By Yiouli Eptakili
A woman who wanted to work as a hairdresser applied for a license at an Athens municipality in September 2011. The license was not issued until 2013 and only after the intervention of the Ombudsman, who had to appeal to the municipality and two ministries to get the job done. The reasons why something so simple became so complicated are well known to Greeks: foot-dragging, indifference, red tape and poor management.
There are plenty of similarly ludicrous tales to be found in the annual report of the Greek Ombudsman. Some make you want to laugh and others to cry, while in many cases the Ombudsman has had to step in and act as arbitrator to cover the gap when state institutions simply could not deliver the services required by citizens.
How easy, however, is it for citizens to gain access to the authorities and institutions whose job it is to protect their rights and interests? This was the focus of an 18-month study conducted for the Ombudsman by a team of scientists. The findings are enlightening and reveal a political culture that needs to change radically, as well as an interesting reading of Greek society.
Lack of access
The main conclusion that arises from the study is the lack of access certain population groups have to independent authorities.
“Although technically they have the right, they have no recourse to what we call ‘lawful rights,’” Nikos Nagopoulos, an associate professor in the University of the Aegean’s Sociology Department and one of the researchers, told Kathimerini.
The academic argues that while there are laws ensuring that citizens are not excluded, this is not enough on a practical level. He cites the adoption of EU legislation on non-discrimination in the 2005-06 period, but says that this was never fully put into practice.
“We became complacent. We believed that as long as we had an advanced law, all legal rights could be enjoyed and claimed by every citizen. The issue is that there are obstacles of a socioeconomic nature which means that certain people cannot really engage in civic life. They may be interested in making a claim for themselves or their families, but they are largely excluded from public goods and rights.
“This creates a democratic deficit because democracy is not only about ideological confrontation, but also about people’s everyday life. As a result, those who need citizen rights most are deprived of them.”
Greece has made many steps in terms of putting rights into legislation but findings show that this has not registered with the public. Three in four of those questioned, out of a sample of 1,020 people, had never turned to the Ombudsman for help. Of those who did, two out of three say the Ombudsman had helped them with their case. This is where issues of political culture come into play.
“So the question is, if the legislation is in place, why are people not doing enough to claim their rights?” says Nagopoulos. “A first explanation is the far-reaching clientele system. People know that in order to service their demands, they rather make use of connections, not public goods,” he says, adding that the situation is adverse to a participatory understanding of democracy.
“Furthermore, past research in social trust has shown that Greeks have blind trust in their family environment while being skeptical and distrustful of institutions. In Europe, on the other hand, people have moderate trust in their family environment and stronger confidence in the institutions. In foreign countries, institutions enjoy a strong status and ethical reputation. The legal and the moral go hand in hand. Something which is legal also has to have a strong moral element.”
Public discontent with state sector services and agencies is very deep, studies show. Repeated changes in legislation and staff cuts have made the situation even worse. People are expected to constantly catch up with changes in the legislation, which is not always possible. Many of them turn to the Ombudsman about issues over which the citizens’ advocate has no competence, such as pension cuts. It is very worrying that there has been a recent increase in offenses by public sector employees. To make matters worse, people tend to be hostile toward using computers.
“The more technology becomes part of the state apparatus – be it the legislative, judicial or executive branch – without the people catching up with these new possibilities, the more citizens will be alienated from their rights,” says
Anastasios-Ioannis Metaxas, a political science professor at the University of Athens. For Metaxas, the state and other institutions will always be one step ahead of the individual in terms of this new knowledge. This, he says, raises the issue of fast and accurate information regarding how people can protect their rights.
Metaxas says this is extremely crucial with regard to two independent authorities, namely the Hellenic Data Protection Authority (HDPA) and the Ombudsman.
“The former receives a great number of claims and complaints and always has to strike a balance between two goods: On one hand, it has to decide whether it will limit information because it could be to the disadvantage of a third party and, on the other, whether it will spread the information, thereby preventing the state from having a monopoly on data on the grounds of the public interest,” he says.
As far as the Ombudsman is concerned, Metaxas says, every individual in this country should know what they can ask, what they can protect themselves against and, above all, decode the technical terms and fuzzy bureaucratic details with which they can honor their freedom.
“And I use the word ‘honor’ because whoever exercises the freedom he or she is entitled to is at the same time protecting other people’s freedom.”