Digital access to public services in France must remain “an extra” to paper and phone options, as some people, including foreigners, struggle to access online platforms, the French Defender of Rights has said.
In an interview with France Inter, Claire Hédon, La Défenseure des Droits, said that “digitising services is good for many people, because it simplifies things, but it is not good for everyone”.
More than 200 services deemed ‘essential for daily life in France’ are available online, including everything from declaring taxes, to voting from overseas, signing up for collège or lycée, or asking for permission to cut down trees.
The government has said that it is aiming to have all 250 of its services digitised by the end of President Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term in spring 2022.
But yesterday (February 15), Ms Hédon’s office published a report in which she warned that the digitisation of public services creates inequality of access.
It called digitisation “an attack on the principle of equal access to public services”, and said that “there are some people for whom it makes life harder, and it becomes an obstacle”.
“It risks endangering our sense of social cohesion, our common belonging, and runs the risk of weakening democratic participation, in all its forms”, it said.
Ms Hédon recommended that digital services should not replace paper or telephone access, and should remain “an extra” option.
She said: “The situation is getting worse for some people, for elderly people but also for the young.”
She also said that among those who struggle to access such platforms were foreigners who do not have a high level of French.
Millions in ‘digital difficulty’
In 2019, more than 13 million people in France were considered to be “in digital difficulty” and were at risk of feeling “abandoned by digitisation”, Ms Hédon said.
Each year, more than 80% of the complaints sent to La Défenseure des Droits are over difficulties with public services, and there has been a “15% rise in complaints”, Ms Hédon said.
The new report states that almost a quarter of people across the country feel left behind by public services.
Ms Hédon added: “Every day, users are confronted with the impossibility of completing an administrative procedure, come up against a lack of response, find it difficult to contact anyone, or find the door is closed.”
In France, one in five people does not have a computer or a tablet at home, and one in four people aged 18-24 say that they struggle to do administrative tasks online. They therefore “experience difficulty in accessing their rights”, Ms Hédon said.
Elderly people, who often have difficulty in accessing digital platforms, are just as affected as younger people, she said, many of whom are less comfortable with digital administrative tasks than one might assume.
People with disabilities or in a “precarious social situation” may also struggle, she said.
Ms Hédon also said that even for those who do have online access, the websites and processes can be too complicated and overwhelming for users.
She said: “I think that we should try to simplify internet sites, and think about offering a ‘right to connection’ for people, as connecting to the Internet is now essential.”
Currently, the “digital pass (pass numérique)”, a system which aims to give access and training to people who are struggling to use the internet for administrative services, “is not enough”, she said, and said that the 15 or 20 hours of online training offered was “not sufficient”. She added that “only 100,000 passes have been used out of the 600,000 distributed”.
The Digital Pass scheme aims to help people who would otherwise struggle to access or use internet services to gain access, training, and support from public services, including taking part in a workshop and having access to an internet-connected computer, with training, at a specific location, such as a library.
‘Digitisation affects all of us’
Ms Hédon also said that in some cases, issues with the websites themselves can cause obstacles to public services.
She said: “The effects of digitisation affect all of us, because every day, we might come across an issue with an online form. We are loading all the pressure on the user and their helpers to take charge of the effective functioning of the procedure.
“We’re asking users to do more, so that the administration can do less, and save resources.”
She also highlighted the problem of “not being able to talk to a real human”, and cited the example of the Ma Prime Rénov (financial aid to help homeowners update their homes), which is “only available online” even though it is targeted at less well-off households.
What are the recommendations to help?
Ms Hédon recommended:
- Digital services should not replace paper or telephone access, and should remain “an extra” option
- Making access to services possible both on paper and online, with the possibility of speaking with or meeting with a real person for help
- Stopping the closure of reception counters and access to real people who can help
- Setting up more free helpline telephone numbers
She added that “users should be able to choose how they interact with public services” so that they “adapt to the needs and realities of users and not the other way around”.
What is the French ‘Defender of Rights’?
La Défenseure des Droits is the head of the authority that, as the name suggests, seeks to defend the rights and freedoms of the population when it comes to equality, ethics, and security.
It is an independent, administrative, ombudsman-style body that has the power to investigate public complaints over instances where they felt their rights or legal freedom were compromised.
It exists to defend individual rights when it comes to public service users, children’s rights, observance of ethics by bodies such as the police, anti-discrimination laws, and protection for whistleblowers.
It can make recommendations for solutions, including for training, and for changes in the law.
The titular Defender is appointed by the President of the Republic, but receives no orders from the government.
Claire Hédon is a journalist and lawyer who was appointed to her current role in 2020. She was preceded in the role by French politician Jacques Toubon.
What have your experiences been when it comes to accessing public services online in France, good or bad? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.