The Conseil d’État: Home of Public Services - First annual meeting of “La rentrée du Conseil d’État”

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On Wednesday, 7th September, the Conseil d’État held its first annual meeting to mark the return to work after the summer break. At the meeting, it shared its vision for public services in 2022 before the Prime Minister and Chairpersons of the Assemblies, as well as numerous members of the Government and key public institutions. As guarantor of the rule of law, the Conseil d’État reaffirmed its role in defining, monitoring and developing public services, which today face unprecedented social, economic and environmental challenges.

The objective of this annual meeting at the start of the autumn term is to bring together the Conseil d’État, the authorities of the French Republic, and the institutions that form the basis of French political and administrative organisations, to discuss a topic for public action. 

Since, in the words of its Vice President, Didier-Roland Tabuteau, “by virtue of both its history and the nature of its work, the Conseil d’État is the home of public services”, the Conseil d’État devoted this first meeting to the issue of public services and the major challenges they face.

At the beginning of the last century, the Conseil d’État set out the key principles that public services must respect: continuity, equality, neutrality and adaptability. Since then, the Conseil d’État has tirelessly ensured their proper functioning, by ruling on matters of law and imposing penalties on the administration whenever it fails to abide by them. It also directs, supports and proposes constructive solutions to overcome the difficulties encountered by the administration. In fact, public services are the “cornerstone” of administrative law.

French citizens demonstrate a strong attachment to public services, which are facing unprecedented challenges

Public services have an essential place in France, “they are a constituent part of French collective identity – French-style public services.” Today, citizens have high expectations in a country where public services are present in many aspects of their daily lives: defence, policing and justice, healthcare and social security, education and culture, the economy, etc. 
In his speech, the Vice President reiterated that “public services protect against risks, deliver essential services on a daily basis, reinforce social cohesion and promote a sense of community and belonging. Public services play a fundamental role in enabling society to live together, in the general interest and in the interests of public peace.” He added that “the inadequacies and, indeed, the failures of public services are (…) viewed more seriously, as though they constitute a betrayal (…) or as if they were breaches of a social contract.”

Assessing public services, improving their operation and simplifying their procedures are, therefore, an urgent necessity. As for public policy, it must provide public services with the necessary means to accomplish the tasks they have been set whilst respecting the principle of the effective use of public funds. Public officials, who have difficult jobs to do, who are required to set an example, and whom we expect to be always available as well as independently minded, must be valued and supported. 

Today, public services are facing unprecedented challenges. In spite of the difficulties they face, they must now, more than ever, pursue their transformation to take account of changes in society and respond to the new needs of employees and users. Climate change, an ageing population, social and regional inequality, an uncertain, international political and economic climate, and technological developments; in a changing world, the direction of public services is being constantly knocked off course and questioned. “These challenges call for a new way of thinking about public services as social institutions and not only as instruments of public authority.”

The Conseil d’État is best placed to prepare for, support, and bring about the transformation of public services

As watchdog for the application of law, the Conseil d’État today reaffirmed that it would be active in ensuring that France's huge transformational challenges – ecological transition, sovereignty, equal opportunities, full employment, healthcare, energy, etc. – are addressed in accordance with the principles of the Republic and French law, for the benefit of all. With its long-term view of public action, its legal expertise and knowledge of all aspects of public services, it has a major role to play in preparing for, supporting and bringing about these changes. This has recently been the case with its judicial ruling on air pollution and the climate change, and in its opinions on the texts brought before it by all policy sectors.
“To fulfil our constitutional mandate, the Conseil d'État must be as constructive in public action as the law allows, yet unyielding when the rule of law requires it. Our society, like public authorities, has everything to gain from the Conseil d'État fully exercising its duties with complete independence.”
The Vice President will address representatives of the Government and key institutions on an annual basis. In September 2023, he will present the conclusions of the Conseil d’État’s next annual report on the “last mile” in public services, which will assess the conditions under which public policies actually reach citizens and service users. 

Public Services at the Core of the Conseil d’État’s Activities

The Conseil d’État contributes to the effectiveness of public services through each of its functions.
- In its role as a judge, it monitors that public services effectively abide by the law on a daily basis, imposing penalties for unlawful activity and guiding their actions if necessary. In recent judicial decisions, for example, it has declared that the obligation to use remote services could only be made compulsory if users’ normal access to the public service and the effective exercise of their rights were guaranteed. It also set out the division of responsibilities between the State and institutions to ensure that children with disabilities are looked after during lunch breaks and activities outside school hours. 
- In its role as legal advisor to the Government and Parliament, it puts forward solutions so that draft bills and regulations are applicable in practice and comply with legislation. Last year, for example, it specified that the voluntary sector for the legal protection of young people must respect the principles of neutrality, in the same way as government agencies. 
- Through its research, it suggests practical measures to improve public action in all areas. Last month, the Conseil d’État suggested that the public sector should make full use of artificial intelligence to improve services for citizens and to carry out more repetitive tasks, so that public-sector workers could be redirected to providing individual support to people, particularly in the most difficult situations.