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Annual study 2023 : The user from the first to the last mile of public action: a question of efficiency and a democratic requirement

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Our country has been built upon strong public policy implementation and efficient public services. Yet today, the effective implementation of public policy is increasingly called into question. Its ability to reach those it is intended for is a particular focus of debate: does it still cover the last mile to the end user? The Conseil d'État has chosen this question as the subject of its annual report. It is the first public institution to do so. The Conseil d’État has drawn on its experience as administrative judge and legal adviser to the Government and Parliament to compile this report. But more importantly, it has looked at the question, not through the lens of the public bodies who design and implement public policies, but of the individuals who make use of - and should benefit - from them.

 

To understand the last mile of public policy implementation, it is necessary to look at how public services reach users on the ground, as well as how public policies are designed. With this aim, the Conseil d'État has conducted many interviews, symposia and consultations, and made numerous visits into the field. This approach has painted a picture, across the whole of France, of the difficulties that those implementing public policies face in reaching users, in both administrative and associative spheres. It has also identified good practice that improves the delivery of public policy on a day-to-day basis. In this report, the Conseil d'État makes an unvarnished assessment of the gap that has opened up between users' expectations and public policy implementation, despite efforts to remedy the situation. It also proposes a method on how to cover the last mile effectively, based on success stories on the ground.


Key finding: a widening gap between public policy implementation and users


Taking public service users as the starting point, the Conseil d'État highlights the fact that their expectations and attitudes towards public administrations and public services have changed dramatically over the last few decades. Users are quick to compare the accessibility, simplicity and speed of public services with other service providers, including those in the private sector. Today, there are a greater number and greater diversity of users.
At the same time, despite efforts made by administrations to take user satisfaction into account, this country's administrative system has become more complex. Organisationally, there has been decentralisation, opening up to competition, etc. On a regional level, there has been the creation of métropoles and suburbanisation. From an operational point of view, there has been a drive towards digitisation. These transformations, while beneficial for the majority of users, have also had negative consequences for some sections of the population, particularly those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged. In addition, by choosing to focus on its role as strategist, the State has left the implementation of public policies to local parties. In doing so, it has largely deprived itself of feedback from the grassroots and has encountered difficulties in exercising its role as the designer of public policy. Finally, despite undeniable efforts to control burgeoning regulation, the volume of regulatory standards has continued to grow. This has contributed to complexities being placed on the shoulders of users and on those on the ground responsible for the last mile. This gap has led to a crisis of confidence in public policy implementation, despite the strong commitment of public servants on the ground, who are running out of steam. The report points out that, in many respects, the public institutions (e.g. hospitals, schools, courts, etc.) whose role is to provide users with the public services they expect and value, are themselves in crisis. The Conseil d'État notes, however, that public policy makers have become aware of this crisis in recent years and have developed new initiatives to try to remedy it.


12 proposals to put users right at the heart of public policy implementation


In response to this finding and in an attempt to bridge the gap, the Conseil d'État has put forward 12 proposals that are realistic, practical and ambitious as a logical whole, insofar as they outline a new method for public policy implementation. They fully re-establish a culture of service (i.e. usefulness, continuity, accessibility and adaptability) and give those working on the ground the bandwidth they need to successfully deliver over the last mile.


Three key objectives underpin these proposals:


•    Accessibility
Proposals 1 to 4 aim to put forward concrete, operational solutions to bring public services closer to users, based on a simple idea: people need to talk to people. In particular, there is an urgent need to move away from 100% online services and return to telephone and in-person points of contact. We must identify and provide early support for those who do not “fit the mould”. We need to communicate differently with users and develop “outreach”, via France Services centres, for example, or by “home delivery” of public services.


•    Realism
Proposals 5 to 8 call for a review of the way in which public policy implementation is designed to reach the last mile. The implementation of public policy must respond to the problems that users actually encounter. To achieve this, it is important to listen to them and work with them to develop appropriate solutions. Moreover, the administration must always seek to incorporate complexity into its own processes, rather than passing it on to the user, as is unfortunately still too often the case. In this respect, a number of simplifications that were introduced to deal with the COVID crisis are interesting avenues that should be explored further. The Conseil d'État has reviewed the simplification texts submitted to it during that period to identify those that could be made permanent. In general, it is essential that as much energy is devoted to running existing services and maintaining networks, as to initiating new public policies.


•    Trust
Proposals 9 to 12 express the spirit in which public policy must be implemented if it is to reach its target audiences. A spirit of trust is vital in order to get away from the suspicious attitudes that are all too prevalent among those involved in public policy, to the detriment of the service delivered to the user. To achieve this, we must value public servants and employees on the ground and have confidence in people who can have a positive ripple effect on the system (e.g. local councillors, prefects, associations, mediators and members of civil society). It is also important to move away from the culture of verticality to give those who implement public policy some room for manoeuvre and thereby assume greater subsidiarity. This also presupposes making clear choices, including about resources, and changing the way regulatory standards are drawn up. The focus must be on the principles and outcomes to be achieved, leaving those on the ground to test and adapt solutions. It is also necessary to promote working as a team and place trust at the heart of a public management system that values the quality of services delivered to users.


Finally, the proposals put forward today in the Conseil d'État's report address the question of the administration’s time. If any promises of reform are to be delivered for the benefit of users, it is necessary to take the time to listen, co-construct, cooperate and evaluate. In the phrase that Suetonius attributes to Augustus, “That is done fast enough, which is done well enough.”

 

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