An Experiment in Individualisation: France’s Compte Personnel D’Activité

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An urgent need for change

The transition of the Compte Personnel d’Activité (CPA) from idea to practical reality shows how societies could make social protection universal. But it also illustrates some of the challenges.

In 2015, the French government accepted that social protection arrangements –which are often based on a world of open-ended, full-time employment – needed adjustment: the labour marketplace was seeing more frequent changes in employment and an increasing proportion of fixed-term, part-time, independent workers. Its CPA would be part of major reform that would attach certain social protection to individuals instead of their employment or job status.

The principle was clear, but there were fundamental practical questions: which rights should be individualised in this way? And how should the CPA work in practice? Initial discussions considered such innovations as the ability to carry over unused sick leave and holiday time from job to job. These either proved unpopular with stakeholders or were too complicated to adopt by the time the new accounts were launched.

The idea takes shape

In the end, the wrangling over the practical details took nearly two years, and since CPAs went live – in January 2017 for employees, and in January 2018 for independent workers – they have focused on professional development. Cécile Jolly, head of projects on work and employment at France Stratégie, the French Prime Minister’s think tank, explains what it means: “When you work you have the right to be trained. Whether you are an employee or independent worker doesn’t matter.”

Open to everyone in France over 16 years old, the CPA keeps a record of time worked – whether for income or as a volunteer. Based on this record, the account holder can access a certain number of hours of professional training from approved providers.

For salaried employees, including those who are part time and/or fixed term, the CPA can also aggregate data from reports by employers when contracted work involves a health risk that goes beyond predetermined minimum levels. For example, when the job has to take place in particularly noisy environments, employers must inform government officials. Individuals, meanwhile, gain points in their CPA for such activity. If they collect enough during the course of their career, workers can exchange these points for training or even retirement on full pension up to two years early.

Challenges hold back innovation

The CPA’s principles of individualisation and portability of accumulated entitlements across work are innovative. However, the small number of benefits included are falling short of initial hopes for CPAs, which is because they are still a work in progress.

For independent workers, who have been eligible for the CPA for only a matter of months, finding the right way to promote training remains an issue. Romain Trébuil is CEO and co-founder of YOSS, a new digital platform for independent professionals and a brand of the Adecco Group. He says that the currently restricted list of approved training providers and the complexities for the individual of accessing their earned hours mean that CPAs are “not currently adapted to the needs of independent workers.”

And the CPA in its present form will not translate easily to other countries. France is one of the few countries that has a ‘right to training’, so until the CPA can offer a more general social safety net, its current specific purpose is of limited use globally. More generally, however, its basic principle of individualised social protection could prove to be the key to expanding social protection to fit the new world of work, so as the CPA evolves it will undeniably be a valuable test case for governments elsewhere.

Make it accessible to all

But government officials are willing to discuss ways to improve the system to make it work better. The government is aware that simplification will be essential to success, because the CPA may otherwise only prove useful to those who are already highly skilled. “It is a huge challenge for us,” says Jolly. “Because individualisation is a social demand all over the developed world, but it is difficult to do it appropriately. We need to help the less skilled to use it, and to do so properly.”

Despite the challenges, more than five million people had CPAs by the end of 2017 and the scheme had covered more than half a million training courses. These have ranged from language lessons to training necessary to obtain a forklift licences, and to preparation programmes for future heads of enterprise.

Where next?

The CPA is unlikely to remain limited to its current programmes. In future, the government hopes to expand the social protection that is offered through the CPA – including two elements of particular importance to those outside of full-time, open-ended contracts.

The first is unemployment insurance – especially for those independent workers who, says Jolly, can “have a huge problem with income stability”. The other area where the government would like to expand protection, she explains, is sickness and injury protection. “It’s a great difficultly now that the larger part of the insurance system for independent workers does not include sick leave,” she says. “It’s also a problem for maternity leave, which is usually very short for independent workers.” Here, however, the French government faces issues that have plagued efforts to universalise social protection arrangements elsewhere.

First, the expansion of sick leave comes at a cost. “So the problem is deciding on the appropriate contribution of the employers, the companies who use independent workers, and of workers themselves,” says Jolly. Second, workers outside direct, full- time, open-ended contacts are often not covered by social protection arrangements because of administrative complexities. Initial plans to include unemployment in the CPA had to be dropped because these complexities would have excessively delayed the roll-out.

The French government has committed itself to extending unemployment insurance to self-employed workers and those who quit employment to seek other work, although it has not indicated whether this will be administered through the CPA. In this case, says Jolly, the intention is to fund the programme through general taxation. Other types of social protection, though, may require different funding mechanisms, including contributions from the clients of independent workers and from those workers themselves.

Jolly adds that including social protections in the CPA will also face technical issues, such as harmonising the range of programmes that currently exists for specific industries. For instance, France has a special programme for theatre and TV artists and technicians normally hired on fixed-term contracts. It tends to be more generous than for those in other industries, which means that those covered are likely to be less keen on change.

One to watch

After only just over a year’s implementation (and a few months for independent workers), it is too early to draw extensive lessons from the Compte Personnel d’Activité.

The CPA is a work in progress that has potential to find ways to provide social protection to individuals that is independent of their employment status. Its evolution will be worth watching: if the French government can overcome the current and upcoming challenges, the CPA could be instructive for other countries considering a revamped social protection system.

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