French digital affairs minister on Estonia: If it works here, it can work elsewhere

Visiting French Minister of State for Digital Affairs Axelle Lemaire posing with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the Tallinn e-Governance Conference. May 30, 2016. (Embassy of France in Estonia)
5/31/2016 11:38 PM
Category: News

After participating in the first day of the two-day Tallinn e-Governance Conference 2016, French Minister of State for Digital Affairs Axelle Lemaire gave ERR News a phone interview on Monday afternoon wherein she spoke of what digital services France already offers its citizens, how Estonia can serve as a role model for the country despite the size difference, and how in her opinion, e-solutions and democracy go hand in hand.

This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

We live in an increasingly digitized world that our parents couldn’t have even imagined, and yet youth today can’t imagine life before smartphones and the Internet. Do you think this we are heading in a positive direction or could there be drawbacks to this trend in digitization?

Oh no, I don’t see any possible drawbacks, and the French government sees the digital economy and society as an opportunity. It has to come on one condition, however, which is that it’s inclusive, so that everyone benefits from the digital economy. To support e-governance and implement e-administration is a way to ensure that digital services are provided equally to all citizens, so this is an opportunity for governments because it’s a way to reshape the way we conceive public policies in order to make them more efficient, more transparent and more accountable as well for citizens.

And all in all, I think it results in two objectives that we strongly support.The first one is that it’s a source of innovation, for the state but also for startups. And it’s also a source of more trust, and more confidence in the government because it comes with more transparency.

What e-services has France already implemented, and how have the French people reacted to them? What was the overall response?

Online taxes were implemented back in 2000, so we have enough specific experience in that respect to say that that people were satisfied with the tool, because it is easy to use but still safe, and the hassles of having to declare taxes online have been reduced. We’re still not up to 95 percent of the population doing their taxes online as is the case in Estonia, but we also have 66 million people to get online. The challenge is big, but clearly we’re going in that direction, so I would say that’s one thing.

For those who are unemployed, they now have to interact with the administration online. We’re trying to work with startups to use big data in order to put the right people in the right training programs so that they go and work for the right company. So it’s all about ensuring that the supply side of the job market meets the demand side, and this can happen through the use of big data and the right algorithms. So that’s another example.

Do you have anything else coming up in France?

This is being implemented more at the local level, but anything to do with smart transport, smart cities, smart energy, and smart mobility. For example, every new building, apartment or house has to be equipped with a smart heater, which will result in massive energy consumption savings, but also help change people’s behavior regarding the way they use electricity. This will help them understand how important it is to change their consumption habits. So smart heaters, smart electricity providers — I think we’re strong on the Internet of Things front, so we’re seeing an increasing number of buildings especially that use connected devices or materials and equipment in order to design more efficient public policy based on the use of data.

I recently had a bill voted on called the Digital Republic Bill. It was voted for unanimously by parliament, and it’s opening data on a massive scale; administrations will have to open their data by default. I believe this will be a great opportunity for startups to build their own innovative services based on data provided by the state.

As you know, Estonia has the nickname of e-Estonia. Is there anything that you think France could learn from Estonia?

I think what I’m most impressed by is the e-prescription program, because not only is it paper-free, which in itself is good because that is a way to save money, but I think it helps give the medical history of the patient to the extent that it allows doctors, nurses, laboratories and hospitals to provide better health services. When you know exactly what the prescriptions contain, and what kinds of medicines were taken for what kinds of illnesses, interconnecting different medical entities and professions is really a way to provide better healthcare, so that’s really something I am interested in. Of course, the system is more complex in France because we are a bigger country, and we also have many different levels of [medical care], but from what I’ve seen, this is probably one of the tools that benefits people the most in their daily lives.

I was also very impressed by the fact that citizens can have access to information regarding who has accessed their data. There’s a history, a sort of background of how their data has been used, which to me is extremely important in a digital society, because there’s no digital environment without trust, and trust comes with transparency. But it also comes with empowering people, so this right for people to know how their data has been used — that’s exactly what I’m trying to do in France. This principle of having your own data at your disposal is now in a bill of mine, and so it’s interesting coming here where this has been put into practice — you know, concretely translated into a digital program. I find it very interesting to see a concrete application of this ideal we have for public policy in France.

In other words, even though it’s a smaller country, the fact that it’s been implemented at all, and it’s been a success, can be seen as an inspiration for France, where hopefully it will go just as well.

Oh yes, clearly it is an inspiration! It’s also kind of a lab, because what works here, if it really works, can possibly be implemented elsewhere — so it’s kind of a “beta” country, if you know what I mean. It’s an experimental ground, because the country is small and agile enough to try and test things. [France] can’t really take the risk of failing, e.g. investing in IT, and having it fail for 66 million people. But if you test something on 50,000 people…

This sort of entrepreneurial spirit which we can find present within the government is something that I would like to bring back to France. We have it in the provincial sector; we now need to push it more into the public sector. We’re introducing this new concept of a “state startup” — asking a team of external developers to work together with people in charge of creating public policy tools, because we believe that that kind of user seeing the real, daily needs of the people is where we should start from, thereafter creating the tools and addressing the overall problem, not the other way around. It’s this method and approach to what Estonia managed to create that I’m so interested in.

I know you were born in Canada; I’m from the United States. What do you think — how is it that Estonia, France and other relatively small countries in Euope are more eager to embrace e-solutions? How is it that Canada and the US, two huge, modern North American countries, aren’t as interested in these things — is it because of their size, or is it something else?

From the French point of view, what we realize is that we want to promote and ensure the French way of distributing wealth and ensuring that every citizen is part of the new digital society. This means that we have no other choice but to think and act digitally, because even the government is now being disrupted by innovation coming from some big internet players. We have at stake what I believe is a certain conception of public services, so if we want to have a free healthcare system, as we have in France, and if we want to have a free high quality education system, as we have in France, the whole country needs to embrace the potential of innovation and of the digital economy and society.

Of course it needs a political impetus — it needs to have a strategy and a vision. I don’t know how it is in the US or Canada, but this really is shared by the [French] government because we’re convinced that not only is it good for the economy, because it’s good for startups and for innovative companies and this is how we can differ from international competition, but it’s also good for public services, because thanks to the use of data and technology, public services can be provided in a more efficient and transparent way. I draw a link between that and my own conception of what democracy is.

I think that digital tools can be a way to reconnect people with the government. I organized an online consultation for my bill, so it was co-written together with [French] citizens; the government text was amended 90 times, and people could insert new articles. I had a new provision on the bill about e-sports — competition in videogames. The gamer community was very grateful that we decided to officially recognize their status and allow them to grow as a community together with all the business potential that comes with it. We can only do it if we trust collective intelligence, which is really a digital way of thinking and building policies that I want and that the government is introducing. I can’t comment on what other countries are doing, but this, to me, is a matter of being more efficient but also building more trust and confidence in what the government can deliver for its country.

One last quick question — when do you think that the Prime Ministers of France and Estonia will be able to sign their first joint digital document?

France will be chairing the Open Government Partnership for one year as of October of this year. This is a challenge for me as well as for the rest of the government, but if the Prime Minister of Estonia lets me know that he will be coming to Paris, I will find a way to ensure that he can electronically sign an agreement of some sort with the French prime minister. I like challenges, and that would be great if the Estonian prime minister could sign an agreement with the French prime minister — now we just need to figure out the subject matter!

Editor: Aili Sarapik

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