Europe2020, by Loukas Germanos

For Greece, it all started in late 2009. One bright day around mid-November, the now ruling Socialist government of G. Papandreou decided to take Greece out of the closet and reveal the true size of Greece’s deficit to the world. The funny thing is, back then no one was really shocked. “Greek statistics”, the constant revision of financial indexes by most governments and the inaccuracy of reporting were a mainstream practice up until then. That’s not a coincidence. In our recent history, ever since the revolution of 1821 against the Ottoman Empire, Greeks always owed money to third parties due to all times classic corruption practices, political clientelism, bought-off constituencies, tax-evasion and top rated, quality cronyism. Owing a couple of billions more in 2010 was therefore just business as usual.

But not, however, for merciless bond markets as suddenly, the interest rates on Greece’s sovereign debt spiked to unheard of proportions, the markets went berserk and before we knew it, the IMF, the EU and the ECB were knocking on our doors. In this context, an IMF run memorandum was put in place, austerity and harsh structural financial and social measures adopted. Although Greece represents no more that 2% of the overall E.U. economy, its debt is expected to peak at almost 160% by 2013 and since much of that debt is held by international banks in Europe, many analysts dug into financial theory and came up with the appealing notion of the “domino”, or “contagion”effect.

The choice for the government remains harsh: either it completely changes its productivity model and impounds corruption, or it sinks against the headwinds of global recession and defaults on its debt. As a result of this “unprecedented calamity”, as a local MP from the ruling Party PASOK once told me in the corridors of the Parliament, protests, strikes and even minor riots took place. But the system has mainly kept its prerogatives intact. The government still has a large majority in Parliament and public opinion keeps discreetly embracing “tough but necessary” reforms whilst mildly protesting on the side. The question is, for how long?

Europe needs Greece now more than ever before
Saving Europe basically comes down to one worrying thought: the economic future and viability of the Eurozone depends greatly on the support of Greek public opinion in favor of reforms in their own country. The government should of course crunch its numbers, downsize its 760.000 civil servants in the public sector (18% of the overall workforce) and improve its performance indexes. But the linchpin for getting ourselves out of this mess is to retain the support of the Greek people in favor of the reforms.

This will not be easy. Except from riots and protests, a new movement of social disruption is now slowly emerging. Organized groups are openly asking their fellow-citizens not to pay the increased prices of transportation tickets while sabotaging toll stations on highways and blocking streets or social services facilities. It’s probably for a good reason, too. People are presently experiencing cutbacks but none of the benefits that are supposed to come in the long-term future. On top of that, corruption alone has become so widespread that a recent Brookings Institute review showed that monetized corruption in Greece reached an astonishing 8% of its GDP per annum. Transparency International, the international NGO combating corruption recently showed that in 2009 alone, Greeks had paid an average of no less than €1320 in bribes of all kinds: getting driving licenses, obtaining building permits or even receiving hospital admissions.

A Greek Web 3.0 cloud could help leapfrog the crisis
Sometimes, best things don’t cost much, or they’re even for free. The government now needs to illustrate that people’s sacrifices are not in vain, and that everyone will pay for the crisis equally. Bringing about change, deep change, will not just take brilliant economists, it will primarily pivot on public support. Hence the question, how could one implement IMF austerity measures while generating a sense of ownership of the reforms among Greek society?

The answer is probably in the clouds. Not in the real clouds, but in cloud computing and e-government. E-participation is about reconnecting people with politics and making the decision-making process easier to follow through the use of ICTs. Whether it is tax reforms or cleaning your backyard, people need to follow and have a say. Giving a stake in the policy-making process through viral consultations on legislation or financial reforms could indeed serve as a leverage to dismantle the social bomb called “IMF memorandum”. Heat a couple of Web 3.0 features including semantic web as well as some user based personalization (iGoogle is a perfect example), roughly chop some semantic web modules, add personalization options, mix with some behavioral best practices for problem solving in e-government, and you might just have found a cheap way to increase productivity, reduce bureaucracy, improve participation and in due turn, create the foundations for a society of inclusion and equal access to services and information. The perfect antidote to austerity measures.

Looking in…
Today, to create a wide participation for (or against) economic reforms, to raise awareness and engage micro targeted audiences, governments have to look online. The message has already been well received by the Papandreou government. His cabinet has institutionalized an online system of e-participation through www.opengov.gr, uploaded all governmental decisions and spending online at www.diavgeia.gov.gr. Similarly, online policy labs have been created and some online reporting platforms went live, such as www.illegalsigns.gov.gr to report illegal signs, banners and commercial mega-boards. Despite heading in the right direction, this is just not enough. People need to feel that their government is accountable and working for them. Greeks need improvements in their daily lives in areas such as bureaucracy and corruption. E-government is here for you to do just that.

…and looking out
In this context, the recent European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) official signing will allow one million signatures ( 0,2% of overall EU citizens) to invite the European Commission to act in matters that concern them directly. New online trial projects of European e-petitioning and activism with huge success are gradually being put in place, such as the eMPOWER platform. On a wider perspective, moving a bit further, Hong Kong has is now well known for its “independent commission against corruption”. Since its inception in 1974, ICAC has embraced a three-pronged approach of law enforcement, prevention and community education to fight corruption. On a different note, the Federal Communications Commission in the USA recently launched an online mapping site that lets people quickly map data and easily share it through social networks. IssueMap.org lets users copy, paste and map data, going from a spreadsheet to a shareable map in less than a minute. So how about online reporting of corruption, directly linked to a central authority’s database with enforcement and prosecution prerogatives and then showcasing results on a national digital map?

Across the Atlantic, New York City recently launched “311NYC”, an online service request, digital map and phone number for government information and non-emergency services with layers and custom searches. Whether you’re a resident, business owner, or visitor, help is just a click or a call away by reporting online and monitoring actual progress. 311 uses Twitter to send information about alternate sides of the street parking status, school closures, city-wide events. iPhone users can download the “311 application” and report problems for select conditions such as street maintenance, street signs and lights, graffiti, damaged trees.

Long story short, e-government applications and APIs built through shared innovation are here to help people just like us, Greeks in the midst of an economic crisis, to sustain painful reforms and actually turn the crisis into opportunity by using our own common sense and creativity. The cost? Minimal. The results? Unparalleled.

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Comments

  1. The website link diavgeia.gr appears to be inaccessible after several efforts.
    The point is well put.
    Judicial action remains, however, to take place and ignite citizens’ engagement in an extrovert manner about common affairs.

  2. Interesting idea with giving people a stake thru e-government… but why would people trust e-government initiatives given that it comes from the same “corrupt” government behind the budget holes and the austerity measures (in people’s way of thinking)? Wouldn’t it just give the politicians the opportunity to bloat the state apparatus even more and do nothing to boast credibility/participation (a bit like the KEPs… lots of workers, preciously little work)?

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