Society

Can State-Run Startups Help Modernize French Bureaucracy?

In putting into use fast-moving ways of startups, the state looks to improve quality of public services. A hundred or so state-sponsored startups have already been launched with the hope of contributing to the modernization of the administration.

The idea behind the startup project breaks with the administration's very hierarchical tradition
The idea behind the startup project breaks with the administration's very hierarchical tradition
Nathalie Silbert

PARIS — On the fifth floor of 20 Ségur Avenue, Paris, there is a ritual that takes place every Wednesday at noon: Some 30 young people get together for a "stand-up," like they call it in tech jargon. Each person has a minute to share his or her achievements, problems, and find advice in the hope to make headway with his or her project.

This week we learn that the government's use of Zam, an application that facilitates the management of parliamentary debate, will be encouraged by an internal message from the prime minister, and that "E-Contrôle," an application for the Court of Auditors that simplifies document exchanges during audits, is of interest to the Agency for General Inspection and Social Affairs (IGAS).

We are in fact on government premises, at the Interministerial Directorate for Digital Affairs and State Information and Communication System (Dinsic), home of the technological services incubator Beta.gouv.fr, where state-sponsored startups are born.

A new oxymoron?

State-sponsored startups? A new oxymoron? Certainly, the projects presented at Ségur Avenue don't have the ambitions of a regular startup. They don't aim to create profits. And for a good reason. They're not intended to be sold or to exist on the stock market, but to "improve the quality of public services, productivity in public policy of the state and its public operators," says Hela Ghariani, who is in charge of Beta.gouv.fr.

The initiative, which is radically new for the administration, is modeled on that of startups in the new economy. "The objective is to cultivate a culture of confidence in teams that are rather removed from the customs of the administration," says Pierre Pezziardi, entrepreneur in residence, who has been with project since its beginnings in 2013, under the leadership of Henri Verdier.

For him, a state-sponsored startup is defined by three values: its meaning, or benefit for users, the autonomy of the team, and continuous improvement of the service. "Here, we prioritize the need of the user more than that of the administration," explain Thomas Guillet and Florian Delezenne, coaches and developers of many startups.

Everything starts from the ground up

There is a lot of variety. Startups here make it possible for citizens to evaluate their qualifications for social support in seven minutes (Mes-aides.gouv.fr), they measure and develop their digital skills (Pix), or help youth in identifying their strengths (DiagOriente). Some projects come from a government need, but most start from the ground up. A call for creators is, in effect, addressed to civil servants, with the following message: You are witnesses to a recurring problem that affects users or agents. You have an idea for a digital solution to solve it.

Employment centers became quickly involved in the initiative. The first project was developed by Eric Barthélémy to help job seekers better target positions where there are no calls for application: Barthélémy imagined ‘La Bonne Boîte," a tool that predicts which companies will hire in a sector by analyzing millions of inputs.

More than a revolution, the initiative is for the moment seen by public officials as a brick within a large building site

Another example: Pierre de Maulmont, who worked in administration at a school in Paris, created DossierSco, which allows third graders to register for school in a few clicks, saving parents time. And it also saves administrations "one or two full-time positions in file processing," says Maulmont.

Each selected project is granted 200,000 euros on average by the relevant minister or official in charge. To build an application, a public official — who often lacks computer skills — is helped by a coach and a developer at Beta.gouv.fr. He or she would then have six months to demonstrate — on a small scale — the importance of his or her idea.

"It's important to avoid thinking that technology alone will help modernize the administration." Virginie Beaumeunier — Photo: Mario Gogh

The idea behind the startup project breaks with the administration's very hierarchical tradition. "They are used to controlling everything," says Sebastian Sachetti, ex-chief project manager of one of the state-sponsored projects, who has left for the private sector. "Civil servants don't know how to think in terms of objectives," unlike the small startup teams.

"The status quo is always an option for the administration," observes Pezziardi. "So, there is always a risk that the projects get bogged down." This also happens because the government has different time frames compared to startups. "When you need to access funds, despite policy backing, applications can too often get stuck because of the paperwork!"

Will these tools be able to trigger the long-awaited modernization of the state?

After being cautious at the beginning, now more and more administrative agencies and local governments are interested in this initiative. The administration of Pas-de-Calais, a department in northern France, has launched a tool called ‘Lapins' to reduce the number of no-show appointments in social service, that could at times reach 25%. This represents the equivalent of time in 50 full-time position lost.

A young portfolio

The room for growth is huge. If the number of products launched grows every year, the budget remains small (30 million euros annually received by the program). And the projects can't always be as ambitious as initially hoped. Furthermore, without truly measuring the impact of these programs, the government agencies invest cautiously.

But it's not yet time for evaluations. The majority of state-sponsored startups have been around for less than two years. It will take some time to know whether they can be sustainable. For instance, only two among them have developed a proper legal structure with a dedicated staff.

A big question remains: Will these tools be able to trigger the long-awaited modernization of the state? "This new way of doing and thinking will penetrate in the administration," say sources at the Secreatariat of Digital Affairs. "The goal is to transform public action and to solve problems between the government and citizens."

More than a revolution, the initiative is for the moment seen by public officials as a brick within a large building site. "At the employment center, it contributed to changing our way of conceiving services and to be closer to citizens," says Misoo Yoon.

For Virginie Beaumeunier, general director of the SignalConso application, which allows consumers to signal an obsolete product or a price problem in a transaction, these startups should contribute to "renovating the relation between consumers and companies." But she adds: "It's important to avoid thinking that technology alone will help modernize the administration."

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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