How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.
I am the Director of Etalab, the French Prime minister taskforce for digital and data-driven innovation and transformation. We are essentially acting like a startup within the French government, utilising data and open government to surreptitiously modernise the state itself.
By doing so, we aim to encourage a better and more transparent democracy – through government accountability and citizen empowerment, creating positive economic externalities and transforming the state.
We are willing to improve the way the public service is designed and delivered. We are convinced that our action embodies the concept of “mutability”, which is one of the three key principles of public service in French Law. It means that the public action has to constantly evolve to fit with both trends and expectations in the society and technological progress. We believe that democracy and public service cannot be delivered as before the internet revolution.
What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2019?
According to a key action in our national AI strategy, we are launching a public Lab on Artificial Intelligence. It is led and hosted by Etalab.
As AI is used more and more in government, we are launching this initiative with four goals. First of all, it aims to help administrations experiment with AI and realise concrete AI projects. Secondly, we also help to anticipate its impacts on work and organisations. Thirdly, we want to contribute to responsible and ethical use of AI in the public sphere, and we drive awareness across administrations on stakes relating to accountability, bias, explainability, acceptability… Lastly, we want to reinforce the links and synergies between administrations and academic research, and to allow government projects to benefit from state-of-the art research, not only from a technical point of view but also on social sciences aspects, for instance.
Like many initiatives incubated at Etalab, this has been an entrepreneurial project. We had to convince stakeholders, gather resources to make it happen and recruit a team of talented and highly committed people. It’s very exciting to see it take shape, and we will keep developing it in 2020.
What is the best thing you have experienced in your career?
Seeing that top digital talents are attracted to work for the government and French public service is a great satisfaction, and contributing to this is a source of pride.
While Etalab was initially conceived as a small team based in the Prime Minister’s office, it has since become a fully-fledged unit gathering people from a large diversity of backgrounds and experiences: data experts, developers, designers, technical specialists capable of building innovative services of its own.
We for instance launched and developed a programme named “Entrepreneurs d’Intérêt Général”. Now running for three years, the scheme was partly inspired by the presidential innovation fellows system developed by Obama in the USA and is dedicated to recruiting digital talent into all arms of government.
Technology specialists, who would otherwise attract a high salary elsewhere, are recruited into government to work on state-of-the-art, agile projects, initially on short term contracts. After a ten-month experience, plenty of them want to keep working in the public service.
What attracts them is the chance to work on projects which make a difference to civic life. It’s a change culture Etalab has helped to drive. In our DNA we have the entrepreneur spirit, and kind of a pioneering attitude. We’re experimenting, we’re trying to really practice what we preach and make concrete things, build tools, and build solutions.
I consider it rewarding to see that working for the general interest is attractive to talents in a highly competitive work environment.
If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2019, what would it be?
Open data is the idea that certain information should be freely available to everyone to reuse as they wish, without any copyright restriction. What we managed to do is build on a strong will and strong belief that data and openness are key to leading government digital transformation.
We see a lot of data-driven projects and strategies being put in place across government bodies, and it’s great to see that organisations are becoming more mature and fully seizing the opportunities offered by data.
But sharing and exploiting data must not lead to giving up on the transparency and accountability aspect beyond “open data”. We must pursue the goal of making government information and data accessible to all citizens as much as possible.
What is one challenge you would like to take on in 2020?
I would like to work on concrete projects of “digital commons”, referring to the distribution and communal ownership and management of informational resources and technologies.
I believe that it’s one of the critical responses to implement to tackle the new challenges that the digital economy is raising in terms of competition, society and sovereignty issues.
What has been your fondest memory from the past year?
Moments with the Etalab team, with our friends in the ecosystem – when we can feel that we are driven by the same objectives of general interest – or with people telling us that our projects have significantly changed something for them are the best memories.
But additionally, I notice that France is now almost systematically ranked on the podium of leading and trendsetting countries in the field of open data and open government. We are second in the OECD open government data ranking in 2019, third for the European Union. The World Wide Web Foundation dubbed France the fourth best in the world for open data. It’s good to see that our efforts are paying off and that our work is recognised and makes a difference.