FRANCE: Management of the State's major digital projects


On the basis of the Organic Law of 15 August 2001 on finance laws, the Finance Committee of the Senate asked the Court of Accounts on December 2018 to carry out an investigation into the conduct of the State’s major digital projects. The resulting report was published in July 2020.

At the beginning of the last decade, the resounding failure of large public digital projects in the field of human resources management, as the military compensation information system called Louvois, led the State to set a new framework and clarify the doctrine of engagement of the most important projects.

The rather sharp conclusions and recommendations of the audit have yet been well received, According to the Court, the State’s knowledge of its own spending on digital projects is really insufficient. The accounting of related fixed assets, both in the general account of the State and in the accounts of its agencies, is imperfect and needs progress. The overall financial stakes can be estimated, depending on the data that may have been collected, at just over EUR 6 billion for the software and applications as at 31 December 2018.

A general rule enlightened by the Court is that the difficulties encountered in the conduct of digital projects are growing with the size of the projects. Therefore compliance and good practice will not be enough if administrations fail to measure the major risks associated with large-scale projects.

The obsolescence of the technical infrastructure and the code of some older applications is one of the reasons that may have led administrations to engage in important projects combining technical and functional developments. Outdated technologies are often a serious limitation on the provision of new features and services. Hence the advice is that administrations should save and preserve the budgets necessary to carry out technical development projects in their digital investment programming. In order to reduce the complexity of these renovation programmes, such projects should deserve to be carried out as  independently and distinctly as possible from projects to deliver new digital services or products. The so called  “technical debt” of any information system must also be understood at all stages of the system lifespan.

These guidelines are the logical consequence of the doctrine laid down at the beginning of the last decade, which is to seek more modular and agile implementation of projects.

In the end, they underline the dated nature of the steps taken to engage in too large projects and, on the contrary, the relevance of the processes and organisations of public services based on smaller projects, the ambitions and time frames for implementation remaining under control.

However, regardless of the size of the projects to be carried out, it is urgent to provide State administrations with the skills necessary for the success of the digital transformation of public services. This implies a budget alignment of the objectives and the resources and therefore of the trade-offs in the use of the employment limitations, but also an inter-ministerial plan, to seek the greatest visibility in order to attract these skills within the services of the State. Digital transformation also implies a rapid increase in the competence and experience of government officials.