Liberating lockdown? COVID-19 rushes Greek government into the digital age

Greeks wowed as online service replaces 'come back Monday' bureaucracy.

"I'd never thought I would see the day!" a resident of the southern Greek city of Corinth exclaimed. He had just applied for a European Health Card online using a newly-launched government portal. 

Up until a few days ago, that would have required a trip to Athens 51 miles away carrying a pile of certified photocopies and mental preparations to brace for a wait in line that could last hours. 

But Greeks, now in lockdown, are experiencing a landmark digital leap forward. 

Scheduled for launch "in the first half of 2020," gov.gr – still in beta version – went live mid-March because the COVID-19 epidemic forced the hand of Greek officials. 

"A person quarantined at home can now do more from his laptop, without setting foot outside, than he could do a few weeks ago running around ministries and offices," claims one user.

The government platform offers access to 14 ministries, 32 bodies and organizations, and three independent authorities for a total of 507 services organized into 11 categories ranging from property taxes to animal husbandry. Citizens can obtain documents ranging from a criminal record certificate to a registry of authorized seed sellers in their region. They can also register their children for a place at a public kindergarten, apply from subsidies, or make arrangements to pay a traffic fine. New services are being added daily.

The latest service is a cell phone app to receive medical prescriptions, eliminating the need for a printout from the doctor's office.

"You have to understand that even average things like typing the patient's National Insurance Number into a computer to see his prescription history was already something quite advanced for Greece and we haven't been doing it for that long! So all of this is nothing short of a revolution," explains an Athens physician.

Some of these services had been recently automated and put online but scattered among numerous websites. Finding the correct and updated version was another time-waster. The single portal makes everything simpler. "It gradually ends the unnecessary suffering of citizens and the bureaucracy," said Digital Governance Minister Kyriakos Pierrakakis, the MIT-trained driving force behind the project who added that ministry technicians volunteered hours of additional time to speed up the launch. 

According to European Union data, Greece had been dead last in digital governance indicators. Hindered by a decade of harsh economic crisis, efforts to modernize the country's slow-moving bureaucracy had been halting. Many of those efforts had, in fact, been driven by spending cuts and the need to reduce the public deficit. But few benefited the average citizen.

The current government took a few earlier steps in that direction last year, boosting the Digital Governance Ministry and enlisting the help of advisors such as Estonia's former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who successfully steered his country into the most advanced digital society in the world.

With at least another month indoors ahead of them, Greeks are now being encouraged to embrace the new bureaucracy.