INTERVIEWS

Health crisis prompts digital strides in Greece

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“The 13033 hotline was set up in just 15 hours,” Digital Governance Minister Kyriakos Pierrakakis told Kathimerini, describing his ministry’s race last month to get everything in place over the space of just one weekend as the government announced restrictions on public movement that went into effect on Monday, March 23. He was referring to the special number where citizens and residents now have to send a text message for permission for specific categories of outings, such as visiting a doctor, a supermarket or a person in need of assistance.

“We’re not monitoring citizens, storing data or keeping records. Many countries are focusing on surveillance, on monitoring people’s behavior, while we aim only at providing a service,” he said, explaining that his ministry acted on the instructions of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis when designing the hotline.

While the prime minister may be defined by the ease with which he has adopted strict measures for containing the spread of the novel coronavirus, he is not addicted to the idea of expanding his powers. In fact, says Pierrakakis, Mitsotakis is determined to ensure that the state does not monitor or manipulate its citizens. He stresses that the measures limiting the public’s movement will only last as long as the coronavirus threat.

“We wanted the permit for outings to be available in digital form and not just on paper,” says the minister.

The New Yorker recently published an article praising Estonia for being one of the most digitally advanced nations in Europe and for being well prepared for the lockdown measures dictated by the pandemic. Greece today is racing ahead of other European peers and is also starting to turn heads. The architect of Estonia’s digital revolution, the country’s former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, is one of Pierrakakis’ advisers and a friend, but the speed with which the Digital Governance Ministry has been able to respond to the new demands created by the crisis is the result of sticking to the timeline set out last summer, just after the center-right government was elected to power.

“Our initial goal had been to complete a number of projects by Easter, but conditions compelled us to accelerate them. The prime minister asked us to speed up the complete program for the next three years,” said Pierrakakis.

The prime minister, the minister and their associates did not want to waste the opportunity presented by the crisis to speed up plans for the Greek state’s digital transformation. Pierrakakis does not want to comment, but it is not unlikely that Greeks will have new identity cards on an app on their mobile phones in the next few months.

Apart from the 112 emergency hotline, which has been used to help manage the recent refugee crisis, Pierrakakis also brought the introduction of the Gov.gr portal forward by two months. “It is the state,” he says, as citizens are able to access 507 state services and procedures – so far. This was achieved by unifying the digital records of various different state agencies. “What we found was the 80/20 rule, or the Pareto principle: 20 percent of services concentrated 80 percent of demand,” said the minister.

The first two services made available to citizens were the document authorizing another individual to act on your behalf in a transaction with the state and the statutory declaration requiring a certified signature. Furthermore, Greece became the first country in the European Union to publish guidelines for spotting fake news, even before Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke of such a measure, while it also introduced the Digital Solidarity initiative, inviting private companies that are active in the digital sphere to offer their services to the state pro bono. So far, 50 have responded.

The major areas where Greece has made great strides are health, governance and life events. Doctors can now send prescriptions to their patients’ mobile phones, while, very soon, patients who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 but do not require hospital care will be assigned a username and password so that they can have a daily consultation online with a doctor who will be monitoring their symptoms. The government also launched a platform on the gov.gr portal for volunteers, ethelontes.gov.gr, which saw more than 5,000 health workers offering their services to Greek hospitals and the National Health System (ESY).

In the sphere of governance, it is now possible for the civil service and local government to organize teleconferences on epresence.gov.gr. The platform can support up to 1,000 conferences at a time. Another service that has been introduced is the digital signature, ending the ridiculous practice of laws and legal documents having to be rushed to and fro so that they could be physically signed by a minister. Recent legislative acts have been signed in this way, while the application has also been installed on the cellphone of President Katerina Sakellaropoulou so she can approve decrees. Last but not least, apart from assigning all newborns with a social security number (AMKA) and sparing parents a lot of hassle, the government is also pushing ahead with simplifying procedures associated with other life events.