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Pandemic, EU billions drive Greece's digital revolution

Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou
·4 min read

By Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) - Before COVID-19, visits to Greece's paper-strewn labour offices were a ordeal of queues and case files, often for basic matters that in less than a year have moved online as the pandemic upended old administrative routines.

"Essentially overnight, two thirds of the visits were no longer necessary," said Spiros Protopsaltis, head of OAED, the Organization of Employment and Unemployment Insurance.

Crammed with thousands of folders and blue OAED registration cards spilling out onto desks and floor space, the corridors of the building where he spoke still offer a daunting vision of the challenge to overhauling public services in Greece.

But conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis says he is determined to harness the pandemic to "leapfrog" other countries with green and digital reforms to change everything from energy to education.

Greece has long been an online laggard, languishing at the bottom of the European Union's digital economy rankings, but shifts forced by the pandemic and billions of euros from the EU's Recovery Fund may accelerate change.

Around 6 billion euros ($7.34 billion), a fifth of the 32 billion in EU recovery funds that Greece will receive, has been earmarked for the transition. Some 400 projects, from fibre optic networks to reinforcing cybersecurity and improving skills have been outined in a 2020-25 "Digital Transformation Bible".

"If we can do everything we've planned in the recovery, it will be truly transformational," Mitsotakis told Reuters in an interview.

Similar promises of transformation have been heard before however and years of encrusted bureaucracy as well as a debt crisis that decimated investment will not be swept away easily.

According to a 2019 OECD report, two thirds of Greeks believe they deserve better treatment from state services, which for many, mean dispiriting visits to rundown offices where case files can disappear for years.

Public offices only stopped using fax machines at the start of this year; high speed internet connection is not a given and ancient box-sized computers running on 1990s software are common.

"We still use pens to write," said Dimitris, a public sector manager planning to retire after 44 years, who did not want to give his last name in case it complicated the battle he faces to claim his pension.

CALCULATOR AND PAPER

"There are certain prerequisites for Greece to leapfrog as it needs, because right now it lags behind in most metrics," said Nikos Vettas, head of the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research (IOBE) thinktank.

As well as 5G infrastructure, overhauling public sector management and education reforms to improve digital skills were vital. "If you combine all this then you could have a significant positive effect on GDP growth," he said.

Pressure to shake up public services had grown as successive governments battled through the decade-long debt crisis and eye-catching initiatives, such as a unified e-government services platform, have followed.

"Even before the pandemic, 80% of our services were digital," said George Pitsilis, head of the Independent Authority for Public Revenue who says he wants to eliminate any reason to come to a tax office.

"Of course the pandemic was an accelerator," he said from one of the authority's modernized Athens offices where video calls have largely replaced in-person visits.

In other areas, progress has been slower.

For many pensioners, claiming retirement benefits involves long sessions with an official using paper and a calculator to work out how successive reforms - there were at least 13 during the financial crisis - have affected their entitlements.

Many claims are delayed for years and a target to get 80% of the system online this year appears ambitious. "Getting a pension in Greece is a nightmare," sighed Dimitris, the retiring public servant.

But other signs are more hopeful. The government points to investment plans from the likes of Microsoft and Amazon and, although many older people do not use a computer, smartphone features like an e-prescription service launched as the pandemic erupted have proved a hit.

From 1,500 people registered when it opened, there are now around 1.6 million users and nearly a quarter of drug prescriptions are issued online.

"The good thing with digital transformation is you don't necessarily need lots of physical capital," said Vettas. "You need human capital and in that regard one can be optimistic Greece can transform."

(Editing by James Mackenzie)