There’s a famous Monty Python sketch from the early 1970s about an argument between a pet shop keeper and a customer complaining about the dead parrot he recently purchased. The shopkeeper refuses to accept the claim even though the bird is obviously dead as a doornail. The classic comedy sketch – a paradigm of British humor – could also loosely serve as a comment on the pedantry of bureaucracy.
Kathimerini’s recent front-page story on the effects on the pandemic on the civil service was a catalogue of stories of madness from citizens frustrated in their efforts to get important bureaucratic work done with an underperforming state.
The basic issue seems to be that because of coronavirus-related restrictions, citizens needs to make an appointment by telephone to take care of any business that cannot be conducted online. The problem is that no one at the other end is picking up the phone to arrange the appointment. People who give up trying to get through and appear at the relevant service in person, meanwhile, are turned away for not having an appointment. One of the stories in the report concerned an accountant who had to call a tax office 20 times before he got through. He said he felt like throwing a party – alone, of course, because friends are not allowed. In another account, an engineer claimed that most of the town planning offices he works with don’t have email and will not pick up the phone.
Some civil servants are doing nothing while claiming to be working from home, leaving all the work to others. This is nothing new, of course. After all, who is there to assess their performance, to reward those who do their jobs properly and reprimand the slackers? The answer to that is also well known: No one.
The state may be broken, but it is still responsible for the country’s operation. It is responsible, for example, for defining what is an emergency and what is not. Despite the pandemic, an emergency may even be the private business of a crony – another symptom of the lack of oversight. Then there are the civil servants and citizens taking advantage of the situation. After all, delays and red tape snarls are practically synonymous with the Greek civil service, which the government is trying to digitally modernize.
For digital governance to work, however, it must embrace a fundamental principle: digitizing bureaucracy should not be the aim as much as reducing it. Otherwise, no one will admit that the parrot is obviously dead, just because it’s nailed to its perch.