Note — This blog is informed by a sit-down chat with Digital Governance Minister Kyriakos Pierrakaki at the University of College London’s Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose on Jan. 20, 2023. It’s incorporates and reflects upon concepts from the IIPP’s Digital Transformation course, led by David Eaves and Mike Bracken.
In 2019, Greece ranked 26th out of the 28 EU member states in the European Commission Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI). It wasn’t a good look.
And yet, that’s what made digital an ideal mission for the country as they sought to cover basic citizen needs and continue into the ‘Sphere of the Desirable,’ as Digital Governance Minister Kyriakos Pierrakaki put it at the Athens Digital Economy Forum in 2022. And, boy, did it have an impact. In the first half of 2021 alone, 150 million digital transactions were completed versus just 8.8 million in 2018. Though this hasn’t shifted their DESI ranking significantly yet, there are some clear indicators that they’re moving in the right direction.
The Journey Begins
Greece’s grand-scale plan to reform and digitise government services and the underlying infrastructure was founded in the understanding that building state capacity for the digital age was a critical component of meeting their citizen’s needs in the 21st Century. The fact that the policy topic was generally popular moved it past the debate of “Should this occur?” and into the realm of “How might we make this happen?”
The underlying assumptions were that digital transformation would lead to:
- Significant social contributions
- Increased trust in the state
- Economic development
- National dynamism and competitiveness
Now, to make something this ambitious happen takes a healthy dose of systems thinking, network navigating, and practical understanding of what it takes to steer a ship in a new direction. For Kyriakos, this skill was displayed as he built the proposal prior to a ministry change in 2020 and executed starting the day after the election to create the inertia needed to inflict lasting change within the first 100 days.
“Inertia is the most powerful force in government.”
The Digital Bible
The main objectives of the Digital Transformation Strategy for 2020–2025, aka the ‘Digital Bible,’’ that ensued included the following.
With these serving as guiding principles, Kyriakos rallied the whole of the Greek government around a simple, yet effective idea: Mapping citizen’s core life events and services provided at these moments that matter.
The birth of a child alone touched four different agencies, which made pulling groups out of their siloes to collaborate on delivering a service far more achievable than it would have been otherwise. As per Herd & Moynihan in the book Administrative Burden, “Most people would agree that if the public sector provides a service, it should be one that is visible enough to be seen, simple enough to comply with, and not psychologically taxing” (p. 597).
Now, this was put into practice in alignment with three key priorities:
- Single Portal for Citizens
- Centralisation of Procurement
- Establishing a Hub for Data Exchange
- Hosting Everything in the Cloud
The Gov.gr ‘Umbrella’
Following the UK’s lead with Gov.uk, Greece launched their own overarching government website, Gov. gr, to “allow a simplified interaction between the citizens and the state with a unique point of contact”. This involved consolidating existing websites, centralising procurement to reduce duplicate IT spending, and identifying and communicating services provided across ministries. This played a key role in disseminating health and vaccine program information during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Centralisation of Procurement
In digital transformation projects, the lengthy and constraining nature of public procurement can make or break successful implementation. Alternatively, centralised procurement — meaning purchasing decisions are made by a single organisation, often at the headquarters level — can result in “efficiency gains, greater specialisation, and related capacity improvements.” Greece set on this path in March 2021 by amending a public procurement law in order to enhance, simplify, and accelerate procurement procedures through increased transparency and reduce administrative burden.
Establishing a Hub for Data Exchange
Instead of building a massive central database for government data, Greece took a decentralised approach to ensuring standards were set across ministries so that data could be shared via API calls when necessary. This was implemented by upgrading the existing data interoperability centre to a hub for data exchange, which supported more than 1,480 services in November 2022, up from 280 in February 2021.
Hosting Everything in the Cloud
In September 2020, Greece adopted a cloud-first policy to improve end-user experience and reduce cost. This has since attracted AWS, Microsoft and Google to build data centres in the region, contributing to the country’s efforts to become a cloud computing hub.
When beginning digital transformation efforts, it’s key to understand the difference between agile and waterfall approaches and how to adopt the former. This involves taking formerly linear steps to development and instead conducting them both continuously and simultaneously. This often involves a methodology which incorporates the following phases: Discovery, Alpha, Beta, and Live. In Greece, this was reflected in cases like the development of digital driver’s licences, which started small by creating temporary licences in lieu of the official version made available a few months after application.
Ask: How would this fail?
There’s no doubt about it — Undergoing state-wide digital transformation efforts will inevitably involve failures. But that doesn’t mean the risks shouldn’t be assessed and mitigated. In Greece’s case, a question Kyriakos and the new ministry asked early on to level-set was “How would this fail?” By identifying the difficulty of attracting digital talent, reskilling the existing workforce, and managing procurement timeliness, they were able to address these challenges early and often rather than dealing with them as an afterthought.
Reframe ‘Failures,’ while Embracing Transparency
“It’s like the game Tetris — Successes evaporate, failures accumulate.”
Having executive leadership fluent in everything from agile to team roles to navigating the bureaucracy is critical for digital transformation to occur. For Kyriakos, this also came in the form of openly acknowledging missteps, while furthering the concept of a ‘learning government,’ which only grows its capacity through these trials and tribulations. Additionally, from the start, the Greek government sought to keep their digital efforts open and accessible by prioritising services, publishing news, and documenting standards for both civil servants and citizens alike.
The story of Greece’s steps toward digitising their government services and economy is chock-full of learnings stemming from building state capacity, hacking their bureaucracy, and delivering public value.
The question now is: How can these lessons be applied elsewhere?