• Analysis
  • November 26, 2018
  • 12 minutes
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A digital republic? The unrivalled open data experiment transforming France

With its new measures, France aims to make government a home for technologists

Less than a decade ago, public servants with digital skills in the French government were hard to come by. Mohammed Adnene Trojette, now deputy secretary general of France’s public sector audit authority, first joined the French government in 2009. Trained as a software engineer, he found that few shared technical skills or interests similar to his own.

“Back then, when I was talking about free software, open standards, open source software, it was like I was an alien,” he said. Like many other countries, the French government relied on contractors to provide IT services, an approach often shown to lead to exorbitant costs and faulty systems, as government overspends on huge projects it doesn’t understand.

Today, the French government’s approach to digital governance is unrecognisable. The World Wide Web Foundation dubbed the country the fourth best in the world for open data, and the European Data Portal proclaimed it one of only five trendsetters in European data policy. But how did it achieve such rapid transformation? And what lessons were learned along the way?

Out of the lab

In 2016, France passed the Digital Republic Act, a landmark piece of legislation that made the country the world’s first to mandate local and central government to automatically publish documents and public data.

Opening up public data is well-known to be one of the foundations on which digital transformation rests. It can boost the economy by allowing new businesses to form, increase transparency and help citizens keep government to task. The availability of high quality data is also the bedrock for artificial intelligence, a field which President Emmanuel Macron has vowed France will spearhead.

“We developed the notion of the ‘public service of data’, critical for the economy and the society”

The legislation, however, was only one part of a broader project of transformation led by Etalab, the French government’s digital taskforce.

“What we managed to do is also build on a strong will and strong belief that data and openness were key to leading government digital transformation,” said Laure Lucchesi, director of Etalab. Formed in 2011, the lab didn’t just prepare the ground for much of the Act, it also helped to built some of the country’s core data infrastructure.

One example is data.gouv.fr, the government portal that hosts more than 40,000 public datasets from nearly 2,000 different organisations. Another, launched in 2017, is SIRENE, an open register listing legal and economic details of all the companies in France.

“We developed the notion of the ‘public service of data’, concentrated on a few datasets, or data registers, which are really critical for the economy and the society,” said Lucchesi. Access to standardised, complete information is one of the key foundations of digital government. It’s such datasets which allow government to build the services which allow people to register companies online in minutes. Through such work, Etalab set the scene for local government and civic tech organisations to get to work on their own projects.

Going local

For Olivier Thereaux, head of technology at the Open Data Institute (ODI), too much focus on legislation passed by central government obscures the real drivers behind France’s digital transformation. According to Thereaux, much of the hard work and experimentation has taken place in often overlooked local governments.

From late 2017, the ODI coordinated collaborative open data projects between selected cities in UK and France. Small organisations were encouraged and funded to collaborate on common projects using open data, much of which was made available thanks to the French government’s reforms.

The legislation, he argued, was a green light to innovators across local government and civil society. “If you’re a local civil society group, you can point to the fact that, at the national level, there is a desire to do more open government,” he said. “You’ve got a fairly strong argument to push back on the argument that it’s too expensive or too complicated.”

“In our DNA we have the entrepreneur spirit, and a pioneering attitude”

In one of the ODI’s projects, the cities of Lille and Leeds collaborated to complete a detailed comparative analysis of each city’s tech sectors. Using high quality open data from SIRENE and other sources, the project team compared the two cities’ economies, and were able to discover areas where each city could further develop. In a separate project, Transfermuga, a developer created a route planner for travel between southern France and the Basque Country.

It goes both ways. Etalab itself has worked with localities to collect transport data. With the creation of a national access point, Etalab is pulling together transport data from the whole of France. In doing so, it aims to make a national transit data social network, where people aren’t just able to use transport data, but also “ask questions to the person from that territory that can best answer them.”

If anything, the Act focused too heavily on the national picture. “It was very much about national data, which feels a bit like a missed opportunity given that there’s quite a lot of dynamism and initiative at a more local level,” said Thereaux.

Refreshing the workforce

But perhaps the greatest driver of transformation has been France’s new emphasis on attracting top digital talent to the French public service. While Etalab was initially conceived as a small team based in the Prime Minister’s office, it has since become a fully fledged unit with data experts, developers and technical specialists capable of building innovative services of its own.

That shift has required faster and better recruitment, largely delivered by a scheme named “Entrepreneurs d’Intérêt Général”. Now running for three years, the scheme is modelled on the presidential innovation fellows system developed in the USA and is dedicated to recruiting digital talent into all arms of government.

Technology specialists, who would otherwise attract a high price elsewhere, are recruited into government to work on state of the art, agile projects, initially on short term contracts, at salaries which rival those they could receive in the private sector.

“It’s a big cultural change to drive — opening the data is not easy”

For Trojette, it’s helping to change the way government works. “They are reasonably well paid, they have a challenge to implement a digital solution, and, also, to make it sustainable inside of the administration, so that when they leave their solution doesn’t leave with them,” said Trojette. “We manage to keep them for at least 10 months in the public sector — that makes a difference.”

More than the money, for Lucchesi what attracts the specialists is the chance to work on projects which make a difference to civic life, but without bureaucratic fetters. It’s a change culture Etalab has helped to drive. “In our DNA we have the entrepreneur spirit, and kind of a pioneering attitude, so we’re experimenting, we’re trying to really practice what we preach and make concrete things, build tools, build solutions,” she said.

As government changes, having people with the skills to deliver services is essential. “More and more people in public service in France are understanding that the government is turning into a software editor,” said Trojette. “Because we are providing digitalised public services — we are either writing code, or buying code to provide public services.”

Next steps

But opening data by law doesn’t necessarily mean it will be implemented in practice. For Trojette, there’s a paradox between what the Digital Republic Act promises and what’s emerged.

“The problem is that quite a few public organisations are not implementing the act,” he said. Though the Act is, on the whole, “positive”, there is still a lot of “resistance.”

Open data is never as simple as finding the information and putting it online. For it to work effectively, it requires public servants to first find data and then arrange and publish it in standardised formats. Building a complete dataset can mean corralling information which from different departments, which makes collaboration a necessity. In short, it means learning to work a new way.

“It’s a big cultural change to drive. Opening the data is not easy,” said Lucchesi. “There’s also a lack of real understanding about what’s the point behind opening the data. We have to bring stories, use examples and show the impact of the open data policy to drive change.”

More than anything else, the French government’s commitment to open data reform has empowered both groups in local government and civic tech groups to attempt projects of their own. — Anoush Darabi

(Picture credit: Flickr/mout1234)

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