Ending bureaucracy as we know it

Digital Governance Minister talks to Kathimerini about the changes that are transforming the Greek state

Ending bureaucracy as we know it

The headquarters of Digital Governance Minister Kyriakos Pierrakakis look nothing like a normal ministry, but more like a startup where the dress code had been abolished and the age of the average employee has dropped a couple of decades. 

“Are you sure I’ve been vaccinated?” I jest and the people responsible for the resounding success of Greece’s Covid vaccination program laugh at my rather poor joke. But it’s actually no laughing matter. The minister wants every state service to be as efficient as the system for booking vaccines. It is a vision for the future that is encompassed in the mission of Greece’s “Digital Transformation Bible.” 

At the age of 38, Pierrakakis, a father of three, is the youngest minister in cabinet. One of his key traits is speed: He thinks fast, talks fast and acts fast to get every task he is assigned done efficiently. What’s he working on right now? Before answering, he points out that the number of online transactions offered by the portal has increased from 501 to 1,300 in the past 18 months. By the end of the year, digital transactions with the state are expected to exceed 350 million, from 8.8 million in 2018.

“The use of digital services in Greece is a classic case of a phenomenon that has seen exponential growth,” he says. 

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the ministry in November bagged the 2021 Digital Opportunity/Inclusion Award (Public Sector) at the Global ICT Excellence Awards organized by the World Information Technology and Services Alliance (WITSA), or that Pierrakakis was selected by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to chair the Global Strategy Group. In its yearly meeting, which took place online a few days ago, the group discussed remote working and its impact on the labor market. 

The fact is that we want to go back to pre-pandemic times in almost everything – except our relationship with the state. We like the digital state and have quickly grown accustomed to it. “The pandemic accelerated developments so that the state could function in conditions of restricted mobility, but slashing red tape is something we have all yearned for, for decades,” says the minister.

The digital transformation is a political act, which has benefited the masses. “The government has liberated citizens from having to wait in line and brought the state to them, through their computers and cellphones,” says Pierrakakis, who has a degree in information technology from the Athens University of Business and Economics, a master’s in public policy from Harvard and another in technology policy from MIT. 

“It is about empowering citizens, upholding their choices, giving them dignity and self-confidence, while it is also a policy that promotes social justice and eradicates inequalities insofar as all citizens have the same access,” he adds.

Thanks to these strides, the state that stands in people’s way is being replaced by a state that helps them get their business done. Speaking of some of the new services we can expect in the next few weeks, the minister mentions starting up a business from home, transferring ownership titles for vehicles and property from one person to another online, and paperless divorce. Not to mention the digital platform for notaries that will free real estate transactions from so much paperwork and the internationally recognized digital signature that will make life so much easier for professionals like engineers and lawyers – and will be offered for free. 

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ vision when he was elected to government in 2019 “was to establish a ministry with a startup culture that would use the resources of the state to bring about change,” explains the minister describing the driving force behind the digital transformation.

Since then, the ministry has notched up several major accomplishments, including the fact that Greece is among the top three countries in Europe in developing its 5G network, with plans to have 99% of the country covered by 2026. But there are also a lot of loose ends, which, Pierrakakis says, are slowly but surely being tied up. 

“Every small change in the state, every day, is a small change in day-to-day life,” says the minister, who also served as head of research at the Dianeosis think tank, adding that big changes are also in the offing. 

“There are 440 projects outlined in the Digital Transformation Bible and they are projects that tie up loose ends from the past and others than constitute an ‘opening’ toward the big changes already taking place worldwide. Many of them are small and others are big and will take longer to mature, particularly as they also have to be put to tender,” says Pierrakakis.

The minister explains that there are two ways to build a “digital skyscraper”: “One is to wait for the skyscraper to be completed and then to open its doors and inaugurate it; the other is to deliver each section – each apartment or each floor – as soon as it’s ready. We chose the latter. According to our plan, many small projects – such as renewing drivers’ licenses online – will be ready by 2025 and they will lock in with other bigger IT projects to signal the complete transformation of the state and its leap in terms of speed and efficiency. At the same time, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, 5G infrastructure networks and micro-satellites will come together to change everything around us.” 

Algorithms, the snowball effect and burning the midnight oil

Harold Macmillan, prime minster of the UK from 1957 to 1963, once said that power is like a Dead Sea fruit: When you achieve it, there is nothing there. What does power mean for Pierrakakis? It is worth noting that the minister may be a larger-than-life personality and enjoy reading bulky political biographies, but he is no fan of pharaonic legacies. He firmly believes that a small achievement can be more important than a big one.

“A small change can have a snowball effect that leads to a big change,” he says. “For example, the platform didn’t cost a lot of money, neither did digital medical prescriptions, but they have a massive cumulative effect on day-to-day life.”

His are not epic transformations, therefore, but small modifications that have a multiplier effect. “Bureaucracy as we know it is coming to an end with every week that passes and every new service that is announced. We are changing the equation, with a state that is digital, flexible, fast and transparent.”

Pierrakakis clearly has the knowledge needed for the task at hand and the work ethic of a person who can’t let a day go by without getting something done. But he is also determined to make the most of the resources and the mandate he’s been given. The support of the prime minister has been crucial. Without this combination, factors within the state system resisting change because it goes against their narrow interests might have been able to stand in his way.

In the 28 months that he has been a minister, what is the one day that remains etched on his memory? “It was the night going from January 11 to January 12 in 2021, when the vaccination system went into operation. We had just a couple of months to set up an incredibly complicated system that had to function like a well-tuned orchestra. Every time a new system begins, there are challenges. If it’s well-designed, however, you can deal with these challenges in three or four hours. If it’s not, it may never function properly. We knew that if we could not deal with every problem that came up by 7 a.m. when the pharmacies opened, we would be faced with a double crisis: technical and political. No one slept that night,” he recalls. 

Others who were there remember Pierrakakis ordering dozens of pizzas to feed the team and being there for the programmers, right by their side, the entire time.

Extreme scenarios

Kyriakos Pierrakakis’ office is full of books, which he’s happy to give away to visitors he takes a liking to. I got two, one of which was Dan Levy’s “Maxims for Thinking Analytically.” I know it will come in useful. It draws on the 19 maxims of Harvard University professor Richard Zeckhauser, who taught the Greek minister when he was studying for his master’s degree in 2006. It was a difficult class, but also one of the most interesting.

What are Professor Zeckhauser’s maxims? “Zeckhauser’s maxims stem from using mathematical models for decision-making,” he says. 

Which one is his favorite? “The first, in which he says that when you are having trouble getting your thinking straight, you must consider the extreme scenario of each of your alternatives and decide which one you find acceptable.” 

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