Athens (AFP) – The coronavirus crisis has forced Greece to take rapid steps to computerise its lumbering civil service and belatedly introduce e-governance in one of the EU’s worst digital laggards, experts say.
After recording its first coronavirus death on March 12, Athens took unprecedented measures totally at odds with its previous love affair with paperwork and red tape.
Diomidis Spinellis, head of the department of management science and technology at the Athens university of Economics, says that the COVID-19 crisis “accelerated” Greece’s digital turn — though critics say the country has a long way to go.
Between March 23 and May 4, when a nationwide lockdown was imposed, Greeks were required to inform authorities when leaving their homes. A special SMS service was introduced for those unable to print a special form created by the government.
Eventually, some 110 million messages were sent free of charge during this period, in an initiative praised by the OECD.
The government also rolled out gov.gr, an online platform combining all public services and simplifying online access.
Greece’s minister of digital governance Kyriakos Pierrakakis said the platform freed thousands of users — especially high-risk groups — from having to turn up at public services, as they were now able to sign documents digitally.
Previously at civil services “physical attendance (by the public) was the norm and remote activity the exception,” Pierrakakis told AFP.
– ‘Archaic’ –
In 2019, Greece was among the EU’s laggards in digital performance, ranking 25th in the Digital Economy and Society Index published by the European Commission.
That same year, about 20 percent of the active population had no access to the Internet, nearly double the EU average of 10 percent according to Eurostat figures.
Nikos Smyrnaios, an associate professor of digital media at the university of Toulouse, said the 2010-2018 Greek debt crisis had already forced the country to overhaul its “archaic” civil service, but the process was often “haphazard.”
“Let’s hope the trend doesn’t come to a halt once we are out of this emergency,” said Spinellis.
Not everything has gone according to plan.
On May 11, the government faced criticism after large crowds gathered outside the main Athens offices of just-reopened state electricity company PPC to settle bills.
Officials later insisted that customers had received ample warning that most transactions could be handled online or by telephone.
Many users have lamented a lack of network bandwidth, while noting that their own homes could not be turned into office work areas at the flick of a switch when the lockdown was imposed in March.
“We are celebrating the disappearance of the fax in 2020,” jeers Dimitris Tsingos, a tech entrepreneur and founder of the Hellenic startup association.
– ‘Hardly revolutionary’ –
“There are efforts by the government but it’s hardly revolutionary… there is still a lot of work to be done,” he said.
Diamanto Zafiraki, a 38-year-old economy ministry employee, has her personal laptop to work with, but has to share with her eight-year-old twins when it’s time for homework.
“I don’t have a dedicated work area at home. I work from my kitchen, using equipment that is not made for this purpose,” she said.
Zafiraki also frequently battles slow connection and software glitches.
“This takes up a lot of my time and energy, and work with colleagues is much more difficult at a distance,” she says.
With thousands of school pupils at home because of the lockdown, the process of education continued online mainly due to the initiative and persistence of the teachers themselves, says Thanasis Goumas, a senior member of the teachers’ association.
“The education ministry gave neither guidelines nor equipment during this period,” Goumas told AFP.
Goumas also notes that many school pupils don’t have a computer at home, or an internet connection.
And there was uproar among teacher unions earlier this month when the education ministry announced that cameras would be set up in classes during teaching hours, to enable pupils not attending school to follow courses from home.
“The government claims this helps distance learning, but (schools) are not reality shows. We are completely against this,” Goumas said, citing a possible violation of privacy rights.