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France Announces An Ambitious New Data Strategy

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After four long months of speculations and political maneuvering, the French Government finally announced that France is getting its first Chief Data Officer. While the name of the CDO is still unknown, a source told me that current Etalab director Henri Verdier should get nominated later this week.

Back in February, I interviewed Henri Verdier about Etalab’s work on Data.gouv.fr, France’s open data platform. As a reminder, open data is the idea that certain information should be freely available to everyone to reuse as they wish, without any copyright restriction.

Open data will become an even more central part of the French Government. The CDO will work with Secretary of State Thierry Mandon and Prime Minister Manuel Valls to handle multiple important tasks.

First, it’s all about pursuing Etalab’s work when it comes to open data. The small team acted as a startup and quickly iterated on its central platform and multiple side projects. It came up with pragmatic solutions to complicated public issues, such as public health data or fiscal policy simulation. France is now the fourth country in the United Nations e-government survey.

Now, the CDO will have even more official and informal legitimacy to ask other ministries to release data sets. It’s not just about following open government theories — it’s not just about releasing public data to serve the public interest. The team can also simulate new policies before they are implemented, and share recommendations with the ministries working on these new policies.

When a new policy is written, the Government should evaluate all the ins and outs of it before implementation. Citizens should expect no less from their government.

At a larger scale, this nomination is very significant for the French Government. For years, its digital strategy was mostly about finding the best way to communicate through the Internet. But when it came to creating new policies, computers couldn’t help them.

Also announced today, the Government is modernizing and unifying its digital platform between all its ministries and services — it’s never too late. The CDO team will work closely with the DISIC to design this platform — it should be a multi-year project.

Finally, the Government will invest $160 million (€125 million) to innovate in the public sector when it makes sense. In other words, the government will work with private companies (and preferably young innovative companies) to improve the infrastructure that powers the public sector.

France is the first European country to get a Chief Data Officer. For the most part, this nomination is still uncharted territory. It could be yet another failed attempt to modernize how the Government works. But if it pans out as the decree suggests, the CDO could use data to help the Government make smarter, more transparent decisions. It’s worth a shot.