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01.12.2021

Can start-ups transform the state? A French case study

The French government sells beta.gouv as a success, but the question arises whether this approach can be replicated in other countries interested in advancing government digitalisation projects.  

GovTech by government: A spotlight on France’s agile approach

To foster innovation in the public sector and make government technology more accessible, France has launched beta.gouv, a programme that creates ‘state start-ups’ and has been running for more than eight years.

Beta.gouv.fr was created in 2013 as part of a mission of the Interministerial Digital Directorate (DINUM) under the authority of the Prime Minister. The goal of the programme is to help public administrations build useful digital services that are easy to use and in line with people's needs. The beta.gouv team operates with a so-called “start-up approach,” implementing product and lean start-up practices in the public sector. Each project team has a lot of leeway in designing their project, as long as their approach is agile and collaborative. Furthermore, the programme will abandon ideas at an early stage if they no longer show promise in moving forward. This type of approach is more typically associated with the private sector, but beta.gouv’s goal is to bring this thinking into the public sector and establish a new trial-and-error way of creating businesses or services. With the help of these principles, 263 state start-ups have been created through beta.gouv to date.

Yet, a closer look at this number as well as the different project phases reveals that only some are finished and even fewer are being scaled. Less than 10% of the 263 state start-ups have been completed, and more than half are still in the earliest three stages of the process, meaning that it is unclear whether they will be continued. This shows that scaling is a process that starts with an idea that does not always come to fruition: some projects fail at the early stages, while others fail at the point of implementation.

Project ideas mostly start because a citizen or civil servant has identified a problem or possible improvement when interacting with government or public services. After the submission of the initial proposal, the project lifecycle begins. It is a transparent, multi-step process that weeds out unviable projects through the decisions of an investment committee. Meeting every six months, this group determines whether to continue the cooperation based on service or product’s results and impact.

The stages of the multi-step process are as follows:

  1. Investigation

The beta.gouv Project Team takes six to nine weeks to assess the needs of the proposal. The short time frame ensures that the projects are immediately reviewed and receive prompt decisions on feasibility. Furthermore, founders can search for potential collaborators or team members throughout the beta.gouv community. There are currently 27 projects at this stage (10% of all projects).

  1. Construction

In this stage, a team of two to four builds the product or service in under six months and then has another six months to launch and test its first version. This stage helps to verify that the service is both useful for society as well as feasible to develop. There are currently 79 projects (30% of all projects) at this stage.

  1. Acceleration

In this next 6–12-month step, the project team scales the product or service up to meet the needs of a broader user population. For instance, scaling could mean taking the digital service from the communal level to the regional one, thus enabling more people to use it. Projects that are only targeted at a small group of people are likely to be discontinued, given the goal to serve the greater population. There are currently 34 projects (13% of all projects) at this stage.

  1. Consolidation

If the product or service has gone through the first three steps, it has been deemed to be valuable and to have made an impact. A public sector body then assumes ownership of the product and continuously improves it. Funding is, therefore, more secure once the public body takes ownership and shows the meaning behind the programme; it really is a start-up for the state. There are currently 97 projects (37% of all projects) at this stage.

  1. Completion

If the project has been scaled to the national level, it counts as a completed project. Currently, only 17 projects (6% of all projects) have reached this stage.


Figure 1: A graphic visualization of the multi-step process (Translated from French to English by the author, original source: https://beta.gouv.fr/content/docs/betagouv_presentation.pdf)

Three takeaways from beta.gouv

When analysing beta.gouv, there are three factors that contributed to its success. If other countries wish to replicate this programme, it is highly recommended that they integrate these three principles into their approach.

  1. The multi-step process

If the project fails to reach identified milestones, the programme terminates it. This approach to driving innovation aims to create a new failure culture, which normalises trial and error and identifies potential failures earlier, thereby preventing waste.

  1. Open collaboration

Beta.gouv is a government programme, yet the key aspect is the open collaboration between civil society, professionals and public servants. To enable collaboration, the source code for beta.gov projects is open to the public to use and edit via GitHub, after agreeing to a code of conduct. Moreover, project creators can exchange ideas on a forum and eventually find collaborators for their ideas. As of June 2021, the community consists of more than 600 active members, 250 of which are public servants. This shows that the programme is forging close ties between the public and private sector.

  1. Political willingness

While it was launched in 2013, it was thanks to President Macron’s clear prioritisation of the programme in 2017 that it received newfound popularity and publicity. To the wider public, beta.gouv is now viewed positively, known for working heavily on digital services and digitalising government processes.

Concluding remarks

The beta.gouv organisation has led to the creation of some well-known and heavily used public services. The success inside France has led beta.gouv to be highlighted as potential model for other governments on how to drive internal governmental digitalisation. Their approach, experimentation and fostering the development of a trial-and-error mindset is unique and can hardly be found elsewhere within public administration. However, it will be difficult to implement such a programme without a rigorous multi-step process, the adherence to principles of open collaboration and government as well as a strong political willingness and agenda-setting coming from the top.

More information

The Scaling-up Digital Innovations for the Public Sector project, a joint knowledge initiative between the McKinsey Centre for Government and a team from the Hertie School’s Centre for Digital Governance, is led by Gerhard Hammerschmid with Keegan McBride, Jessica Breaugh and Ann-Marie Rittler as part of the team. It systematically analyses existing knowledge and real-world examples of scaling up public sector innovations. This research will generate new understanding of scaling public sector innovations identifying success factors and barriers can and disseminating policy recommendations to assist policymakers across Europe.

For more information, please visit: http://scaling.publicsectorinnovation.com

Read the full report 'Und es geht doch! Wie die Skalierung digitaler Innovationen in der Verwaltung gelingt' here.

Image: Scott Graham, source: Unsplash

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