Digital for all now

Christophe Lombard: moving mountains in the Southern Alps with digital

Christophe Lombard 16 Oct 2014

In the Hautes-Alpes department in the Southern Alps of France, living in remote rural areas doesn’t mean being cut off from administrative services: in order to offer the best services to citizens, particularly those living in the most isolated areas, the local council has developed a range of tools. We spoke to Christophe Lombard, the local council’s Director of Digital Technology and Resources, who is determined to move mountains to turn the Hautes-Alpes into a connected department where everyone has access to public services, wherever they are.

 

A combination of government reforms and tight budgets are putting pressure on regional councils. And yet the Hautes-Alpes are determined to achieve their goal: offer the best possible public service possible to the department’s 140,000 inhabitants, 40,000 of whom live in Gap, the county town. To that end, for the past 5 years, “citizen kiosks” (interactive terminals which can be accessed remotely) have been set up all over the department in order to give people easier access to administrative services, however far away they are located.

 

Digital: bringing public services to everyone, everywhere

“We’ve set up 25 visitor centres all over the area where people can use the kiosks, which are open 2 to 3 days a week. We’ve even got them in the remotest locations, at the bottom of valleys. We wanted to set up kiosks that could be easily managed by the Council: they feature programs such as Skype, with advanced functionalities so we can carry out various tasks remotely, such as helping users fill out forms while they’re in front of the screen. The user doesn’t even have to touch the machine: the administrative clerk from the council does it for them.”

From the job centre and benefits department to the Chamber of Commerce, citizens have access to 28 administrative services via videoconferencing, thus saving them a long drive to the physical offices. Appointments are made at a particular time and venue (i.e. one of the 25 admin centres) and the videoconference session automatically begins, thereby saving the user hours of queuing:

“It works the same way as a face-to-face meeting. The admin centres are well equipped, so the admin staff can even ask users to submit documents by scanning them and sending them via the kiosks.”

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Better services, lower costs

The admin centres thus save valuable time whilst offering public services to citizens all over the department – and at minimal cost!

“It costs about €1500 to install an admin centre, which isn’t that much given the size of the department. We’ve made sure as many admin services as possible are available via the kiosks so that everything is centralised.”

And so far the system has proved a great success: an average of 50 appointments a month are made, “and it’s really taking off,” says Christophe Lombard. But setting up such a system wasn’t easy, as he explains:

“We came across a number of issues, such as data security, particularly where income support and unemployment benefit are concerned. We had to work with the IT departments to ensure the data was secure. We had maintenance issues with the first company who set up the network and didn’t want to handle it after a few months. And then there are the “human” issues: it’s very time-consuming getting together all the people required to make sure the project runs smoothly. Plus there was a real generation gap problem: some people just couldn’t see the added value of digital. So then it’s a question of communication: we had to really twist people’s arm to show them the benefits! But the real issue was of course funding. We managed to get €180,000 from the state and the EU, but it’s always tricky asking for financial support.”

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Solidarity and sharing: the keys to a successful digital transformation

To overcome these obstacles and make the admin staff’s job easier, the Council drew up a a master plan for digital uses:

“We realised that, to make a success of this project, which is part of an overall plan to improve public services, we needed to know the area by heart and share experiences. This meant getting everyone on board and creating a real collaborative approach. What’s vital now is to get feedback and exchange information so we can improve the project. But we also need to be able to rely on motivated people to ensure credibility.”

The next step for the Director of Digital Technology and Resources is to “Get members of parliament on board”. And this is something he is personally very committed to: “I’ll go on the campaign trail and spread the word. I’m also doing it for myself, to make sure that they don’t forget about this area.”

Mont Dauphin Hautes Alpes 061, photo par Patrick Gaudin, licence CC BY 2.0

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