Exclusive: Inside France’s plan to build civil service startups
By Joshua Chambers and Medha Basu
Exclusive interview with Henri Verdier, France’s Ambassador for Digital Affairs.
Images: OFFICIAL LEWEB PHOTOS, Vince Traveller, and Open Government Partnership - CC by 2.0
But when President Macron took office in 2017, he vowed to build France into a “startup nation”. He has reduced regulation, made labour laws less restrictive, and cut taxes to encourage more venture capital investment. The symbol of his commitment is the swanky Station F, a former Parisian railway terminal converted into the biggest startup campus in the world.
Even the civil service hasn’t escaped this fever. The French Government has created new policies to encourage civil servants to bring startups into government, copy their mindset, and create their own public sector entrepreneurs. GovInsider spoke with Henri Verdier, France’s ‘Ambassador for Digital Affairs’, to understand how this vision will work.
France’s ‘intrapreneurship’ programme, beta.gouv.fr, takes the startup mindset and applies it to the bureaucracy. It matches up to four civil servants in a team to form an autonomous, interdisciplinary unit that solves a problem statement in creative ways.
The programme adopts an agile approach, with civil servants working in short sprints and within a limited time period and budget, continuously testing their product with users and iterating. “We can make a minimum viable product in less than six months with less than 200,000 euros”, Verdier says.
Successful prototypes go on to find a home within a public agency, which continue to develop and improve it. The first such “state startup” was data.gouv.fr, the country’s open data platform, launched four years ago when Macron was economy minister. There are currently 90 projects at various stages of testing, implementation and launch under this programme, including an API directory.
France is also bringing startups into the heart of the Elysee. The government recruits people from the civic tech community for 10 month stints, under the The Public Interest Entrepreneurs programme. “We think that we have to learn to work with the outside and in a very different way,” Verdier says. This is run by EtaLab, the country’s open data agency.
The programme is now on its third cycle. At the start of each round, Etalab collects problem statements from across the government. It then recruits developers, data scientists and designers, matching them with the challenges in teams of two to three.
The 2019 cohort has 32 entrepreneurs tackling 15 challenges. Some of these include challenges to improve the user experience of social security benefit claims; building tools to detect financial and tax fraud; semantic analysis to answer questions on labour law; and identifying fake reviews and comments online.
France intends to become the home for GovTech in Europe. There are three key reasons this sector is important to France, according to Verdier. First, government procurement can be improved if officials are closer to industry. “We can be more precise and accurate and better use public money,” he explains.
Second, tech can help government restore citizens’ trust in public service delivery, he says. Even when the French can have their online shopping delivered the same day, they have to wait a month for a school or grant application. “People have a feeling that they have bad government. So that's very important to restore the trust between government and citizens to be very, very efficient.”
Third is that tech can change the relationship between governments and citizens, he adds. This is particularly crucial with the rise of populist forces at home and across Europe. A strong govtech ecosystem can help build services around users’ needs and quickly address citizens’ frustrations with poor services.
Verdier is the country’s second ‘Ambassador for Digital Affairs’, taking on the post in October 2018. “My job is to unify every part of our global digital diplomacy, and also to discuss with the big tech companies because, for a lot of things, we need them to be part of the solution,” he says. He primarily deals with tech issues that cut across borders like terrorist content online, online hate, cybersecurity and regulation of AI.
France set up the ambassadorship in 2017. Along with Denmark (which introduced the role six months before France), it is one of the early countries to formally recognise the growing impact of tech companies and platforms on the global order. “We’ll make a lot of mistakes if we don’t learn how to build collective intelligence and collective decision-making,” Verdier says.
Three areas are concentrating the minds of the French elite. First is the changing global order of tech industry and knowledge. Where US and the Silicon Valley were leaders of the internet boom, China is now leading in investment of next generation technologies like AI and 5G.
Second is a very serious cybersecurity threat from “some countries that don't accept the global order of the Geneva Convention on humanitarian rights”, he says. And a third area is the misuse of tech to weaken democratic institutions. “It’s very simple and inexpensive to interfere with an election using fake accounts”. Macron’s Presidential campaign was hacked by an overseas actor, with leaked documents attempting to sway voters in favour of the National Front.
A recent example of Verdier’s role in action was in the aftermath of the Christchurch terrorist attack in New Zealand. France and New Zealand came together to issue the Christchurch Call to eliminate terrorist content online. Eight tech companies, including Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter, have signed up, along with 15 other governments.
Prior to this, Verdier was CTO for the French Government, and also set up the Etalab programme. An entrepreneur in the true sense of the word, he previously ran his own tech company and is more data scientist than diplomat. Exactly the sort of person that President Macron wants at the heart of his administration.
This interview was conducted at the OGP summit in Ottawa, May 2019