Greece ranks 26th out of 28 in the EU Digital Economy and Society Index, which tracks the evolution of member states’ digital competitiveness. The new government aims to turn this situation around by rolling out fiber optics and 5G, digitizing interactions between citizens and the state, and simplifying processes that are currently bogged down by bureaucracy. Here, Kyriakos Pierrakakis, Minister of Digital Governance, tells us how Greece’s digital drive will improve the business and investment environment, and make its people’s lives simpler
Your task is to promote digital transformation. What does this mean in the Greek context, and what will it do for citizens?
For us, digitization is a means, not an end in itself: it is a means to transform the Greek state, which is quite bureaucratic. We feel that digital technologies have the potential to enable interactions between citizens and the government, and to create a more linear and functional state. This entails quantitative goals: Greece ranks 26th out of 28 in the EU in the Digital Economy and Society Index. We are executing a very comprehensive strategy touching on all aspects of digital systems, and we aim to converge with the EU average within four years.
Your ministry has recovered powers that had been previously dispersed. What is the new philosophy of your department?
It’s a completely different ministry from the previous government’s, in that it has brought together different functions that had been assigned to a variety of other ministries. The key functions involve data interoperability, that is, the ability to “link” databases that currently do not “speak” with each other. This is a necessary condition to streamline certain interactions between citizens and the state. The second element involves the simplification of processes, and to this end, we have brought under our purview certain functions that previously fell to the ministry of public administration, such as the citizen service centers. We believe that digitization and simplification should be happening hand in hand, otherwise what you are doing is just digitizing bureaucracy. Our third key function involves the telecommunications industry and the rollout of networks and infrastructure. And all these things brought together to make up our key overarching goal, which is to make people’s lives simpler and easier.
Can you elaborate on the main pillars of the strategy to lift Greece from its bottom position on the DESI index?
The first pillar involves the creation of “gov.gr”, a website bringing together all government digital services, with the addition of some that are as of today available in the physical world and will be digitized. The second involves identification mechanisms that will enable us to provide these services, and for that, we will be rolling out new ID cards for citizens in the next couple of years. The third pillar is simplification: so far we have mapped what we call the “life events” of individuals and corporations, starting with the birth of a child and ending with the passing away of a loved one; we are determining which interactions between citizen and government are necessary for each of these events, and how we could limit the scope of these actions, either through simplification or digitization or both. The fourth pillar involves infrastructure and the rollout of networks. Access to telecommunications is a democratic right of citizens and a basic human need. Besides bringing fiber optics to homes throughout the country, we are streamlining the transition to 5G technology, and we will start the spectrum auctions of 5G before the end of 2020.
Why is 5G so important, and what priorities will you have in this area?
5G is extremely important because the obligations that those high speeds entail are very significant and have the potential to change the production model of many countries, including Greece. This country has lagged in the past, but now we want to be among the first to enter this new era. 5G technology is an “access” enabler to other services that citizens need from the public sector as well as B2C (business-to-customer) applications.
The European Commission (EC) has proposed a Digital Europe program with a budget of €9.2 billion. What level of cooperation will you be seeking?
We will seek very close cooperation on this matter. I have already presented our national strategy to the commissioner on a recent visit to Athens, and I feel that we should be very close partners with the EC in that respect, and that we should partner with all other member states as well. There are examples of failures and successes in other states, and what we want, apart from access to financing, is access to knowledge. We need to tap the knowledge of other states in this endeavor to move faster.
What are the biggest challenges you are facing?
I recently had the chance to hear a speech by the former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who is advising our government on digital transformation, and he said that the main challenges to digital transformation are not technological but political. We feel that those political challenges have been fully met: there is a political will on the part of this government to move forward very quickly. We have a plan, we have created an institution, and we are currently in the rollout process.
How can digitization improve the competitiveness and investment environment in Greece?
It can enhance it in two fundamental ways. The first is in telecommunications infrastructure because access to it is a necessary condition for investment. The second is by creating a less bureaucratic state, as bureaucracy has always impeded investment.
What opportunities do you see for investment in telecommunications and IT, and what level of involvement would you expect from German investors?
We already have a very significant German investor in the telecoms sector with Deutsche Telekom’s presence in the OTE Group, Greece’s largest telecommunications provider. Beyond that, I would say that one of the upsides of the crisis has been the emergence of a nascent innovation ecosystem of startups through the adoption of very good policies. We are now seeing growth and scaling: for instance, we had the recent acquisition of Taxibeat by Daimler. We feel that the Greek startup ecosystem holds the potential for further investment.
What synergies are you pursuing in the private and public sectors to ensure that all these changes take place?
We feel that IT projects should move off the spectrum of capital expenses to the spectrum of operating expenses, which is philosophically closer to working with the private sector. We will pursue private-public partnerships (PPPs), and the pipeline of projects that we will present involves a further shift in those directions.
What is the role of new technologies in these plans?
New technologies are a big part of the equation, and artificial intelligence (AI) should be part of that as well. But as I have said in parliament, we cannot proceed with the fourth industrial revolution if we have not yet concluded business with the third industrial revolution, meaning digitization, so we will try to do things in parallel, resolving our outstanding issues with the past, interlinking the systems, simplifying the processes, and at the same time developing strategies on data, AI, and how it could further enable interaction between citizens and the state.
Do you see Greece as a regional ICT hub at some point, considering its strategic location and well-developed logistics network?
To draw an analogy with the IT industry, I would say that Greece has until now been a country that had the proper hardware but not the proper software, meaning not the proper incentives and institutions to achieve what its position should normally enable it to achieve. Our reform plan is comprehensive, and the necessary conditions involve the removal of barriers, including taxation barriers, changes in the justice system, and whatever else is necessary to improve the business climate in general. Then, specifically for the ICT industry, we need to achieve scale and a digital state. We are currently in a position to achieve both in the next couple of years.
What is your vision for Greece in the long term?
Our quantitative goal is to rise from our 26th position on the DESI index and converge with the EU average. Our qualitative goal is to achieve a state that works better and further enables citizens to achieve their dreams. Rather than prohibiting, we want to be enablers. The overall vision of the government for the country is that we need to create a different economic model after having been through a 10-year crisis. We have studied what other countries have done: Finland with their education system, Estonia with digitization, Israel with innovation. We feel that Greece has lots of potential on many fronts, and we are looking for the right words to attach to the country besides tourism and shipping. And I feel that this government is going to be able to achieve this vision within the next couple of years.