In his 1959 speech, John F. Kennedy famously said: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters – one represents danger and one opportunity”. Even though today it is widely recognized that this is not the correct interpretation of the Chinese characters, JFK’s quote about crisis giving birth to opportunity is more relevant than ever.
It is definitely relevant for Greece, a country that has ever been lagging far behind the rest of European countries in digital governance and overall use of technology, ranking 25th out of the 27 EU countries on EU’s Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), for 2019. Modernizing the state through the use of technology has been at the very top of the new Greek government’s agenda ever since it took office following the July 7th, 2019, national election. The newly formed Ministry of Digital Governance put together a comprehensive strategic plan (incorporated in the, so called, Bible of Digital Transformation), to digitize the public sector, provide online services to Greek citizens, strengthen the population’s digital literacy and incorporate innovative technologies in all sectors of the Greek economy.
Plato is credited for coining the phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention” – the Covid19 pandemic acted as the forcing mechanism to accelerate innovation in Greece, leading to rapid advances in digital governance. Faced with an unprecedented crisis, the Greek government fast realized that technology, if applied effectively, could provide immediate solutions to help manage the problem at hand. From the very onset of the crisis, digital means were used for citizens to declare the reasons for leaving their home and gov.gr was introduced, 3 months earlier than originally planned, to help citizens complete necessary transactions with the state remotely. This new platform now acts as a single digital gateway to more than 500 services, including some new, high volume ones, of the likes of citizen’s solemn declaration and authorization/power of attorney. In less than a month, more than 150,000 of just these two services were completed online, saving citizens and enterprises precious productive time while keeping them safe at base. Similarly, many forms required by the public sector, whether related to Health, Education, Justice or other aspects of citizens’ interaction with the state, can now be accessed online with the relevant procedures completed digitally.
At the same time, a teleconferencing platform was introduced to allow public servants to work from home, as well as online digital learning and virtual classroom tools were made available to allow for public schools and universities to continue their operation remotely. Moreover, a new digital service was introduced allowing patients to receive drug prescriptions on their cell phone, without having to physically visit their doctor. This was critical for chronically ill patients to minimize unnecessary exposure during the Covid19 pandemic. As a result, more than 500,000 drug prescriptions have been implemented digitally to date in Greece. Last but not least, telemedicine solutions, providing consultation to Covid19 patients as well as psychological support to citizens, have also been implemented at scale as a response to the health crisis.
Technology has become an ally not just to battle but also to help survive Covid 19. Technology has become an integral part of Greek people’s everyday life, a positive side effect of the pandemic.
As President Kennedy suggested, out of crises can emerge amazing opportunities. But, for this to happen, traditional approaches need to be questioned and challenged. As incentives and motives change under pressure, new working structures emerge or become even more relevant. Ever since last summer, the Greek Ministry of Digital Governance has been focusing on completing many smaller scale ICT projects rather than few, large scale ones, to drive the country’s digital transformation. These smaller scale ICT projects require dedicated, fully accountable working teams embracing agile design and implementation techniques. Under crisis, these flexible structures and methodologies have become the new operational norm, effectively adapting to the new circumstances and producing fast time-to-market results.
More importantly, the new approach places citizens at the forefront. It is a people-centric approach that aims to serve the citizens’ needs rather than the public sector’s ones.
The modernization of the Greek public sector, as well as the incorporation of technology in all aspects of the Greek economy shall continue even after the crisis is over. Further to their immediate contributions during the pandemic, the digital tools and processes put in place have also contributed in a very important mentality shift: e-government has increased citizen trust in government and public administration. We still have a long way to go. Moving forward, we need to capitalize on this invaluable legacy.