Prefectorial Government Research Paper

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Governments must govern their territory and ensure that decisions reached in the national capital are implemented throughout the country. Different political traditions emphasize policy coherence and uniformity across their territory to differing degrees, and therefore invest varying levels of political and administrative resources into controlling subnational governments. For countries more concerned with uniformity (such as France and countries that have adopted the French administrative tradition) prefects are crucial instruments for central governments. France and several other counties utilize these administrative officials as one component of their attempts to control policy implementation through subnational units of government, and also exercise control over the field staffs of other ministries in central government.

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Prefectoral government refers to the utilization of central government officials—the prefect or prefet—to monitor and control policy within the area of the country for which each is responsible. For example, each department in France has a prefect, along with several sous prefets and other administrators responsible for controlling policy within the department. These officials are employees of the Ministry of the Interior and must review actions taken by both field services of most other ministries, as well as many decisions of department and commune officials. The relationships between the prefect and field staffs may be rather complex. For example, the prefect has little control over the pedagogical activities of the Ministry of Education, but does control construction of new schools.

The office of prefect has a long history, in France being derived from royal intendants in the ancien regime, and having persisted in one form or another since the Napoleonic era. As the office was developed during the Napoleonic era, it was seen as the means of creating a common nationhood in the face of substantial internal diversity within the country. The office briefly was called Commissioner of the Republic during the early stages of decentralizing reforms during the 1980s but the traditional title soon was restored to reflect the power of the State. Also, the creation of the regional planning system and regional governments with limited powers during the 1960s produced another level of government at which there is a need for prefectoral control in France, with some analogous development in other systems. Also, the continued decentralization and deconcentration of policymaking in France (and other countries) means there is an additional necessity of integrating and coordinating policies at the implementation stage (Dupuy and Thoenig 1985, Thorval 2000). The system has been copied, with predictable variations, at various times in numerous other countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain, and Japan, as well as continuing to be utilized in several former French colonies. Few of the systems copied from the original have provided these officials with the potent regulatory functions characteristic of French administration.

Formally prefects exercise substantial powers within their department. The can reverse decisions made by other officials within their department and impose their own decisions in place of those decisions they consider inappropriate, or at least refer the issues involved back to Paris for final determination. Given the strong tutelary and control functions exercised by prefects, they rarely if ever are natives of the territories within which they work. In addition, the prefect has tended to have a virtual monopoly over communication between the department and the central government in Paris, so that the field staffs of most ministries have been channeled through the prefecturate. This monopoly of communication constitutes a major source of power for prefects, given that the field staffs responsible to other ministries might have few independent avenues for complaining about the decisions of the prefect. In addition to the powers over national ministries, prefects frequently are directly involved with local government and have been in essence the chief executive for local governments. With reforms in the administrative system these local governments have been given increased powers but the prefect still has numerous tutelary powers.

The French prefect, much as the President of the United States, can be conceptualized as fulfilling a number of functions (Bernard 1992):

(a) The guarantor of the heritage of the nation and of the continuation society;

(b) The guardian of public order, with ultimate responsibility to preserve security and safety;

(c) The representative of the State within the geographical area, and the guarantor of equality of citizens;

(d) The promoter of regional economic development and (increasingly) the link of the region with the European Union; and

(e) The promoter of social consensus and cooperation within the region.

The political climate favoring decentralization and enhanced local autonomy has minimized the central position of prefects in most political systems, but the office remains an active component of administration in political systems that remain concerned about creating uniformity, including France. Indeed, the role of the prefect as a coordinator of local services may be even more crucial with the substantial deconcentration of policymaking. The range of powers available to prefects is becoming more constrained, and local communities are more likely to assert their own policy and political concerns. Even with the increase in local democracy, prefects remain powerful actors in local government, preserving their political power in part through alliances with local political leaders. With the creation of regional governments concerned primarily with economic development there is now a new level of prefectoral government in France, although the degree of control available to these officials is substantially more limited. Further, the role that the prefect plays in the distribution of funds coming from the European Union has also enhanced the central role of the prefect in subnational policy-making.

All administrative systems that utilize this variety of administrative mechanism for control over local areas are not called prefectoral. For example, the governors appointed by central government in Scandinavian countries have lost much of their authority over local authorities, although there are some vestigial powers of that sort. Even local mayors in some administrative systems (Finland and the Netherlands) may be in effect central government officials responsible for ensuring policy delivery in the face of potentially recalcitrant local political forces.

Authoritarian governments also have employed a variety of administrative mechanisms to control local governments and policy implementation, often using party officials rather than administrators to exercise the same control functions exercised by prefects.

Likewise, all administrative systems that are called prefectoral do not function in the same ways. Fried (1963), for example, distinguished between integrated and unintegrated prefectoral systems, with the former being exemplified by the French model and the latter by the Italian. The Italian prefectoral system is substantially less restrictive than the French version of exercizing administrative control through prefects. For example, Italian field staffs from line ministries have had their own lines of contact with the government in Rome without being dependent upon the prefect. Also, Italian prefects have not exerted direct control over local governments in as overt a manner as they might in France, nor have they supplied accounting and other managerial services to the local governments. The prefect in Italian (and most other) administrative systems is more of a monitor than an effective regulator of subnational governments.

There are in many ways two prefects existing simultaneously in the office, and there is a great deal of ambiguity in the role as it has evolved (de Montricher 2000). On the one hand, much of what has already been described reflects the legal version of the prefectoral role. This official is the formally powerful representative of the authority of the State, resplendent in their gold-braided uniform, playing a central part in local ceremonies to demonstrate the involvement of central government in those activities. On the other hand, the prefect is a bureaucratic politician who must build coalitions with local officials in order to be successful in governing. Although prefectoral systems originally were designed to exercise central control over subnational policies and administration, in practice local governments also have a great deal of political influence over the prefect, and may convince that official to promote their own local interests, rather than simply being forced to accept what they are being instructed from the center.

The prefect generally does not have to be persuaded very much to help the local community in pressing its demands on central government. The prefect is a career administrative official, generally coming from the very summit of the career structure. These officials naturally want to build a successful career, and prefects are also subject to removal from office more readily than are other civil servants. One measure of success for the prefect would be the ability to administer central policies without complaints from the localities, complaints that might be expressed through local political notables. Further, if prefects can construct a workable coalition with political elites in the localities over which they have responsibility they may be able to build an even more effective administration and thereby improve their career chances even more. Various examinations of the politics of these administrative relationships undertaken in France demonstrate that influence and control circulate in both directions and that most final policy decisions are the products of negotiation and bargaining rather than imposition of authority through the prefect (Crozier and Thoenig 1976, Worms 1966). Further, prefects engage in a number of consultation and consensus building operations within their departments to both enhance the quality of the decisions made and improve the involvement of local citizens in their own government. In France the power of local politics is enhanced by the cumul des mandats through which the same politician will hold office at both the central and local levels.

Prefectoral control may appear almost quaint in the contemporary era that stresses local democracy and accepts greater diversity among policy outcomes. Further, prefectoral administration may appear antidemocratic, given that this instrument of governing substitutes administrative controls for the judgment of locally elected public officials (Behar and Estebe 1996). The overwhelming concern with uniformity and control also may limit the capacity of local and regional governments to innovate, while there is growing evidence of the efficacy of policy innovation at lower levels of government. In addition, uniformity in policy and administration may not conform well to managerialist ideas devolving authority to lower echelons of organizations.

Prefectoral policymaking systems are concerned strongly with centralized control and can be contrasted with federal systems that tend to involve states or provinces for implementation without the direct monitoring and control, and that are willing to accept wider disparities in policy. The prefectoral systems may also be contrasted with other types of unitary government that rely on the functional field staffs of central ministries to provide sufficient uniformity throughout their territory. Those functional administrative systems do not consider it necessary to impose an extra level of oversight, at least not to impose ex ante controls. Thus, the choice of this form of governing reflects some fundamental choices about the way in which laws are to be implemented and the extent to which uniformity is a requirement for justice.


  1. Behar D, Estebe P 1996 Villes, sciences sociales, professions. L’Harmattan, Paris
  2. Bernard P 1992 Le prefet de la Republique: Le chene et l’olivier. Economica, Paris
  3. Crozier M, Thoenig J-C 1976 La regulation des systems organises complexes: Le case du systeme de decision politicoadministratif en France. Re ue francaise de sociologie 16
  4. Dupuy F, Thoenig J-C 1985 L’administration en miettes. Fayard, Paris
  5. Fried R 1963 The Italian Prefects. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  6. de Montricher N 2000 The prefect and the reform of the state. Public Administration
  7. Thorval J 2000 L’avenir de la representation de l’Etat. Pouvoirs Locaux 44(1): 84–9
  8. Worms J-P 1966 Le prefet et ses notables. Sociologie du travail 3
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