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France

Transparency of Public Algorithms (FR0035)

Overview

At-a-Glance

Action Plan: France Action Plan 2018-2020

Action Plan Cycle: 2018

Status: Active

Institutions

Lead Institution: Minister of State for the Digital Sector, attached to the Prime Minister

Support Institution(s): All ministries

Policy Areas

E-Government

IRM Review

IRM Report: France Transitional Results Report 2018-2020

Starred: Pending IRM Review

Early Results: No IRM Data

Design i

Verifiable: Yes

Relevant to OGP Values: Access to Information

Potential Impact:

Implementation i

Completion:

Description

Improving transparency of public algorithms and source codes
Lead institution(s):
Minister of State for the Digital Sector, attached to the Prime Minister
Other stakeholders:
NA
New commitment
OGP principles with which the commitment is associated:
Access to information, accountability
Challenges
Algorithms have an ever greater part to play in implementation of public policies – in the fields of education and public finances, for example. Their transparency is of key importance in providing citizens with information on administrative decisions.
The Law for a Digital Republic, enacted on 7 October 2016, introduced two major provisions fostering greater transparency into the Code on Relations between the Public and the Administration. The first extends the principle of information to algorithmic processing: any person who is the subject of an individual administrative decision taken on the basis of an algorithm must be informed of the fact and may demand access to the algorithm’s main operational rules (its contribution, data used, etc.). The second includes source codes in the list of communicable administrative documents.
Furthermore, Article 16 of the same law provides for administrations encouraging use of free software and open formats during development, purchase and use of all or part of such information systems.
Ambitions
Accompanying the opening of public algorithms and source codes
Implementation of these new provisions requires accompaniment of administrations and, more generally, better understanding of the issues, potentialities and risks involved in the use of algorithms in management of public action.
It is for this reason that Etalab has undertaken to develop a methodology in collaboration with administrations for opening algorithms and codes contained in their information systems. Such assistance is already underway with the General Directorate of Public Finance (DGFiP) (opening of the tax calculator’s source code) and the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation (mission on conditions for opening the Admission Post-Bac system). In addition, the Interministerial Directorate for Information and Communications Systems (DINSIC) has undertaken composition of a guide on how to open administrations’ source codes, starting with a consultation on an initial version of the guide carried out from December 2017 to January 2018 .
The specific issues connected with learning algorithms will also be taken into account in work on use of algorithms in public action.
The road map in detail

Producing 5 public algorithm monographs in order to identify technical, legal and organisational issues. Getting civil society to participate in their study. 2019
Making recommendations to administrations on essential information on public algorithms, in compliance with the principle of algorithmic transparency 1st half 2018
Drafting a guide to opening public source codes for use by administrations 1st half 2018
Organising hackathons based on opening public algorithms 2nd half 2018 – 2nd half 2019
An application case of the opening of models and source codes: OpenFisca
Since 2014, Etalab has been developing and making OpenFisca available to public administrations and civil society. OpenFisca is an open computation engine and API. It makes it possible to model the socio-fiscal system, to simulate the impact of reforms, and to develop citizen-oriented services.
OpenFisca made it possible to build my-aides.gouv.fr, a social assistance simulation platform, thanks to which more than 100,000 simulations are carried out each month.
Today, OpenFisca is used by many actors - parliamentarians, public officials, researchers - to assess the impact of future reforms. For example, in 2018, a team from the working group "Access to rights and services, fight against non-recourse" used OpenFisca to simulate different scenarios for simplifying the calculation of social benefits and their impact on typical family situations.
OpenFisca uses the income tax calculator made available in 2016 by the DGFIP to perform some of these simulations.
OpenFisca illustrates the opportunities created by the openness and sharing of algorithms and source code of the administration.
It enables citizens and public decision-makers to understand, evaluate and improve public decisions in social and fiscal matters.
It also makes it possible to pool calculation models that coexist within multiple administrations, and a fortiori, to improve their quality and reduce their costs.
To further these actions in the area of social and fiscal transparency, the DINSIC commits to:
Encourage the opening of existing models, data and source codes in the socio-fiscal field, in order to accompany administrations in the evaluation of reforms. This work will
be carried out in consultation with the producing administrations (Budget Directorate, Treasury Directorate, Public Finance Directorate, social security bodies, etc.) and may include those involved in the drafting and monitoring of reforms (parliamentary assemblies, Court of Auditors, etc.);
Improve citizens' understanding of social and fiscal rules in order to stimulate the creation of services based on OpenFisca, as is the case of the mes-aides.gouv.fr platform. These services could be developed both by administrations and by civil society;
Develop collaborations with partner countries to support them in their initiatives to open up data and algorithms around socio-fiscal transparency and citizen participation in reforms.
In addition to these crosscutting actions, the following ministries have made commitments of their own:
THE MINISTRY OF NATIONAL EDUCATION UNDERTAKES TO
Open various of its algorithms and source codes.
THE NATIONAL AGENCY FOR INFORMATION SYSTEM SECURITY (ANSSI) UNDERTAKES TO
Take part in the composition of a guide to opening public source codes for use by administrations and focusing particularly on questions connected with best development and security practices.
Open the source code for the CLIP secure exploitation system (CLIP OS).

IRM Midterm Status Summary

6. Improving transparency of public algorithms and source codes

Language of the commitment as it appears in the action plan:

Algorithms have an ever greater part to play in implementation of public policies – in the fields of education and public finances, for example. Their transparency is of key importance in providing citizens with information on administrative decisions.

The Law for a Digital Republic, enacted on 7 October 2016, introduced two major provisions fostering greater transparency into the Code on Relations between the Public and the Administration. The first extends the principle of information to algorithmic processing: any person who is the subject of an individual administrative decision taken on the basis of an algorithm must be informed of the fact and may demand access to the algorithm’s main operational rules (its contribution, data used, etc.). The second includes source codes in the list of communicable administrative documents.

Furthermore, Article 16 of the same law provides for administrations encouraging use of free software and open formats during development, purchase and use of all or part of such information systems.

Implementation of these new provisions requires accompaniment of administrations and, more generally, better understanding of the issues, potentialities and risks involved in the use of algorithms in management of public action.

It is for this reason that Etalab has undertaken to develop a methodology in collaboration with administrations for opening algorithms and codes contained in their information systems. Such assistance is already underway with the General Directorate of Public Finance (DGFiP) (opening of the tax calculator’s source code) and the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation (mission on conditions for opening the Admission Post-Bac system). In addition, the Interministerial Directorate for Information and Communications Systems (DINSIC) has undertaken composition of a guide on how to open administrations’ source codes, starting with a consultation on an initial version of the guide carried out from December 2017 to January 2018. The specific issues connected with learning algorithms will also be taken into account in work on use of algorithms in public action. [26]

Milestones

6.1 Producing 5 public algorithm monographs in order to identify technical, legal and organisational issues. Getting civil society to participate in their study.

6.2 Making recommendations to administrations on essential information on public algorithms, in compliance with the principle of algorithmic transparency

6.3 Drafting a guide to opening public source codes for use by administrations

6.4 Organising hackathons based on opening public algorithms

Start Date: 2018

End Date: 2019

Context and Objectives

Algorithms are increasingly used in relations between the public and the public administration, for enrollment in higher education and attribution of subsidies or tax calculations. The 2016 Digital Republic Bill introduced two major provisions fostering greater transparency into the Code on Relations between the Public and the Administration. However, at the end of 2017, government agencies were not yet compliant. [27] A parliamentary report published in February 2018 highlights the usefulness of algorithms. The rapporteurs saw algorithms as improvements to public service. They argued that the problem of algorithms emerges when the law is not sufficiently clear, requiring the administration to make a decision and publish it. [28]

However, there have been several public complaints about the use of algorithms in the past few years. Algorithms for enrollment in higher education—Admission Post-Bac and later Parcoursup [29]—have been particularly criticized by users. A student union won a trial against the Université des Antilles after it refused to make public the algorithm for selecting applicants. [30] Several elected officials called on the ombudsman regarding the transparency of algorithms after students denounced the opacity and injustice of the system. This led the ombudsman to request that all the criteria integrated in the algorithms at the national and local levels be made public. [31]

This commitment seeks to solve the insufficient transparency of algorithms by providing support to individual agencies responsible for disseminating information about algorithms and source codes. The commitment is considered relevant to access to information. It aims to improve access to information about algorithm operational rules and criteria. It nevertheless does not commit to the publication of any new algorithm or source code.

The IRM researcher considers the commitment text sufficiently specific to be verifiable. Each milestone contains concrete information on the planned deliverables. However, Milestones 1, 2, and 4 could benefit from more precision on format and numbers.

This initiative, as formulated, could have a minor potential effect. The commitment does not require the publication of information on existing algorithms that affect citizens’ lives. One of the problems identified by the parliamentary report is that there are technical, legal, and organizational issues relating to how algorithms are used that are obstacles to transparency. Thus, producing monographs that could be used as case studies by government agencies in charge of providing information about their algorithm, together with a user guide and recommendations, could be a positive step forward.

Next steps

The next action plan could focus on transparency of algorithms and source codes, with the following steps:

  • Include a commitment on the actual opening of algorithms and source codes, beyond support to government agencies.
  • Take measures to make algorithms understandable to the wider public. [32]
  • Ensure the opening of the databases of the selected algorithms. [33]
[26] For a Transparent and Collaborative Government: France National Action Plan 2018–2020, https://www.opengovpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/France-Action-Plan-2018-2020-English.pdf (accessed on 10 January 2019).
[27] Xavier Berne, “Transparence des Algorithmes: La loi Numérique Ignorée de Nombreuses Administrations,” Next Inpact, 2017, https://www.nextinpact.com/news/105098-transparence-algorithmes-loi-numerique-ignoree-nombreuses-administrations.htm (accessed on 10 February 2019).
[28] Rapport de MM, Cédric Villani, député et Gérard Longuet, sénateur, “Fait au nom de l'Office Parlementaire d'Evaluation des Choix Scientifiques et Technologiques No. 305 (2017–2018)—15 février 2018”; Xavier Berne, “Transparence des Algorithmes: La loi Numérique Ignorée de Nombreuses Administrations,” Next Inpact, 2017, https://www.nextinpact.com/news/105098-transparence-algorithmes-loi-numerique-ignoree-nombreuses-administrations.htm (accessed on 10 February 2019).
[29] These terms refer to the names of the digital system developed to manage the enrollment of students in French universities.
[30] Camille Stromboni, “Parcoursup: La Justice Enjoint à une Université de Publier son Algorithme de Tri,” Le Monde, 6 February 2019.
[31] Camille Stromboni, “Parcoursup: Le Défenseur des Droits Demande plus de Transparence,” Le Monde, 21 January 2019.
[32] Aurélie Jean, “La Transparence des Algorithmes: Une (Fausse) Bonne Idée?” Le Point, 20 April 2019, https://www.lepoint.fr/invites-du-point/aurelie-jean-la-transparence-des-algorithmes-une-fausse-bonne-idee-20-04-2019-2308681_420.php (accessed on 29 April 2019).
[33] Danièle Bourcier and Primavera De Filippi. “Transparence des Algorithmes Face à l’Open Data: Quel Statut pour les Données d’Apprentissage? Revue Française d’Administration Publique 167, no. 3 (2018): 525–37.

IRM End of Term Status Summary

6. Improving transparency of public algorithms and source codes

Completion: Limited

Etalab published two guides to help administrations open public source codes and use public algorithms. [xxxi] Etalab also organized a webinar to train public officials about public algorithms. [xxxii] A recently published report indicated that the resources and training of public officials remains largely insufficient for a proper implementation of the Digital Republic Law and ethical use of public algorithms. [xxxiii]According to the government self-assessment, the production of five algorithm monographs was deprioritized. No evidence was found regarding the organization of hackathons.

[xxxi] Etalab. Les algorithmes publics : enjeux et obligations. n.d. Online, available at : https://guides.etalab.gouv.fr/algorithmes/guide/#_1-a-quoi-servent-les-algorithmes-publics (accessed on 25 November 2020)
[xxxii] Chignard, Simon. Transparence des algorithmes publics : regardez le webinaire à l’intention des administrations, 2020. Online, available at : https://www.etalab.gouv.fr/transparence-des-algorithmes-publics-regardez-le-webinaire-a-lintention-des-administrations (accessed on 28 November 2020).
[xxxiii] ENA. Promotion 2018-2019 « MOLIÈRE » Rapport collectif sur commande d’une administration centrale Ethique et responsabilité des algorithmes publics Groupe n° 12. Paris : Ecole nationale d’administration, 2019.

Commitments

Open Government Partnership