Leonidas Christopoulos (Digital Governance Gen. Sec.): The Greek roadmap to converge with the EU average

Leonidas Christopoulos, the secretary general of digital governance and simplification of procedures at the Ministry of Digital Governance, says Greece’s is set to make a successful shift towards comprehensive digitization with deep-rooted improvements in communications infrastructure as well administrative reorganization.

While trying to close the gap on its digital transition, Greece has already achieved several quick wins including recently its platform for covid-vaccinations as well as its platform for the digital covid certification which was presented earlier today in an event attended by PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the European Council President Charles Michel and EU Commission VP Margaritis Schinas.

Christopoulos tells Athens Digest that the government is ready to build on the transformational work done during the pandemic with the launch of the gov.gr services. “In 2019, we set a key target to converge with the European average in four years,” he stresses. He refers to the crucial role of the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility as well as the implementation Greek digital action plan, known as country’s “Digital Transformation Bible.”

 

Interview with John Papageorgiou

 

It has been widely acknowledged both in Athens and Brussels that Greece is now moving faster with its effort to close the gap on its digital transition. But it is also true that its performance remains low according to metrics such as the DESI index. What are the key areas of progress and how did the pandemic affect your planning?

 

In the summer of 2019, when we formed the Ministry of Digital Governance, we set a key target: to converge with the European average in four years.
We set out to accomplish this by digitizing and simplifying government services, which provides residents and businesses with a safer, simpler environment. As minister, Kyriakos Pierrakakis has often mentioned “The state’s major issue is digital transformation.”
The coronavirus pandemic did not derail our strategy because of our meticulous planning. Instead, it served as a catalyst for our digital transformation. We emphasize that on gov.gr, the government portal that unifies all of the state’s digital services. Due to COVID-19, it was activated two months ahead of schedule, allowing people to perform their transactions with the government from the comfort of their own home or workplace, eliminating commuting and excessive bureaucracy. Gov.gr currently provides 1,153 different government services (initially there were 501 services), including sworn declarations, power of attorney, drug prescriptions in the cloud, birth certificates, driving licences, and communication with the tax authorities via video conference.  It’s of high importance that in 2020, 94 million transactions took place. We also used SMS technology during the lockdown.
We designed a simple five-digit number, 13033, a service which was recognized as a best practice by the OECD. Furthermore, last autumn, we enacted law (4727/2020) a flagship bill that unifies and codifies all existing pieces of legislation concerning technology, digital and e-services, telecommunications, cybersecurity, and other topics. In a new digital era, we are creating a new digital reality.
Last but not least, in December 2020 we successfully completed the (spectrum) tender process, after six rounds of bidding. To facilitate the development of the 5G ecosystem, the Ministry of Digital Governance established a state-run investment fund under the name “Phaistos Fund”.
Its purpose is the investment in businesses (startups or other) which are active in the research and/or development of solutions based on 5G. Eligible companies could be active in sectors such as transport, logistics, manufacturing, industry, defence, goods and utility networks, health, tourism, information, and media. It is estimated that by 2030, 5G will create up to 69,000 new jobs and will generate gross value added up to EUR 12.4 billion.
The Ministry of Digital Governance has seen significant progress in each of its key verticals and policy objectives.

 

Both the RRF and the draft plan for ESPA 2021-27 include specific projects that are part of the pillar of digital transformation. What is the corresponding strategic planning for the country? What is the central aim, and goals for the short and medium term, through 2025 when according to the national plan the completion of the RRF projects is planned?

 

The reforms and investments of National Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRP) in ICT sector and the projects of the new ESPA will be fully aligned with the priorities and guidelines defined by the Digital Transformation Bible (DTB) and are expected to be complementary actions to the actions which are recorded in DTB and aim to promote Greece’s digital transformation. Numerous actions of the DTB which reflect the National Digital Strategy will be implemented through the aforementioned funding sources (RRF and ESPA).
DTB provides the action plan for digital transformation and in this context identifies over 400 specific projects and actions which are classified into short and medium term.
The implementation period of a short-term project is expected not to exceed one year. In the event that the implementation period of a short-term project exceeds one year, it will continue to be treated as a short-term project. Medium-term projects are expected to exceed the time horizon of a few months/one year and in the majority of the cases, their implementation will require many months or years through public contracts.
DTB has a five-year time horizon and is updated annually, depending on specific conditions and technological developments. In the long-term (the time period which will coincide with RRP’s completion and the last years of the new programme period) DTB is anticipated to be updated and replaced by a new strategic framework which will address Greece’s future goals and objectives in the ICT sector.

 

There are three main digital areas in the national RRF plan. The first concerns connectivity including 5G infrastructure projects. Where are these grants focused? What is the role of the public sector and what do you expect from the private sector, given that Greece is a country reliant on tourism with specific geographical characteristics (islands, remote areas etc.)?

 

The major objectives of the connectivity component include (a) the facilitation of fibre optic infrastructure installation (b) the development of 5G networks covering major Greek highways, (c) the switch to fast broadband connections and transition to 5G technology.
Related reforms and investments to the above mentioned objectives are the following:
– Switching to fast broadband connections.
– Transition to ultrafast broadband connections and strengthening of superfast broadband demand.
– Transition to 5G technology and facilitating the development of innovative remote services.
– Fiber optic infrastructure in buildings and submarine fibre cables
– 5G corridors
– Development of 5G networks that will provide coverage of all Greek motorways that are part of the trans-European transport networks.
The implementation of the proposed investments is expected to accelerate the use of next generation technological infrastructure by citizens and businesses and to increase the potential of the digital transformation of the Greek industry. The development of very high capacity networks is expected to have significant spillover effects on society and the economy as a whole, including the creation of new jobs, new and better opportunities for industry, higher efficiency and productivity for both citizens and companies.
Moreover, a critical factor for increased connectivity is the development of proper infrastructures into Greek islands (i.e. through modern submarine fiberoptic cables), which will connect the mainland with islands and Cyprus, aiming to enhance citizens and businesses access to higher network speeds. Achieving high-speed connections is considered vital for the development of the local economy and especially for the sustainable growth of the tourism sector.

 

The second area concerns strengthening the digitalization of the state in both infrastructure and digital skills. What makes you optimistic that, this time, the project will succeed, given the weaknesses of the Greek public administration?

 

Greece has always been a country that suffered from significant levels of administrative burdens arising from bureaucratic obstacles generated either by a poor legal framework or by obsolete administrative procedures. Although several Greek governments have implemented policies regarding the reduction of bureaucracy, there has never been a concrete national policy aimed at improving the administration’s ability to deliver public policies and services.

The Greek government that came into power in July 2019 acknowledged the problem and tried to address it by creating the new Ministry of Digital Governance (MDG) and by placing a Minister of State (a minister to the prime minister) as the coordinator of its bureaucracy reduction strategy. The statutory mission of the ministry is to gather all policies related to the digitalization and modernization of the state in terms of its functions and operations in a horizontal way and the ministry aims at the holistic planning and coordination of implementation of the national digital policy.
Specifically, for the first time, the MDG has horizontal statutory competence for all digital issues across all ministries as compared to the old model that had three main ministerial actors (Ministry of Digital Policy, Ministry of Administrative Reorganization and Ministry of Finance) and a series of entities under the competence of other ministries (IDIKA SA for the digitalization of health and social security under the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labour or EDYTE SA under the Ministry of Education).
The MDG brings together all the critical IT and telecommunications structures related to the provision of electronic services to citizens and the wider digital transformation of the country. Specifically, one of the ministry’s activities towards full digitalization of services is the simplification and improvement of related processes, removing them from bureaucratic overheads. Until now, digital politics, e-government and citizen service have been placed under different organizational units.
Moreover, MDG has focused on upgrading the capacity of Information Society SA which will function as the major stakeholder for the implementation of ICT projects in the public sector. Information Society has developed great know-how and experience in the design, implementation, and management of innovative e-government projects and will support MDG and other ministries in the implementation of various RRF projects.

 

The third pillar is related to business digitalization. In Greece over 90 percent of companies are SMEs. To be precise, most of them are small businesses of – unavoidably due to their size – low resilience. Are there KPIs and timelines regarding support for their competitiveness? 

 

The outbreak and rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented situation with urgent and significant consequences in almost all sectors of the economy.
The aim of this component is to raise the awareness and increase the adoption of digital technologies by businesses, in order to expand their digital presence and the interaction with their customers through digital channels and support their growth in global markets.
The related projects of this component (establishment of a digital business ecosystem and introduction of tax incentives and grants for the facilitation of the SMEs digital transformation) are expected to assist Greek SME’s in adopting a different business model which will ensure their sustainability and resilience in a highly competitive global environment and render them capable of exploiting the opportunities arising by the rapid technological developments.

 

The government has almost completed half of its term. Compared to the period you took office, what differences can a company find regarding investment and what has changed for a young skilled employee who left the country during the decade of financial crisis and is considering returning home?

 

Greece showed rapid growth rates during the pandemic, demonstrating its strong will to succeed. Digital transformation and simplification have been our main goals during this time. We simplify processes, remove bureaucratic barriers, and provide digital solutions that improve people’s daily lives. Our digital strategy is focused on empowering citizens through technology.
Digital governance is crucial for the development of the country and its transition to the new digital age. We design and implement policies and projects for the digitalization of the state and for its digital transformation in general.
The second key point is the simplification of processes through the National Simplification Program, aiming at fighting bureaucracy in transactions between public services and citizens. Our goal is a holistic improvement of the public services provided to citizens and businesses. At the same time, we believe that digitalization and simplification should go hand in hand, otherwise, we’re just digitizing bureaucracy. “Simplify first, digitalize later”.
The third key factor of the equation is Greece’s economic perspectives. To this end we have an excellent opportunity in our hands; The Greek National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which aspires to facilitate a paradigm shift in the Greek economy and institutions towards a more extroverted, competitive and green economic model, with a more efficient, less bureaucratic digitalized state, a significantly reduced “grey sector,” a more growth friendly tax system and a more resilient social safety network. This is more than just a financial transition. It seeks a more fundamental economic and social transition that will affect not only economic activity but also technologies, attitudes, and institutions.
So, we have a comprehensive and coherent plan as well as the resources to support a set of reforms and investments that will boost growth, bring substantial job creation as well as economic and social resilience.
We strongly believe that all these create a better perspective for our country and the right framework to not only stop brain drain but even create a new brain gain.