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The “Indefinite Discipline” of Competitiveness Benchmarking as a Neoliberal Technology of Government

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Working on the assumption that ideas are embedded in socio-technical arrangements which actualize them, this essay sheds light on the way the Open Method of Co-ordination (OMC) achieves the Lisbon strategic goal: “to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world”. Rather than framing the issue in utilitarian terms, it focuses attention on quantified indicators, comparable statistics and common targets resulting from the increasing practice of intergovernmental benchmarking, in order to tackle the following questions: how does the OMC go about co-ordinating Member States through the benchmarking of national policies? And to what extent does this managerial device impact the path of European construction? Beyond the ideological and discursive construction of the competitive imperative, this technology of government transforms it into an “indefinite discipline” (Foucault) which constantly urges decision-makers to hit the top of the charts. This contribution thus argues that the practice of intergovernmental benchmarking is far from being neutral in purpose and effect. On the contrary, it lays the foundation for building a “competitive Europe” which unites Member States through competition.

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  1. In the ERT report “Benchmarking for policy-makers: The way to competitiveness, growth and job creation” (October 1996), the following quote is found on the back cover: “The political advantage of the benchmarking approach to public policy is that it allows governments to work towards some common understanding of what needs to be done - and then to decide for themselves which way to go. In that sense, benchmarking is policy-neutral”.

  2. For a review, see for example Ioannou and Niemann (2003).

  3. A notable exception is (Haahr 2004) who characterizes the OMC as “advanced liberal government”.

  4. This publication included the Global Competitiveness Index and the Business Competitiveness Index, respectively developed by Xavier Sala-i-Martin at Columbia University, and Michael E. Porter, director of the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard Business School. Such international rankings identify the remedy to the “competitiveness threat” in their criteria on the macroeconomic climate, quality of public institutions or environmental readiness to innovation.

  5. This 30-member commission is better known as the Young Commission after its chairman John Young, then CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

  6. Extracted from the Council on Competitiveness’s website ( Accessed 2 December 2008).

  7. Council on Competitiveness, Competitiveness Index 1996: A ten-year strategic assessment, Washington, 1996.

  8. ERT set out its proposals in an action plan entitled “Beating the crisis: A charter for Europe’s industrial future” (December 1993). For a study on the role of the ERT in the emergence of the European competitiveness discourse, see van Apeldoorn (2000).

  9. For a presentation of the CAG’s mission, members and publications, see <>.

  10. Following the completion of the 2-year term of the Group and in light of its ostensible success, a second Competitiveness Advisory Group (CAG II) was given the same mandate in June of 1997. Its four reports (November 1997, June 1998, April 1999, September 1999) are available online ( Accessed 2 December 2008).

  11. The report based on the findings of this seminar (Brussels, 21 March 1996) was issued in October of 1996 by the ERT under the title “Benchmarking for policy-makers: The way to competitiveness, growth and job creation”.

  12. Among the great number of publications identifying benchmarking as a “policy-learning tool”, see the chapter of B.-Å. Lundvall and M. Tomlinson (both used by the Portuguese Presidency in preparation for the 2000 Lisbon summit) in Rodrigues (2002), entitled “International benchmarking as a policy learning tool” (pp. 203–231).

  13. More precisely, the initiative came from the unit for Competitiveness, Economic Analysis and Indicators of DG Research in close collaboration with the unit for Research and Development, Methods and Data Analyses of Eurostat, and under the aegis of the commissioners Philippe Busquin and Pedro Solbes Mira, respectively responsible for Research and Economic and Monetary Affairs.

  14. Gross domestic Expenditure on R&D (GERD) as percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

  15. “The creation of the Competitiveness Council in June 2002, through the merging of three previous configurations (Internal Market, Industry and Research) was a response to the perceived need for a more coherent and better coordinated handling of these matters related to the European Union’s competitiveness. Depending on the items on the agenda, this Council is composed of European Affairs Ministers, Industry Ministers, Research Ministers, etc.” (extracted from the EU Council’s website Accessed December 2, 2008).

  16. Also, see A. Desrosières’ article in this issue.


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I would like to express my gratitude to Dominique Pestre and Peter Weingart who gave me the possibility to take part in their workshop on “Governance of and through science: notions, categories and tools”, held in Paris on May 26–27, 2008. I furthermore have to thank all the contributors for their discussion and exchange of ideas. Last but not least, I want to express a special thank to Jean-Yves Bart and Jay Rowell for correcting my English writing.

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Correspondence to Isabelle Bruno.

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Bruno, I. The “Indefinite Discipline” of Competitiveness Benchmarking as a Neoliberal Technology of Government. Minerva 47, 261–280 (2009).

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