Digitize and conquer – Public services facing digitization

The implacable digitization of French public services is not the mere result of the so-called “digital revolution”. The forced digitization of all administrative procedures, the use of algorithmic control in the social security system, the profiling of job-seekers and social service beneficiaries, the transformation of social work by means of management and control software; all these practices did not occur by accident: they are the result of political choices and public service orientations. The deployment of technologies of control is part of a managerial, accounting-driven approach to public action which restricts access to rights and services and contributes to the degradation of the quality of public service for both its users and its workers.

Trade-unions, user collectives, civil rights associations, activists and researchers are mobilizing and documenting ongoing struggles regarding digitization of social service and algorithmic control. To support these mobilizations, le Mouton Numérique, in partnership with La Quadrature du Net and the Centre Social le Picoulet, is organizing a series of conferences to question the role of technology in social services and understand how they fit into broader policy orientations. What do these technologies stand for ? What vision of public action do they highlight? How do they take part in the managerial orientation of social action ?

This series of four conferences aims to establish a dialogue between workers, researchers and activists, confronted on a daily basis with technologies of control. The aim of the Mouton

Numérique is to contribute with atechnocritical approachto the public debate surrounding the digitization of public service and to shed light on ongoing mobilizations against a digitization which is too often presented as inevitable.

The programme

The conferences wil take place at the Centre Social le Picoulet at 59, rue de la Fontaine au Roi, 75011, Paris, France.

Conference #1 – Tuesday 25th of October at 7pm – The consequences of digitization on the non-take-up of social rights

Connection requirements increased dramatically in the past five years: to book an appointment with a counsellor at Pole Emploi (the French employment agency), to request work welfare benefits like the RSA (Revenu de Solidarité Active – a minimum income for the unemployed and underemployed workers), to renew one’s identity papers, to extend one’s residency permit, to validate a work permit… any administrative procedure currently requires a laptop, a good internet connection, and digital fluency. Beyond these technical aspects, it most importantly requires to know one’s rights, to master the administrative language and its codes, and to succeed navigating ever-changing interfaces and their recurrent “technical errors.” As a result, one adult out of three renounced undertaking an administrative procedure online in 2021.

This widespread digitization supports a broader movement of staff- and budget-cuts, closures of in-person service desks, increasing marginalization and stigma around the most precarious and isolated users, and furthering individualization and weakening of social policies. This conference aims to call attention to what this proliferation of technology inside administration stands for (digital platforms, e-services, online booking services, state-incubated start-ups, etc.). It seeks to highlight what it produces daily for the public it affects and how it participates in broader political orientations and strategies.

 A discussion with sociologist Clara Deville and Gabriel Amieux (Secours Catholique 93, member of the collective Bouge Ta Préfecture).

Ressources on the topic

Register here for the conference: https://link.infini.fr/cycle_dematerialisation_rencontre_1

Conference #2 – Thursday 24th of November 2022 at 7pm – The consequences of digitization for social work

Massive turn over, increasing difficulties to recruit, chronic understaffing, enormous workload and loss of meaning… over the past twenty years, social action professionals have been insistenly warning about the degradation of their working conditions. The sector is currently in great distress.

Whilst digitization was supposed to simplify administrative work for users as much as for social action professionals, it mostly brought about material and technical difficulties, impeding decent and qualitative work, redefining and often restricting the scope and purpose of social action. Internal management tools impose professional norms which spark numerous questions regarding ongoing transformation of the administration and state action. How can public service – as we heard it directly from a senior civil servant at the head of the Caisse d’Allocations Familiales (CAF – the French family allocations office) – aim to achieve “the greatest output in the completion of files per work units”?  

This conference aims to discuss the consequences of digitization for social action : how does digitization transform social work (professional practices, relationship to the user, the organization and its meaning…)? How do these transformations fit in broader political orientations ? What vision of social action do they bring about/summon?

A discussion with sociologist Nadia Okbani and a trade unionist from the CGT Pôle Emploi (French employment service).

Resources on the topic

Register here for the conference: https://link.infini.fr/cycle-dematerialisation-rencontre-2

Conference #3 – Thursday 19th of January 2023 – The algorithmization of welfare control

Over the past twenty years, the toughening of control over CAF beneficiaries (Centre d’Allocations Famiales – the French family allocations office) was supported by the introduction of surveillance technology. The cross-referencing of administrative data, the profiling of recipients’ behaviour and the generation of risk scores permitted the improvement of targeting for the purpose of control. The illegal nature of some of thespractices, the way in which they penalize the poorest and the most precarious by means of preventive suspensions of allocations, of repeated controls and of lack of transparency and means of recourse have been denounced by the investigations of collectives like Changer de Cap and the Fondation Abbé Pierre.

Once again, the deployment of this technology is part of a broader control policy, which can be understood as part of a managerial and accounting-driven approach to public service. The aim of the conference is to question the specific role of technology in this dynamic as well as its past and present transformations.

A discussion with sociologist Vincent Dubois, Bernadette Nantois (APICED) and a member of La Quadrature du Net.

Ressources on the topic

Register here for the conference: https://link.infini.fr/cycle-dematerialisation-rencontre-3

Conference #4 – February 2nd 2023 – A toolkit for struggle : European perspectives on the digitization of public service and its control

The occurrence of predictive suspensions of benefits across different European countries, such as the SyRI scandal in the Netherlands and the recurrence of differential treatment of job-seekers on the base of their profiling (in Austria or in Poland) bring about the question of common orientations in the deployment of technology of control in public service (managerial orientations impelled at European level? Ideological consensus around control ?) These past experiences also prompt us to examine the different struggles and strategies experienced in each context. How can we challenge and resist ongoing public service orientations? What has worked or failed, where, with which objectives, and at what scale?

This discussion aims to gather European activists, researchers and policy makers around different campaigns against the deployment of technology of control in the field of social action. With Karolina Sztandar-Sztanderska (Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences); Nikolett Aszodi (Algorithm Watch), Tijmen Wisman (Platform Burgerrechten), Changer de Cap and La Quadrature du Net.

Ressources on the topic

Register here for the conference: https://www.helloasso.com/associations/le-mouton-numerique/evenements/dematerialiser-pour-mieux-regner-4-4


Public algorithms and information systems for the digitization of public administration are most of the time outsourced to private technology providers. While austerity measures sustain the downsizing of civil service, funding for consulting firms does not seem to decrease at any point. In France, approximately a third of the public spending channeled towards consultancies in 2021 concerned technology. Governed by budgetary rules and dependent on a long history of outsourcing, the civil service depends upon consulting and tech firms to develop necessary software and infrastructures. The main French tech lobby estimates that 25,000 to 35,000 workers participate in the digitization of public administration.

What are the consequences of this dependence? How did it come about? How can we reverse this trend?

With Gilles Jeannot, co-author of La privatisation numérique (Raisons d’Agir, 2022), one of the authors of Consultocratie (FYP, 2022) and Lucie Castets, spokesperson for the collective « Nos Services Publics« .

Register here for the conference: https://www.helloasso.com/associations/le-mouton-numerique/evenements/dematerialiser-pour-mieux-regner-5-4


This series of conferences is organised with the support of :

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