- France plans to make all its public administration functions remotely accessible to citizens by phone, internet or local kiosk by 2005, but remains wary of commercial personal identification technologies, Michel Sapin, the French minister for the civil service and administrative reform announced today.
The first stage of France's four-year-old electronic administration project, now complete, has allowed France to catch up with its neighbors in using the internet in public services, he told attendees at a government-sponsored summer school for the use of communication technologies in the civil service, according to a copy of his speech released by his office.
Now, however, the time has come to build a system of electronic administration that is at the heart of a democratic state, he said.
The political stakes are high, he continued: "One can use the same tools to implement left-wing or right-wing policies, to reinforce the power of the state or to abandon the provision, overtly or secretly, of public services."
He expressed a wariness of commercially available online identification and authentication technologies.
"Already, the big players on the internet are introducing devices which present equally big challenges for public services. AOL Time Warner's "magic carpet" and Microsoft's "Passport" are collecting more and more personal information on internet users. Should we use these as identity documents in the future? And if so, with what guarantees for protection of personal privacy, and under what financial conditions," he said.
Some cooperation with big business will be necessary -- but on France's terms, he said.
"Our democratic values must be at the heart of this second stage. Of course, we must work in partnership with the commercial players, but within the framework of an openly debated mandate and carefully controlled projects," he said.
Technical responsibility for these matters will be given to the Agency for Information and Communication Technologies in the Civil Service, a new agency which will be created in the next few days, Sapin announced.
Looking back on the growth of internet use within the French administration, Sapin reported that the state portal site received 440,000 visits in June.
Hailing it as "one of the best public portals in the world," he said it now provides access to 4000 micro-sites, 1000 online forms covering the most frequent administrative procedures, and the addresses and opening hours of administration offices.
Already, the internet is making inroads into French public life, he said.
"Last year, 2.5 million people (of a population of 60 million) calculated their income taxes online, and each week some five million receipts for medical treatment are processed electronically via the health and social security network."
Over a three-month period, 35,000 requests for extracts of criminal records were made over the internet, over one-sixth of all requests.
The government plans a publicity campaign in the fourth quarter to increase use of existing online services, such as requests for criminal records, payment of personal income taxes, requests for housing subsidies, declaration of company taxes, and entry into recruitment competitions for teaching posts.