The French Ombudsman has joined the criticism of the on-line vehicle registration system, and has questioned the pace of digitalisation of public services.
In a stinging formal declaration issued last month the Défenseur des droits demanded that the government put in place alternative paper-based systems for key public services.
He was particularly critical of the failures of the on-line vehicle registration system.
As we reported in our September Newsletter, the vehicle ‘carte grise’ registration service that used to be in the offices of each prefecture in France is now entirely on-line.
The government have created a dedicated site for the purpose at Agence Nationale des Titres Sécurisés (ANTS).
However, the site has suffered a series of technical failures, with many hundreds of thousands of vehicle owners either unable to access the system or finding that their application cannot be processed.
According to the Ombudsman he has received several thousand complaints about the difficulty of obtaining a driving licence or car registration, and their telephone help-line has been inundated with calls from outraged vehicle owners.
Some individuals had lost their jobs or were unable to obtain new employment due to difficulties with the system.
In his report, he stated that in developing the system:
- the government underestimated the level of demand;
- overestimated the ability of the population to use an on-line service;
- there was a lack of piloting of the new system and;
- those who had developed and now run it lack sufficient expertise.
As a result he has asked the government to set up "a paper or human alternative" for people who have difficulty in completing their administrative procedures online.
The number of such procedures that must now be done online in France is increasing at a rapid pace, under a plan adopted in 2015 called "Plan Préfectures Nouvelle Génération"
The central purpose of this plan is to drive the public away from visiting their local prefecture towards on-line services, such as those for a driving licence, vehicle registration, passport and other administrative acts.
Needless to say, the digitalisation of these processes is providing the government with the opportunity to rationalise the network of local public offices and reduce the number of public officials.
This is frequently causing delays in the processing of some administrative acts, as many British nationals making application for a residence permit or seeking French nationality can testify.
The tax offices have been in the forefront of such closures, but many sub-prefectures have closed, as have many local health authority offices. The post-office network is one of the last remaining public services with a strong local network, but even their numbers are shrinking.
The government are similarly intent on reducing the number of business start-up centres (chambres), a large number of which now only have a regional office.
The extent of digitalisation is creating difficulties for many people, not least due to the fact that a significant number of households lack a decent internet connection or the skills to use services on-line.
The problem is accentuated when many systems fail to operate satisfactorily, with frequent computer failures to excessive delays in processing requests and difficulties in reaching services.
According to the Ombudsman, "a too rapid digitalisation of public services leads to risks of exclusion and an increase in an inability to use rights, jeopardising the equality of all before the public service, which constitutes a fundamental principle of the Republic".
However, his words appear to have fallen on deaf ears, for within days of this statement the Prime Minister, Edouarde Philppe, announced an ambitious reform of the machinery of government, including" "un nouveau service public du numérique."