Hospitals, schools, universities: “It’s not getting worse anymore, we’re reaching the breaking point”

Bstop! : La Poste noted at the end of the red stamp at the beginning of January. Is this a new indication of the degradation of this public service for you?

Lucie Castets [1] : We note that the logic of profitability sometimes prevails over the logic of public service. We hear all too well that maintaining a red stamp, which includes restrictions on mail delivery times, is costly. However, this should not be the only consideration when deciding whether to continue with the policy. Otherwise, for example, it happens, train lines are cut, beds in hospitals are closed.

What other sectors of the public service do you think are particularly deteriorating?

One of the areas where this is most prominent is health. Anyone who goes to the emergency room can see that the situation is life-threatening. Health workers face unacceptable working conditions. This is the case in many areas of public service.

This situation is also shown by our inability to hire civil servants. There are large vacancies in all areas of the civil service, and the number of applicants for the civil service competition is decreasing. Let me give you a number: In 1997, there were an average of 15 candidates in civil service contests, and six candidates for the seat last year.

This can be easily explained by the unattractive salary on the one hand, and the working conditions, which we know are extremely difficult, on the other hand. It’s a vicious circle: if you know business conditions are tough, you don’t apply, and existing agents are even harder because they have to handle the work of several people. This is not the case in the hospital, but also in the school.

Aren’t we going to reach a breaking point?

It has slowly faded away and we are really reaching the breaking point. For example, we see that the quality of education in school is deteriorating, and social diversity is decreasing. Affluent people increasingly send their children to private schools.

Unfortunately, the indicators are more obvious in the public hospital. The result is a loss of opportunity, meaning that people may die because they were treated in worse conditions or because they were not cared for quickly enough. I think we are reaching the breaking point you mentioned in a country where the health care system has long been an international benchmark. It is no longer just a matter of slow degradation.

The “Our State Services” collective, of which you are one of the co-founders, started operating in 2021. Why did you decide to create this group?

The idea arose from the paradoxical observation that the role of state and local authorities has never been more crucial, observing the deterioration of all public services, and at a time when distrust of public institutions is so strong. In the face of climate change, it is believed that the organizational role of the state and local authorities is great, and the needs, especially in terms of public investment, will be enormous. Without public power, without well-trained, well-behaved and motivated public agents, we will not be able to organize adaptation and combat global warming.

The collective consists mainly of government officials. We are talking about the internal part of the state service. The idea was that we are not elected, but we still have a duty, which is to serve the public in the best way possible and meet the needs of the people. In our opinion, our word is important to describe not only the operation, but also the dysfunctions of public services.

The main reason for these dysfunctions and this deterioration is the decrease in public spending?

For us, there are two main reasons that are closely related to each other. The first corresponds to the long-term trend. Successive governments have gradually introduced public finance instruments that tightly regulate spending levels and changes in the number of civil servants. We have what the ministry calls an “employment cap” and strengthened standards in terms of public spending. We test with cost, not need. For example, what is called Ondam in health [Objectif national de dépenses d’assurance maladie, ndlr] sets a ceiling for health care costs.

Who can not be surpassed?

Which is not meant to wear out. And this leads to aberration. Sometimes you have a new mission to complete and you can’t do it because you don’t have enough internal agents. So you hire a consulting firm that costs more. This is absurd and contradictory.

The second reason is more cultural or sociological. We call it “a little magical thinking” in our collective. It is the idea that the private sector will inherently perform better than the public sector, and therefore it will be important to rationalize the size of the state by reducing it to “absolutely necessary” missions. But in reality, we don’t define what the proper mission is. And it is clear that these doctrines have led to the decline or deterioration of the efficiency of all areas of public services.

Did public services work better “before”?

Our request does not mean that we must restore the former because it was perfect. We are simply saying that we need to go back to the rules of public finance that are extremely restrictive today and therefore make them more flexible. We need to restore the means to have a public service that meets people’s needs.

We are not saying that nothing should change compared to what was done before. In particular, a lot of effort needs to be done in terms of streamlining bureaucracy and we need governance that shows more trust in public officials. This is not a backward-looking or reactionary discourse. We are more likely to give ourselves tools and think about how to use all these to meet the needs of citizens when we have the opportunity. There are also very variable needs. For example, we have an aging population that we will have to adapt to.

Your collective has published research on the Parcoursup platform, where the appointment process began on January 18. You talk about the “waiting generation”. Why?

This is simply how Parcoursup works. Placement pledges are no longer sorted [comme sur l’ancienne plateforme Admission post-bac, ndlr]. So, you have to wait until those above you by the institutions give their answer in the system. It’s very frustrating.

Moreover, the quality of the match between the wishes and the final task can be doubted. On the one hand, we don’t know how to measure it because we don’t know whether you’d prefer desire number one or number ten since you’re no longer categorizing your desires. On the other hand, because we cannot interview all students after the assignment.

I think we need to review the Parcoursup algorithms that don’t work as they are. In addition, more funds should be allocated to higher education in order to open more university places and avoid such a situation.

We always come back to the question of means. Is this a central solution?

This is an important solution, but not enough. We need to give ourselves more resources to have quality public service in all sectors. This includes, in particular, the remuneration of public officials. If you don’t permanently change the salary of health workers, for example, people will not come to the profession to receive a bonus of 100 euros every now and then. We quickly forgot the first duty officer’s question. Post-Covid, we have still realized that there are more socially useful professions than others, and paradoxically, they are probably the lowest paying professions. This is what needs to change.

But it’s not just about salary. It is a global issue of agent promotion and attractiveness of public service. Financial resources are also an issue. Collapsing schools, public hospital queuing for CT scans are unacceptable.

You should also trust the people on the ground more. Today, public officials must constantly justify what they do. This creates a lot of bureaucracy and results in a lower quality public service.

With the new pension reform project, the government wants to abolish certain special schemes for civil servants. Are following these special diets a way for you to regain attractiveness?

In our research into the public service agents’ crisis of meaning, we found that the main reason people join the public service is to serve the common good. These were not lifetime employment or salary terms.

This result is far from the “you become a civil servant because this is the right shelter” caricatures we often hear. I don’t think people join such a public or parapublic service because it’s a private pension plan. So I wouldn’t say it’s a question of attractiveness.

What other concrete improvements do you see for the future of the public service?

Interestingly, we never talk about civil service in terms of goals. We never hear ministers say “I love public service”. We also almost never announce the recruitment of civil servants. We have some for the military or prison authorities, but no campaign promoting other agents or public services. For us, this is an example of the lack of a common vision of the role of the state, which also plays on consent to tax, but is crucial to the funding of well-functioning public services.

But do people also see big business benefiting from tax cuts, and perhaps find it unfair that they help fund public services?

I completely share your thoughts. There is no progress in the tax system, reforms should be made. When you’re middle class, you pay almost as much in taxes relative to your income as the very wealthy. Especially since many of their optimization devices and revenues come from capital rather than work. I understand that this can fuel mistrust of taxes.

But I think it’s important for people to understand that if we lower taxes, there’s going to be a lot of things they can’t get tomorrow. I think a lot of people take it for granted that we get treatment when we go to the emergency room. For me, the crux of the matter is strengthening tax compliance. This goes in parallel with the discourse we are talking about about the role of the state. We will need the state massively to plan the environmental transition, and I hope this will contribute to the spread of more positive messages about public service.

Interview with Nils Hollenstein

Front cover photo: Lucie Castets/©Nils Hollenstein

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