The god of small things | James Harrington

It all sounds very Yes, Minister - but the government's smart little changes will make a big difference

4 May 2016
By James Harrington

IS THIS government only capable of tinkering around the edges? Take February’s announcement of 170 measures intended to make life easier in France.

You no longer need a licence to collect horse semen, apparently; nor will you need official approval to identify llamas, zebras or camels. Builders will not have to fit sinks in new-build houses if buyers do not want the basic stainless-steel model that apparently comes as standard in all French new-builds. And a grim-sounding tax on sewage sludge that raises a microscopic amount in national revenue will disappear.

You won’t find the answer to the refugee crisis in any of these measures. Nor the solution to the terror threat. And, while some proposals do help businesses, there is no single thing that will spark the lethargic French economy into life.

It would be easy to sneer at these tiny changes and dismiss them as small-scale government faffing that fails to tackle the major problems faced by France. But it would be wrong – even though it does sound like a Yes, Minister script (imagine Sir Humphrey’s face when Jim Hacker orders an end to a tax on sewage sludge).

Clotilde Valter, the real-life Jim Hacker in charge of France’s version of the Department of Administrative Affairs which is behind all this apparently meaningless pruning, has a point when she argues that all these little changes will end up making a big difference.

Last month’s announcement was the fourth since March 2013 when President Hollande proclaimed his intention to cut through the Gordian knot of French red tape.

Since then, the government says it has adopted 325 measures to help businesses and another 132 that benefit individuals. More are on the way.

These changes are not just about sludge tax, llamas or horse semen. Many of them benefit ordinary people.

Simplifying the language used in official letters and documents is useful. Jargon has been the language of bureaucracy for so long that introducing the use of plain-old, normal French has been a newsworthy move.

Being able to apply for a driving licence, carte vitale or register your children at the local school online is useful, as is having the option to change your electoral roll details when you inform the Trésor Public or social security of a change of address online.

Making it easier to buy and sell a used car makes sense and who can argue with the idea of improving job-hunters’ prospects by letting them know which companies are actually recruiting? Or with making it easier and cheaper for those companies to hire new staff?

Simplifying French pay slips to make them easier to comprehend has to be a step in the right direction. These are the day-to-day things the government is trying to make easier.

Expats might be better placed to spot these areas, as they confront a lot of bureaucracy at once when first moving over and find themselves wondering why it is more difficult than it needs to be. But it isn’t always obvious to those who grew up here. (Remember that for decades Britain supported a car registration system that created a rush to buy new models every August and skewed the whole market).

Much like cutting the jargon out of official documents, every one of these measures is about taking the nonsense out of the French administrative system; cutting down on pointless bureaucracy; reducing paperwork; making things simpler. Call it, if you will, the ‘Administration of Things’.

None of it is big – but make no mistake, it is clever.

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