Did France go from being a digital leader to lagger?
Published on October 14, 2021
French President Emmanuel Macron did not waste any time tackling the French government’s digital transformation after his election on May 7th, 2017. This transformation is to make all of France’s administrative procedures digital by 2022, affects all departments and many different aspects of people’s daily lives. The Digital Government in France became a hot topic. From the release of the digital roadmap to the large investment made in digital government innovation, the government was clearly serious about using technology to improve its efficiency and provide better services to French citizens. But according to a report from the UN, France currently ranks only 15th out of the 28 countries of the European Union (EU) in terms of integration of digital technology. Moreover, it ranks 19th among 193 countries of the world (from being 9th in 2018!), which raises several questions about this digital transformation of France’s government!
The French government’s digital transformation policies
As part of the Public Action 2022 launched by the Prime Minister in 2017, the Minister for the Armed Forces presented three objectives for the digital transformation:
- ensure operational superiority and information literacy
- facilitate the daily lives of staff;
- improve the relationship with the citizens and the attractiveness of the Ministry.
This Digital Transformation Plan was the first to be presented, which set out actions in a concrete way. In September 2018 the National Strategy for an Inclusive Digital Society and the initiative Digital in Common was launched, which aimed to train 1.5 million people in digital literacy to provide equal opportunities for everyone throughout the country. The actions under this French National Plan for Digital Inclusion were launched within the framework of the 2030 targets set by the European Commission’s Digital Decade.
Unfortunately, today there are 13 million French people who still do not use the Internet or use it only to a limited extent, including 6.7 million who have no Internet access at all. It should also be noted that even though local actors will coordinate this programme, it will still be challenging to measure its success. According to the EU report, France’s position has worsened in the human capital dimension, mainly due to the low share of people with “above basic digital skills” and the connectivity dimension, remaining below the EU average. Lastly, in September 2020, the French government set out its “France Relance” – a recovery plan for the post-pandemic country. It sets out the roadmap for the France of 2030, where it focuses on creating a green digital economy.
Digital France is not lagging behind, it just has lost momentum
Even though digital transformation has been in the French government’s focus for some time now, not much has changed. It has fallen behind its counterparts in Europe. However, this doesn’t mean that it won’t regain its momentum. According to the World Bank GovTech Index 2020, it still remains one of the world leaders along with South Korea, Estonia, Denmark, Australia etc. France’s 5G readiness stands at 33% which is significantly above the EU average rate of 21%.
It has registered good progress in the number of e-government users and the provision of digital public services for businesses as well. Despite the challenges faced when financing new infrastructures, it is likely that the promise to cover 100% of France with high-speed networks will also be achievable. During the pandemic, there was an acceleration in the digitisation of public administration by strengthening the inter-ministerial networks, facilitating teleworking and providing several digital communication tools. To help everyone become familiar with these digital tools, a dedicated platform was developed that links public structures and volunteers during the crisis.
Recent events suggest that digitalisation and e-governance in France will continue to be a challenge. Updating a country’s entire technology systems and processes will take time, especially when the government has a long history of bureaucracy and distribution of territorial competencies that is difficult to understand. It takes time to update policies, even more so to get citizens accustomed to new ones. There are also legal challenges to contend with.
Generally speaking, digital tools used by most public institutions are not very user-friendly, and interactive online consultations do not work for many people. Overall, the digitalisation of administrative documents and procedures remain vastly unequal amongst different ministries, and some are falling behind. How can this be fixed? One option could be for the government to create a ministry for Digital and Public Sector Transformation, which would have the necessary powers to oversee the digitalisation of the French state. Unfortunately, the government doesn’t seem to be thinking in this direction at the present time.
About the Author
Mohammad J Sear is focused on bringing purpose to digital in government.
He has obtained his leadership training from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, USA and holds an MBA from the University of Leicester, UK.
After a successful 12+ years career in the UK government during the premiership of three Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, Mohammad moved to the private sector and has now for 20+ years been advising government organizations in the UK, Middle East, Australasia and South Asia on strategic challenges and digital transformation.
He is currently working for Ernst & Young (EY) and leading the Digital Government practice efforts across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and is also a Digital Government and Innovation lecturer at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po, France.
As a thought-leader some of the articles he has authored include: “Digital is great but exclusion isn’t – make data work for driving better digital inclusion” published in Harvard Business Review, “Holistic Digital Government” published in the MIT Technology Review, “Want To Make Citizens Happy – Put Experience First” published in Forbes Middle East.
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