The digitization of French public services “makes life more difficult for many”

Digital access to public services in France must remain “a plus” over paper and telephone options, as some people, including foreigners, find it difficult to access online platforms, the French Defender of Rights has said.

In an interview with France Inter, Claire Hédon, of La Défenseure des Droits, declared that “the dematerialization of 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, ranging from tax declarations to voting from abroad, including registration for college or high school or requesting authorization. to cut down trees.

The government has said it aims to digitize all of its 250 services by the end of President Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term in spring 2022.

But yesterday (February 15), Ms Hédon’s cabinet published a report in which she warns that the digitization of public services is creating inequalities of access.

He called digitalization “an attack on the principle of equal access to public services”, and said that “there are people for whom it makes life more difficult, and it becomes an obstacle” .

“It risks endangering our sense of social cohesion, our common belonging, and runs the risk of undermining democratic participation, in all its forms,” ​​he said.

Ms. Hédon recommended that digital services should not replace paper or telephone access, and should remain an “additional” option.

She said: “The situation is getting worse for some people, for the elderly but also for the young.”

She also said that among those who find it difficult to access these platforms, there are 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 “digitally challenged” and at risk of feeling “abandoned by digitization”, Ms Hédon said.

Each year, more than 80% of the complaints addressed to the Defender of Rights relate to difficulties with public services, and there is a “15% increase in complaints”, specifies Ms. Hédon.

The new report says nearly a quarter of people across the country feel left behind by public services.

Ms. Hédon adds: “Every day, users are faced with the impossibility of carrying out an administrative procedure, come up against a lack of response, have difficulty in reaching anyone, or find themselves at the door.”

In France, one in five people do not have a computer or tablet at home, and one in four people aged 18 to 24 say they have difficulty performing administrative tasks online. They “are therefore having difficulty accessing their rights”, said Ms. Hédon.

Older people, who often struggle to access digital platforms, are just as affected as younger people, 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.

Simplify sites

Ms Hédon also said that even for those with online access, websites and processes can be too complicated and overwhelming for users.

She said: “I think we have to try to simplify websites, and think about offering a ‘right to connect’ to people, because connecting to the Internet is now essential.”

Currently, the “digital pass (digital pass)”, a system that aims to provide access and training to people who find it difficult to use the internet for administrative services, “is not enough”, she said, and indicated that the 15 or 20 hours of online training courses offered were “not sufficient”. ”. She added that “only 100,000 passes were used out of the 600,000 distributed”.

The Digital Pass program aims to help people who would otherwise have difficulty accessing or using internet services to access, train and receive support from public services, including attending a workshop and gaining access to a computer. connected to the Internet, with training, at a specific location, such as a library.

“Digitalization concerns us all”

Ms Hédon also said that in some cases, problems with the websites themselves can create barriers to public services.

She said: “The effects of digitization affect us all, because every day we can encounter a problem with an online form. We load all the pressure on the user and his assistants to support the smooth running of the procedure.

“We’re asking users to do more, so 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 Ma Prime Rénov (financial assistance to help owners renovate their homes), which is “not available than online” even if it is targeted. among less well-off households.

What are the recommendations to help you?

Ms. Hédon recommended:

  • Digital services should not replace paper or phone access, and should remain an “on top” option
  • Enable access to print and online services, with the ability to speak or meet a real person for assistance
  • End of the closure of reception desks and access to real people who can help
  • Set up more free support phone numbers

She added that “users must 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”?

The Defender of Rights is the head of the body whose mission, as its name suggests, is to defend the rights and freedoms of the population in terms of equality, ethics and security.

It is an independent administrative ombudsman-like body that has the power to investigate complaints from the public about cases where they feel their legal rights or freedoms have been compromised.

It exists to defend the individual rights of users of public services, the rights of children, the respect of ethics by bodies such as the police, anti-discrimination laws and the protection of whistleblowers.

It can make recommendations for solutions, including training, and changes to the law.

The titular Defender is appointed by the President of the Republic, but does not receive any order from the government.

Claire Hédon is a journalist and lawyer who was appointed to her current position in 2020. She was preceded in this role by French politician Jacques Toubon.

What have been your experiences with access to online public services in France, good or bad? Let us know at [email protected]

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