L’Administration électronique, French for e-government, is a particularly interesting case to study because it highlights some idiosyncrasies related to the French culture but also reveals how French public policy might be affected by the European context. This article presents a non-exhaustive list of topics that might shed some light on the current challenges in developing e-government applications in France.
Adoption of IT: The French Paradox
Generally speaking, French government and citizens are late adopters of information technologies. A good example is the online income-declaration system, implemented quite late in France in comparison to other pioneer countries, like Brazil, where online tax declaration has been in place since 1997, preceded earlier by tax software available on floppy disk. The number of online income declarations in France started with a timid 60,000 in 2002, but it rapidly increased to reach 9.7 million declarations in 2009 (about 25 percent of the total number of declarations) once the French government offered a reduction of 20 euros for online filers who owed taxes.
Another example concerns the adoption of the Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) (for Télévision Numérique Terrestre). The DTT standard was formally adopted on August 2000 but initial tests were not performed until January 2005, a few years behind the U.K. and the U.S. The French government expects that by the end of 2011, digital adoption will be high enough to complete the switch-off of analog signals. French DTT will be available ahead of most European countries, but the entire process took more than 10 years, one of the slowest among European countries.
It is worth mentioning that in the 1980s, France was one step ahead of everyone with the advent of the Minitel, an IT technique developed by the French Ministry of Telecommunication allowing users to access a large catalog of online services. Minitel technology has ultimately been superseded by the Internet and the emergence of the Web, but its retirement has been postponed several times. Minitel no longer holds as much importance as it did in the 1990s French economy, but a few were still in use in the beginning of 2010 due to a simple user interface and virus-free environment.
In some ways the Minitel might have hindered the adoption of the Internet, but it also created the conditions for a rapid assimilation of the technology when France switched to the Internet in 1997 . The French were already open to the use of ITa dense network of online specialists and information service providers already existedand many of the investments required to go digital had already been made. On the other hand, by mid-2001 France was still far behind the early adopters of e-commerce.
The adoption of mobile technology in France has also been slower than in other European countries such as Italy and The Netherlands. It is not surprising that initiatives concerning the use of mobile technology by the French government are just emerging. The first Web portal dedicated to the dissemination of mobile applications in France (www.proximamobile.fr) was launched in February 2010 with 24 applications (68 applications are expected by end of the year), including the virtual visiting of public museums, reports of traffic and street incidents, and a calendar of public events. Nonetheless, France represents a huge market to be sized. According to the French authority ACERP (www.arcep.fr), there are now more than 61 million mobile phone users (95 percent of the French population), so we might expect an increasing shift in the number of mobile phone applications in the next few years.
When More Does Not Mean Better
Despite a slow start, the offer of e-government services to French citizens has dramatically increased in recent years, covering all public sectors including education, health and social security, and justice. A recent study commissioned by the French Ministry of the Economy estimates there are more than 10,000 governmental websites; 700 of them are managed by the national government, while the rest belong to regional and local administrations . However, the large number of websites does not necessarily mean better service to citizens, because of two main challenges: finding the appropriate service among such large number of offerings and having to learn how to use different websites. The same study reveals several problems with currently available e-government Web portals that make it difficult for French citizens to create an accurate mental model of services. For example, a citizen looking for further information to obtain an identity card might experience information overload as there are various websites that provide diffierent instructionsthe city of Toulouse’s website, the national site for the Ministry of Homeland Security, or the website of its regional representative. In most cases, Web portals try to reproduce the inner hierarchy of the French state (city, region, and national levels). Competing e-government portals offering similar services create confusion. In the case of service-public.fr, which offers services to citizens, professionals and organizations, there is a personalized version, mon.service-public.fr, dedicated only to citizens. Both portals are interconnected, and as far as citizens are concerned, they offer similar service. Amazingly, both portals are designed as “unique” entry points to services.
French e-government websites do not present cross-consistent user interfaces, so citizens cannot apply their experiences across similar e-government websites. The adoption of standard guidelines could help to increase the consistency between the user interface of websites . However, so far there is a lack of clear policies in France for guiding the development of e-government websites, and every agency and ministry, and the national, regional, and local authorities have all created their own standard for services.
A Highly Developed Sense of Privacy
French public policies are deeply concerned with privacy and the protection of personal data. In France an independent committee named CNIL (the National Committee of Informatics and Freedom; www.cnil.fr) is in charge of overseeing the protection of citizens’ rights concerning the use of their personal information (e.g., identify, history of Internet access). Recommendations defined by the CNIL have oriented public policies since 1978 when the CNIL was created. The CNIL supports recommendations to prevent websites operating in France from keeping records of personal data (such as addresses and credit cards numbers) without explicit user authorization. More strict recommendations apply in the case of the creation of databases containing personal data, as no public file may be implemented without a prior favorable opinion of the CNIL. On one hand, this encourages privacy protection, but by in essence discouraging the development of centralized databases, the CNIL potentially hinders the government’s attempts at fraud prevention. For example, until recently, students applying for a public university in France had to repeatedly fill in the forms with high school grades. This situation changed a little bit in 2008 with the advent of admission-postbac.fr, which centralizes a student’s applications to university; there is still no automatic transfer of data from high schools to universities, but at least students must now fill in their grades only once.
Cohabitation of European and National Public Policies
As member of the EU, France follows EU directives, which often increase the complexity of deploying usable and cost-effective e-government services. National and European directives coexist in many different initiatives. For example, the European “data protection directive” (directive 95/46) of October 24th 1995 recognizes personal data may freely flow within the EU since the same rights and guarantees in terms of data protection and individual liberties are recognized to all EU citizens, in whatever EU member state they reside. Before making this directive effective on e-government services, every EU member must create national regulations or adapt existing ones concerning personal data to comply with the European “data protective directive.” Regular meetings among representatives of EU members are held in Brussels to harmonize practices and offer common guidance. Such a bottom-up approach tends to slow down the development of public policies.
A good example of idiosyncrasies of the status quo in the matter concerns accessibility policies. The European Council encouraged state members to enact laws for accessibility of public websites at all levels of government. Many member states such as France, Germany, Portugal, and the U.K., among many others, have created laws for the accessibility of digital content. In France it slowly began in 1999 with an internal recommendation based on W3C/WAI standards, stipulating that “people in charge of websites should pay attention to provide accessible content for all users, in particular for impaired users.” This recommendation was voted on February 11, 2005 (law number 2005-102 “for equal rights and equal opportunities, participation and citizenship of impaired people”). The content of that law is vague: it says an e-government Web portal should be accessible but it does not define what is meant by website accessibility. In 2009 an official French standard of accessibility RGAA (Référentiel général d’accessibilité pour les administrations) was published and imposed as a reference for assessing the accessibility of e-government portals. The application of accessibility RGAA recommendations may entitle a French website to have the label ACCESSIWEB (www.accessiweb.org), which is based on W3C-WCAG recommendations but features some adaptations required to deal with cultural issues such as the French language. However, if the website is expected to be used outside of France, it should also apply for the label EURACERT (www.euracert.org), which follows the European referential UWEM (www.wabcluster.org). Currently, there is an initiative aiming for the harmonization of accessibility labels and for promoting UWEM-EURACERT so that it may ultimately reduce the cacophony around accessibility standards in Europe.
A good aspect of the EU is that it promotes initiatives such as epractice.eu for sharing best practices among member countries. EU public policies have pushed the French government to accelerate the adoption of information technologies in public administration and discuss new regulations. For example, the law HADOPI (law n° 2009-669 of June 12, 2009), which regulates the rights for creation and dissemination of information on the Internet, follows the European directive 2001/29/CE, published on May 22, 2001. The debate around HADOPI was controversial in the French society as it questioned the privacy of Internet users, in particular those downloading illegal content. Under social pressure and the need to comply with EU directives, the law was completed with a second law, known as HADOPI 2, voted on September 21, 2009, finally settling this question into French legislation.
France has a longstanding, rich cultural heritage, which might explain (at least partially) its hesitation to adopt new IT and public policiesthis is as true for citizens as for the government. Despite a late start, France is moving fast. A good example of this progress is the creation of ADEP, an association that groups several branches of the French government concerned with the development of applications for handling administrative procedures electronically.
In the research project MyCitizSpace, funded by the National Agency for Research, a consortium of three academic partners and two industrials is investigating the deployment of e-government services at multiple platforms, including desktops, mobile platforms, and tabletops. This project has raised very interesting research questions concerning the development of personal information spaces to facilitate the management of data used in the communication between citizens and administrations. Our preliminary results show that privacy issues are a main concern for French citizens, but they also reveal different strategies for organizing their communication with administrations. In fact, some users in our study are still struggling to understand complex administrative procedures and the lack of usability and accessibility of Web portals, as well as getting lost with multiple entry points for the same applications. In some cases, they have developed personal strategies for managing personal data, such as duplicating e-files in many devices, or creating digital copies of documents sent by the French government, so they can “fit” them into their computers.
Indeed, the e-government domain has a huge potential for investigating several research questions related to HCI, including topics such as accessibility, universal access, multiplatform user interfaces, information visualization, privacy, adoption of information technologies, and so on. The HCI research community working on public policies in France is still very small, but hopefully increasing.
This work is supported by the French project MyCitizSpace (ANR 20072010). Further information is available at: http://genibeans.com/cgi-bin/twiki/view/MyCitizSpace/
2. Amélioration de la relation numérique à l’usager: rapport issu des travaux du groupe “Experts Numériques.” February 10th 2010; http://www.budget.gouv.fr/presse/dossiers_de_presse/100212numerique.pdf
3. Pontico, F., Winckler, M., and Limbourg, Q. “Towards a Universal Catalogue of User Interface Patterns for eGovernment Web sites.” In International Conference of the European eGovernment Society (EGOV 2007), Regensburg, Allemagne, 0307 September 2007, Trauner Druck, 2007.
Marco Winckler is an assistant professor in computer sciences at Université Paul Sabatier, Toulouse, France. His research combines human-computer interaction and software engineering methods applied for the development of usable and reliable Web-based interactive systems. He has been involved in several national projects on the French e-government domain; more recently he acts as scientific coordinator for the project ANR MyCitizSpace. For further information please visit: http://www.irit.fr/~Marco.Winckler/
Figure. Minitel was an early telecommunications network launched in France in 1982, a precursor to today’s Internet. Its users could browse phone directories, make airline or train ticket purchases, as well as access information services, databases and message boards.
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