(published at the Greek Economy & Markets Magazine- November 2007)
The discussion about the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Greece has long suffered from two inter-linked issues:
- The first has been an almost perverse linking of technology to “accounting” terms, mostly attributed to the flow of European funds that supported ICT projects since 2000.
- The second has been a rather self-contained discussion about technology, on the basis of jargon, acronyms, and purely technological targets. As if “broadband penetration” by itself could mean anything to the Greek citizen that tests his patience at bureaucratic queues. Or as though a parent would care for how many PCs are installed at school labs, yet they remain locked and beyond the touch of his own kid.
Both of these issues stemmed from the same origin: back in year 2000 the effort to promote new technologies and broadband was mainly driven by the availability of European funds that had to be somehow invested on ICT. At the absence of a coherent plan, the availability of huge amounts of funds that had to be spent assumed the role of a “Strategy”. The structural peculiarities and the bureaucratic jargon of an Operational Programme entitled “Information Society” were suddenly (and sadly!) becoming the distorted meaning of “technology” in Greece.
Fast forward to 2008. A new Operational Programme entitled “Digital Convergence” is well under way for the period 2007-2013. Again it’s all about European structural funds seeking to support Greece’s growth. A total budget of almost 2 billion euros is allocated to information technologies and broadband. What would hinder a true repetition of the past?
The answer should be sharp: the existing “Digital Strategy 2006-2013” that has been put into effect as an overall umbrella policy for ICT since 2006 by the Greek Government, was -this time- just expecting its financing tool. The new Programme “Digital Convergence” is now arriving to serve its role as the financing arm of the Digital Strategy.
It should be thus of no surprise that the new Programme’s structure is an accurate reflection of the Digital Strategy’s structure. It comprises two main strategic objectives:
a. Enhanced business productivity through the use of ICT, and
b. Improved Quality of Life through ICT
The two strategic objectives are further decomposed into six main directions, including:
- Increase ICT uptake by businesses
- Provide integrated digital services to businesses
- Support the ICT sector as a pillar of the Greek economy
- Support entrepreneurial activity in ICT-enabled ventures
Quality of Life
- Improve citizen welfare through ICT
- Develop e-services for the citizen
As such, the new Operational Programme is becoming a tool at the arsenal of the Digital Strategy. What would the country do if it was not for the EU funds? Shouldn’t it have its own well-crafted “digital plan” and seek to implement it? And what is after all driving reform, irrespectively of the field of policy? The existence of funds or the willingness to change? The Digital Strategy clearly demonstrates that it should be the latter, rather than the former.
Why should this approach be more successful? For a start, it is already based on the fertile ground of the first two years of implementation of the Digital Strategy. Since 2006, existing programmes and funds were re-aligned to the aforementioned objectives. The results have been promising: During 2006, Greece has come globally first as the country with the highest broadband annual growth rate, according to data available from accredited international organizations. Market developments and the growth of competition at the electronic communications market have led to the slashing of monthly retail prices for broadband access. According to data gathered by the Observatory for the Greek Information Society, monthly retail prices for broadband access in Greece, and especially for new ADSL subscribers, have reached the EU-25 average levels after having been diminished by more than 85% since 2004. At the outset of the Digital Strategy 2006-2013, the Greek Government had set the target of achieving a broadband penetration rate at the level of 7% of the population by the end of 2008, up from 0,1% at the beginning of 2004. However, this goal has already been achieved 18 months earlier. As of today, Greece posts a broadband penetration rate in the order of 10% of the population and continues to grow at the same path within 2007-2008.
Furthermore, some new attributes of the “Digital Convergence” Programme that have been unveiled give clues of a different approach: It should be no more an exercise of funds-allocation to Ministries. Rather than that, it will be a race on the basis of the principle of “excellence”. Those who are fast at developing digital services and at serving the strategy’s objectives with tangible results for the citizens will be rewarded. Those that just seek to “lock-in” budgets but never care for true implementation will be treated differently.
Additionally, the new Programme should no longer address solely the public sector. Quite the contrary! The Digital Strategy promotes a shift towards digital services and interventions that will directly address the needs of citizens and businesses through ICT. The keyword is “directly” and without the unnecessary intervention of a large and inefficient public sector. New institutions are being formed for making this shift a reality in the implementation process.
To be fair, interventions for a digital public sector have not been abandoned. However, the viewpoint has now changed. E-government projects and ideas that will be evaluated for eligibility should have been designed -from the very start- through the viewpoint of either the citizens or the businesses. They should have as a unique guide the benefit to be accrued by the citizen. Introvert-looking, self-fulfilling grandiose backoffice public sector ICT projects will hopefully become a case-study of the past. Towards the same purpose, the new Programme entitled “Digital Convergence” aspires to a closer co-operation with complementary programmes (such as the one about “Public Administration Reform”) in order to introduce technology and business processes re-engineering hand-in-hand.
Not to be escaped attention though, is a true support to technology as a policy-tool for regional development. In the period ahead, ICT projects and Digital Strategy interventions with a strong regional dimension will be favored. Local authorities, cities, and municipalities will have a first-rate opportunity to utilize ICT as a tool for triggering local growth. However, such an effort cannot and should not be driven by the central government downwards. Unless the cities themselves decide to explore these new Digital Strategy opportunities, no-one will be there and possibly no-one should be there to enforce them!
Last but of equal importance, is an effort to set targets and to measure progress on two scales. One scale should certainly comprise technology indices… the usual ones but probably the least important ones about broadband penetration, PC use etc. Such metrics that statistically-savvy people usually lust to check and compare. The other scale however is deemed to be the real metric of digital progress and it’s all about the technology’s impact on real-life. How many hours did the average citizen save by not sitting at queues due to a new e-service, how much more has the young kid learned at school by using his laptop etc. These real-life metrics induce a new meaning both to the role of technology and also to the impact of the Digital Strategy itself.
Judging from the high digital growth rates of the last two years, Greece has now demonstrated that it both has the ability and also the means to cover the digital ground that it painfully lost during the last two decades. The Government’s Digital Strategy is already there and it is an accredited plan. The financing tool is also there in the form of an Operational Programme and it brings new and more innovative elements up until 2013. If there would be a last hurdle that could possibly hamper this “digital convergence” effort, it would be nothing more than inertia and the fear of change. But for how long and at what price can we afford to pay this “fear of change”? Digital Greece cannot and should not wait any longer! The digital journey has already started and it is really fascinating…