the participants about the public in the survey. The public service and regalia functions are very strong common concepts in the collective memory of the interviewees, a bit like the Bergson’s “dominant memories” (for more than 90% of respondents, these items “certainly” describe the public sector).

Figure 1 - “For you, the public sector is above all…”Figure 1

About other items, a bivariate analysis depending on age groups highlights their contrasted character, despite their dispersion in the form of a “bell” or a “J” curve for some of them (see Table 5). In other words, there are sub-groups which have different or even contrasted opinions. They are identifiable through the profile of the dispersion of answers, which distinguishes themselves from the overall trend (coloured parts). For example, it can be observed that four sub-groups differentiate themselves concerning the item “the public sector means, above all, uniting the French on non-market-related issues”. The first sub-group (non-coloured part) has the same dispersion profile as the overall trend in the form of bell curve; the second (blue part) in the form of the inverse “J” curve upside down and strongly attenuated; the third (grey part) in the form of the “U” and, finally, the last one (pink part) in the form of the “J” right side up. In sum, these items reveal the existence of a number of sub-groups which do not share the same social representation of the public sector. As for public interest, it is considered as a contrasted element. This joins the point of view of Pollitt and Bouckaert (2011) about the French administrative culture which should beRechtsstaat” rather than public interest. In our opinions, it also should be because of its immateriality. Indeed, we note that all of participants illustrated “the public sector” by means of some concrete and material examples, which seems to facilitate their materialization in the participants’ memory. This is not the case with the notion of public interest that seems too woolly to French. This difficulty with the materialization of public interest would impede its integration into collective memory as a strong common concept or as a point of reference for the French. Hence, for some people, it would rather be a peripheral-central element, which organizes other central cores of the sector public. This necessary materialization also could be one of French cultural particularities.

Table 5 - Age (years) and perceptionTable 5

As regarding a way of doing and being, this is as important as the content in the collective common memory concept, because, formed under social influence, it conditions our way of understanding the world. According to our survey, public administration consists in a way of doing and being of “the public” in collective common memory of French. “Complicated”, “heavy”, “slow” and “indispensable” are central cores of the social representation of the administration (see Figure 2). What is more, “complicated” and “heavy” are common ideas in the collective memory of participants (more than 85% of them consider the administration to be “certainly”: “complicated” and “heavy”). In other words, the participants in this survey have had and continue to have “complicated” and “heavy” relations with the administration.

Figure 2 - “For you, the French Public Administration is…”Figure 2
Figure 3 - “For you, the French Public Management is…”Figure 3

Our study also shows that, between the results of the survey conducted by Rangeon in 1982 and the present survey in 2013, the image of the administration changed little, despite all the efforts done to “reinvent the State” (Bezes, 2009), as well as the public service and the administration (for example, the Renewal of the Public Service under P.M. Rocard from 1988 to 1991, the “Juppé” circular on the 07/26/1995, the testing of new instruments for the management of public expenditure, etc.). Indeed, according to the survey conducted by Rangeon, the term “complicated” had already been ranked first when inhabitants were asked to describe the administration. It seems that the terms “heavy” and “slow” shifted from peripheral function in 1982 into central function in 2013. In our opinions, the shift of these terms towards central cores seems perfectly logical, if “heavy” and “slow” administration is considered a consequence of “complicated” administration. As far as other items are categorized among peripheral and contrasted elements in this study, their functions changed very little since 1983. Faced to the question to define the public management during interview, our participants seemed to be very confused and to have some difficulty to answer this question. We think that it should be because the term “public management” is not very well-known in France. This can be why answers seem to be rather general. However, we note that for more than 85% of participants to our survey, public management is different from private management while for only 28% of them, public management is ‘certainly’ compatible with private management.


To sum up, we suggest to classify items in the following way (see Table 6).

Table 6 - Classification of itemsTable 6

4.4 - In fine,…


Faced to the research question, “what do the citizens think about the public administration reforms since 1980?”, in other terms, “could any reforms really evolve our understanding of the public administration?”, following the collective common memory concept, our assumption is that the French citizens should find the public administration unchanged in spite of its effective reforms. The study of mains reforms and two surveys made in 1982 and 2013 show us that public administration have been effectively reformed whereas citizens do not change their view about public administration at all. In other words, this result confirms our assumption.


Furthermore, the result of our survey joins Pollitt and Bouckaert’s point of view of (2011) about the French administrative culture which should be ‘Rechtsstaat’ rather than public interest. Indeed, public interest is contrasted element, for about 70% of participants to our survey, public administration is indispensable and finally, for more than 85% of participants, the public management is different from the private management and for only 28% of them, public management is ‘certainly’ compatible with private management.

5 - To conclude,…


The aim of our study is to examine whether any reforms could really evolve citizens’ understanding of public administration, in a word, evaluate public policies from citizens’ point of view. Actually, Pollitt and Bouckaert (2011) noticed that regarding evaluation of public policies, there were few studies about citizens’ opinions about public administration. They are right. Since Rangeon’s survey in 1982, the French very first official studies date the late 2000s. This is very strange, because the issues of some main reforms of public administration were precisely getting better relations between public administration and citizens. What is stranger, public administration, particularly, public local administration have conducted many internal studies. But the majority of these studies remains secret, probably because local authorities are afraid that they returns against them. For example, a French region decide to keep in secret a survey evaluating a policy for youth, because the result showed general dissatisfaction of young people towards this policy.


It being said, in order to examine whether any reforms really could evolve our understanding of public administration, we firstly inspect Halbwachs’s collective common memory. Secondly, we study French main reforms of public administration made since 1980s. Then, we examine Rangeon’s survey made in 1982. Finally, we conduct a survey with the cooperation of Cefop among human resources managers in the private sector following Abric and Verges’ technique of recognition of the object. The results make it possible, as well, to define the collective common memory citizens keep about “the public”. It corresponds both to the contents (public sector) and the ways of doing and being (relation between citizens and public administration and management). Content consists in the public service, regalia functions, administration, and civil services which remain stable and concrete.


As regard the ways of doing and being of “the public”, we observe the persistence of this collective memory of French citizens about their public administration on more than 30 years: two apparently distinct groups share the same common opinions about their public administration by focusing the full attention on similarity and constancy, and not on diversity or changes. It is like that there has been no reform at all. This obstinacy of the bad image of the French about public administration also have a rather negative administrative impact in terms of intrinsic public value, notably the trust in politics today (Moore, 1994). According to a survey on reliable level in politics (CEVIFOP and CNRS, 12/2013), only about 20% of the French citizens trust the government and the President. On the other hand, about 70%, even more, of the French trust public organisations. These results question the target of reform. Is it really public administration to be reformed? Should it be politics to be reformed?


From this point of view, the study conducted by Harrison, Guerrero et al. (2012) seems to be particularly interesting. The authors identify six ways in order to produce public values, called “generators of public value”: profitability, effectiveness, intrinsic improvements, transparency, participation, and collaboration. Among these six ways, the authors claim that transparency, participation and collaboration should have impacts on the public intrinsic value, also probably on the image of politics. In future studies, it can be interesting to deeply explore test their hypothesis.


These results also have a twofold consequence for the reforms which should be implemented. On one hand, following Halbwachs’ work, it is necessary to change either the group’s members or the physical places associated with them to achieve a genuine reform. Indeed, space represents a physical continuity which acts as a framework for collective memory. According to our analysis, the public service, regalia functions, administration and civil services also serve as a stable and concrete framework within which collective memory is fixed. As far as citizens are concerned, they are the holders of this collective memory. Therefore, as long as the members and/or the space change little, the central cores would remain the same. Then, no matter what happens, collective memory will favour similarity, whatever change, in order to maintain the group around the same interests and goals. This would perhaps explain why certain reforms passed virtually unnoticed by French people and so do not have any impact on French citizens’ understanding of public administration.


All the more, reforms are not always necessary to guarantee the continuity of our society. As Halbwachs rightly points out, in order to ensure that society, and more particularly a state, maintains a number of consistencies, it has to secure a certain stability and continuity for its component members, so that the latter can fix their collective memory. Thereby, each state should convince itself and its members that it does not change at all, or only little, and that it lasts. As a consequence, if a state does nothing but reform, it only weakens the stability and continuity which are indispensable for the viability of the state, and threatens the relation between the state and its members. In this context, we can list a number of questions following which can also be subjects for future studies:

  • What should the state do in order to improve the actual understanding of its citizens about its public administration?

  • Should the state change its immigration policy?

  • Should some public administration move towards a new space?

  • Could the state change its public administration and ensure its stability as well as continuity to its component members?

  • How should the state changing its doing without endangering its survival?…

We wish to thank to the members of ATMAP and CEFOP (University of Paris II) for their participating in our survey.

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Maître de Conférences, Legal Research Centre of Pothier (CRJP), Orleans University, France,


Management Science Ph.D., Paris 2 University, France


Before the current President, there were two grandes écoles (ENA and Polytechniques). In fact, the President F. Holland was awarded diploma of Hautes Etudes de Commerce, a business school.



In order to know whether any reforms have really evolved our understanding of the public administration, our research relies on comparison between a survey made by Rangeon in 1982 and our study conducted in 2013. According to study results, there seems to be no real change in citizens’ understanding of the public administration despite of a number of reforms since 1982.


  • reforms of public administration
  • evaluation
  • collective common memory
  • social representation
  • survey


Réformer l’administration publique, une mission impossible ? Le cas des réformes de l’administration publique française depuis les années 1980Afin de savoir si les réformes conduites ont fait réellement évoluer la perception qu’ont les usagers de l’action de l’administration publique, nous menons une comparaison entre les résultats de notre enquête réalisée en 2013 et présentée ci-dessous et celle de Rangeon menée en 1982. Selon les résultats présentés ci-dessous, il semble n’y avoir aucun changement réel dans la compréhension des citoyens de l’administration publique en dépit d’un certain nombre de réformes depuis 1982.


  • les réformes de l’administration publique
  • l’évaluation
  • la mémoire collective commune
  • représentation sociale
  • enquête

Plan de l'article

  1. 1 - Introduction
  2. 2 - Collective common memory: a guardian of durability and stability of the society (Halbwachs, 1925 and 1950)
  3. 3 - Methodology
  4. 4 - Results
    1. 4.1 - So many reforms the public administration in France since 1980s…
    2. 4.2 - At the beginning of public administration reforms: Rangeon’s survey about the Picardy’s inhabitants’ perception on public administration (1983)
      1. Sample’s characteristics
      2. Survey’s results
    3. 4.3 - After more than 30 year of reforms of public administration: our survey about the Frenches’ citizens’ perception on public administration (2013)
      1. Sample’s characteristics
      2. Survey’s results
    4. 4.4 - In fine,…
  5. 5 - To conclude,…

Pour citer cet article

Pyun Hae-Ok, Lallemand Anne-Sophie, « To reform the public administration, is it an impossible mission? Case study of French public administration reforms since 1980s », Gestion et management public 3/2014 (Volume 3/n°1) , p. 75-88
DOI : 10.3917/gmp.031.0075.

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