Dream big with Denis Prieur

Dream big with Denis Prieur

(#19 of our Together-Ensemble series)

It became evident during the Covid pandemic that public servants needed to be bold, tech-savvy and outward-looking. But not only, through Together-Ensemble, we learnt that people expect public administrations to act as real collaboration partners, listening and taking into account more their concerns, supporting a sense of fraternity as well as being able to project a common vision.

A dream, which will act as the glue to hold us together in uncertain and challenging times. 

To feed our dream, we thought it was time to invite a well-experienced civil servant from one of our Member States, someone who would have precious feedback and learnings to share. It felt also quite timely, as President Macron recently announced the closure of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration.

The path of Denis Prieur is quite unique. At the age of 21, Denis Prieur came 2nd in the 1971 batch graduating from ENA, giving him the right to a high profile, fast-track career in the French public administration. Instead, he decided to start at the bottom of the public administration ladder. In fact, 2/3 of the Charles de Gaulle promotion, 50 years ago, engaged in this same act of courage and integrity, with a view to putting an end to a paternalistic, distant and somewhat arrogant high level public service. The movement they launched at the time was truly revolutionary, as it exposed to everyone a strong desire for fairness, genuine togetherness and inclusiveness, as well as the humility to want to learn from the ground.

On his way to the top of the French public administration, Denis Prieur saw the impact of the decisions made by EU institutions on people of Europe and learned many lessons about leadership, good administration and decentralisation. This discussion which we hope will inspire you, is a natural follow-up to the session we had with Dave Snowden and Stephen Quest.

It will continue to give you food for thoughts for increased collaboration and distributed leadership. Yes, sometimes we have adopted policies without evaluating the impact on those at the end of them, like citizens and businesses. We need to continue to equip ourselves to avoid repeating the past. We need new skills, new behaviours and mindsets, and we need to continue listening to those that do not necessarily share the same reality.


We hope that his humility and words will inspire you to dream big for Europe and our dear public administrations that have the power to make the dream possible. Yes, what we do here, and how we do it, can lead to big consequences. More than ever, we need to #dream big and that is what we will continue to do here today with former French Councelor of State and Prefect, Denis Prieur.

Summary of the discussions:

“Indeed, the world of today is very different from the one I have known. However, I think that there are a certain number of constants and indeed over the years of my functions, I have reflected on the qualities that have been the most useful to me to exercise responsibilities and especially to really work in a team because it is is ultimately the main function of an administrative manager. Because it is obvious that one cannot do much. The goal is to be able to work together as a team and instill desire and motivation in any team. And so I ended up considering that there were 5 essential qualities that a manager should have if we can use this term. These essential qualities I will list them and they have the particularity in French and in English to start with the letter c so I call them the 5Cs so I will list without hierarchies; consideration, courage, clarity, consistency and confidence.

You do not only have 2 or 3 closest collaborators, you have to pay attention to everyone and you have to listen to them, that’s the first thing. The second thing is that I think you yourself mentioned the importance of courage. Courage because your first duty is not only the responsibility of an administration, it goes beyond that. Your first duty is not to shirk your responsibilities, to assume them fully and not to give in. It is not always easy because sometimes the temptation is great. But don’t give in. The 3rd principle is clarity because what is expected of you are clear objectives. These are clear guidelines and they are not hesitations or endless messages. Clarity is therefore very important, it is essential. It is a discipline because it requires work on oneself but it is essential. The fourth is consistency. Consistency is essential. You see, I can’t prioritize because they’re all essential. Consistency is essential because if you contradict yourself, if you say something on one subject and then on another subject, you say something else, something contradictory but in reality there is a relationship, and indeed people make a relationship between the 2 subjects. They are lost and as it happens this kind of situation in which you said something and then on another subject you said something that contradicts what you said previously. If it happens again little by little you lose the confidence of your collaborators and there it becomes very difficult. And this is my last, confidence is my fifth and last. As everyone knows, no one can decide alone, no one can do it in a situation, alone, there is only one way to do things successfully and that is teamwork. No one can know everything and if he thinks he can do everything on his own, he risks getting it wrong from one point to another. So there is no other choice, you have to have confidence. There is no alternative, you have to have trust but trust cannot be blind. Trust has to be exercised, it has to be practiced, but with caution. You have to use a few polls so to speak to see if it is well placed. And we must eventually regain the trust that we have placed when we realize that we have been betrayed but outside of this situation, we must in principle trust. So here are 5 essential principles for me. Of course, these were not the universal principles intended to govern all activities, it was not a charter of good administration, it was more a guide of behaviour first for myself and then to try to share a behaviour guide with others to try and read it and get the best possible results in the task which is always difficult for the prefect but I’m a bit long … But when you think about it, this behaviour guide for internal use in a way can be transposed to the relations or to the domains of relations between the administration and the people to whom it is addressed, whether national or local, or European. These I think are timeless principles, somehow. They remain valid even in a changing environment and a lot that remains valid at different scales. But we may have to go and apply them. That is the result of an experience that was long enough. (…)

Mentalities are also changing and there are more demands when crises multiply and now we expect from governments and institutions some immediate responses to crises. So, on the one hand, more time should be spent to operate the machine and on the other hand, the machine must react faster and faster. When I say that to a certain extent, the European Commission has an asset that national administrations do not have, it is coming from its diversity. Diversity of cultures, the diversity of training… By definition, European officials are recruited in all Member States, they have different backgrounds, culture is a little different and I think it is a factor that makes its operations more difficult. But it is also a factor, on the contrary, which, from the perspective I mentioned of reconciling decentralization and coordination, is a positive factor. If you put for example in the financial, economic and financial departments, a handful of sociologists and lawyers, then the outputs will be better. That’s even better because it expands the horizon and it allows you to move towards a more global vision and vice versa if in directions which are responsible for areas that do not have much to see a priori with your finance, you put an accountant, an economist, it’s the same you will broaden the vision. If you put someone who has a culture I would say Latin from Southern Europe and then you have other people who have a more Nordic culture, they will enrich each other. Thus, that’s an advantage for the EU Institutions. I believe we have to go resolutely in this direction of filling the horizontal directions of certain agents who are not completely in the mold in order to be able to finally facilitate inter-directional relations and transverse information.(…)

I obviously remember that there would obviously be a priority to put Europe in daily life, so get closer to the French and here we see that collaboration with local actors,  in the various member states, could today be a good thing.

I think we can put it into practice without major difficulty in a lot of countries. We have a particularity in France, I believe, that we are the most centralized country in the European Union. It goes back a very long time, we owe it to the King of France then to Napoleon then to his successors, we are a hyper-centralized country so there is in France at the same time a request for decentralization. I would say that decentralization is a request from citizens who want problems to be solved as closely as possible now, taking better account of local realities. Then there is also the idea that in France, as soon as something goes wrong, we appeal to the State. The state in fact offers a mother to the French. The state is their nanny. When can we go to whom? Have a good day and good night. They also believe that the state is sitting on a chest that has billions in it and if you scream loud enough the state will open the chest and wipe out the billions. While the billions are ours. When you ask for money from the state, you are asking yourself for money.

We will therefore retain the 5 guiding principles of consideration, consistency, clarity and confidence and courage. So without hierarchical order, all are important. We will therefore also remember this need to be more on the ground in the daily life of the French citizens. How easy it is to implement decentralization with local actors so let’s do it. And finally, therefore, to believe in this dream more than ever.”


More than 100 participants from the EU Institutions contributed to this session which took place on 6 May 2021. Their main recommendations can be found below:

Feedback on the 5Cs: The EU fails in passing communication to citizens. Clarity of communication and adapted language is key. We can exercise some of the Cs towards citizens (in particular confidence). Communication is also important, as well as the channel to spread it = two more C’s. There is also the mission of the Union: to improve people’s lives. We have to walk the talk and be at the service not only of the citizens but also the colleagues = servant leadership. For some specific cases we talked about the need for courage (facing governments failing on democracy, for example). The EU reputation is indeed based on the 5 Cs. Showing – and feeling – consideration and respect for citizens would do a lot of good consistency must be improved (see what happened in Turkey with our President).

Blockers: People could fact check almost anything on their mobile but choose not to: why? Citizens do not understand where we work or the structure of the EU. Do EU officials believe in the EU values or do they join only for the good conditions and prestige? Often states not interested to be open about issues. Clarity, coherence and courage of communication are somehow difficult to align with consideration for all or specific member states sensibilities.  The difference between the French system and the British, Eastern Europe and Northern Europe is also very complicated. And how to change the mentality amongst citizens? The gap between staff of the EU’s salaries and those of locals  will make it difficult. Also the way we are not allowed to critizize or speak openly about the EU outside the workplace will make it difficult

Practical solutions: Framing platforms for engagement. We should work on issues with local authorities instead of waiting for them to pop up burning. Appreciating the richness of diversity, learning from each other instead of ignoring differences is key in order to find a ‘language’ we all understand and which can connect us. The real reason behind the EU was never against Hitler. He also wanted a wirtschaftswunder with one currency and agricultural policy rethink the all system of recruiting within the EU, trying to attract more competent, but also motivated and passionate people. Transversal: creating a monitoring system, Step 1 gather information to know better the local levels, Step 2 checking what you need in terms of compliance (means, procedures, etc.), Step 3 Execution plan. I would bluntly suggest to send EU staff who never worked in local administration to send them there so learn work on ground While Commission wants to cut funding on missions it is actually the place were key non-formal connections were made with local people and learned about their issues, where policies doesn’t work. Find out what approach works locally, e.g. through the EU representation or direct contact with someone that knows the target local. Come up with more than one option for the local partner to choose from, give the partner the choice,  and accommodate their preferences as much as possible.  Make a six-month work assignment every five years inside a local administration a precondition for career advancement? Talk differently about relationships between EU institutions and public opinion in member states experiment the virtual random cafeteria.

Related links:

Public administration and governance (europa.eu)

The next report is coming from the wonderful discussion on diversity with Yenny Gorce and Faryda Hussein. Let’s continue to dream big!

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