ATHENS – It’s been 2500 years since the Parthenon was built atop the Acropolis in Athens, a feat of ancient technology that still inspires, and a lesson Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said was applied to the science today – from COVID-19 vaccination systems and creating digital services for citizens.
In a podcast Tools and Weapons hosted by Microsoft President Brad Smith, Mitsotakis talked about a range of issues but key was how technology is being used to improve people’s lives, including not standing in line in public offices.
“So you’ve really harnessed the power of technology as you’ve been describing, to modernize government, simplify and improve government services, make it through the pandemic,” said Smith.
“But if you think about even what happened here, you go to the Acropolis, you look at the Parthenon, we don’t think about the engineering that went into building this thing. I mean, which in itself, I mean, think of the technology of the era. It’s fascinating,” said Mitsotakis.
Indeed, often-ridiculed for a stagnant bureaucracy where it had been common to see piles of files on the floor or stuffed in boxes and binders, Greece has used technology to leapfrog other countries – including the United States.
During the pandemic, Greeks who wanted vaccinations could register on their phones, get an instant appointment which was confirmed and reminded and after the shot get a quick confirmation via email they could print out.
It was fast and efficient, humbling confused American efforts where it was often difficult to find a vaccination center or get a shot.
“I was so surprised when I saw my daughter showed back, and she came back to Greece (from the United States) and said, ‘Where’s your vaccine certificate?’ And she showed me this little handwritten card. Then I started laughing,” he said.
Mitsotakis – schooled at Harvard and Stanford for advanced degrees – added: “I mean, what is this? I mean, in Greece, it was all digital from the very, very beginning. We were at the forefront of designing the EU digital vaccine certificate, which allowed us to travel during COVID because it recognized a vaccine status among member states.”
SCRATCH THE ABACUS
Smith said, “I think it’s fair to say that Prime Minister Mitsotakis is really a 21st-Century Prime Minister. He’s used digital technology to drive not just an economic resurgence, but a digital transformation for the nation, for their growing tech sector, and is focused on how to put technology to work to improve the way everyday citizens get to interact with the government.”
Smith told Mitsotakis that, “I think you were one of the earlier adopters when it came to prime ministers recognizing that you needed to fuel the digital transformation of the country and the government itself. You adopted, the Parliament supported, in September of 2020, a cloud-first policy.”
Mitsotakis noted that he was Minister for Administrative Reform and E-Government in an earlier government in 2013-14, before the digital age had accelerated to where it is.
“I realized that my portfolio was any government portfolio only in name.
I simply did not have the tools to drive through digital transformation of the state, so I thought that if I ever were given the opportunity, we would do differently,” he said of how he wanted to bring that change.
He created a Ministry of Digital Transformation to go more paperless and eliminate people having to go to ministries or civil service offices for signatures or work that they could get done online or on their phones.
It said it had “very broad responsibilities that own not just the data, but also the processes, because it’s not just enough to aggregate the data and make the databases talk to each other, we don’t just want to recreate bureaucracy.”
He added that, “Digital transformation needs to go hand-in-hand with an assessment of what processes are unnecessary and redundant. The end result of this has been more than a billion digital interactions between citizens, businesses, and the state, over the past three years.
“Our gov.gr site has been a revolution for Greeks who were always accustomed to the idea that they have to show up to interact with the state, even if it were to verify their signature or sign any sort of truthful statement. Now, all of this can be done digitally,” he said.
He added: “We focused a lot on digital health. Also, COVID was an opportunity to do that and I think we’re just scratching the surface of what we can do to deliver a fully digital state. I think it speaks volumes to the younger generation, who are much more digitally literate … now we have the next challenges.”