Author Topic: The Greek tech revolution: meet the citizens battling corruption  (Read 2452 times)

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Offline mayya

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The Greek tech revolution: meet the citizens battling corruption

Despite technophobia, a brain drain and a government that struggles to keep up, ordinary Greeks are using technology to tackle fraud and tax evasion

 The new government in Greece has pledged to tackle tax evasion.
Photograph: Yannis Kolesidis/EPAAlex Katsomitros

Tuesday 24 March 2015 07.00 GMTLast modified on Tuesday 24 March 201508.04 GMT

“A few years ago the local tax office sent a bill to my grandfather. The problem was that he had passed away 20 years ago.’’ Like many of her compatriots, 47-year-old unemployed Maria (not her real name), from Athens, has many stories to tell about the inefficiency of the Greek state.
The new Greek government has promised to tackle tax evasion, but faces an uphill task in modernising the system. There is only one tax collector for every 1,127 Greek citizens – while in Germany it’s one per 730 people.

Maria believes many problems facing Greek public services could be solved through technology, but this will require a change of attitude. “The less I go to the tax office, the happier I am,” she says. “But the public sector does not have the Facebook culture where everything is instantly posted online. If you want to apply for a vacancy you cannot rely on government websites to find the relevant material – you need to go there in person.’’

Moving tax online
Tax collection is one of the areas where IT can help. Until 2013 taxpayers could submit their tax return by post or in person. Haris Theoharis changed that when he became head of the general secretariat for public revenue, a government body set up to modernise tax administration.

 Haris Theoharis modernised tax collection in Greece, by introducing a digital system for tax returns.

“During my stint 97% of tax returns were submitted online,” he says. “We also connected the tax collection and compliance system to the banking system to seize money electronically. This released staff to conduct audits.”

Automation is the key to reducing graft, Theoharis thinks. “Manual processes allow for corruption. If a small business owner has to go to the tax office, he may be tempted to find a friend who can help.”

Theoharis resigned 17 months into his five-year term, fed up with threats and pressure to be lenient towards wealthy tax evaders with political connections. The European commission expressed “deep concern” over his resignation, recognising his contribution to modernising the Greek tax administration.

Not everything has changed. Although many transactions are now carried out online, Greece does not have the infrastructure to deal with questions and changes electronically. For these, taxpayers need to visit in person, according to the tax officers’ union, the pan-hellenic federation of tax office employees.
The use of electronic tools by the government can have a trickle-down effect in a country where a big part of the economy is still controlled by the state. Theoharis, now an MP, says: “When I left my post I worked for a bank. They told me that more people than ever switched to e-banking this year. I believe the reason is that we forced taxpayers to submit their tax returns online. Whatever the state does permeates other areas too.”

Resistant to change
The Greek tax administration finds it hard to catch up with technology, however. When professor Diomidis Spinellis, who headed the general secretariat for information systems from 2009 to 2011, proposed the use of an IT system for tax arrears, many tax officers said it was unnecessary, preferring an antiquated system.

“There are many well-trained tax officers, but many on the top are older, are not as well-trained as younger ones and were often politically appointed; they are not in favour of technology or are not used to it,” says Spinellis.

 Diomidis Spinellis, the former head of the department overseeing tax IT, says some tax officers resisted change.
Photograph: Costas Lakafossis

These views are backed up by Theoharis, but it’s not how the union sees it. “Most older tax officers have retired. There are some who are still active and naturally are not that familiar with IT, but this is common in most countries,” says Apostolis Arsenis, deputy head of the tax officers’ union.
Open data and transparency
More transparency could make the public sector more efficient. Since 2010, all government decisions are published online, which, Spinellis says, has forced officials to be more careful.
When he took over the general secretariat for information systems, he thought tax evasion could be tackled through technology – by conducting electronic tax compliance checks and sending suspect cases to local tax offices. Spinellis soon realised that although cases were sent to tax offices, these were not able to provide any numbers on how many cases they had closed and how much tax revenue they had collected.

Through a specially designed app he found out that many offices were underperforming, and a study showed that only 1% of fines were being collected. His team then published online data measuring the performance of each tax office. This paid off: over the next 18 months 260,000 cases were closed, contributing €690m to public coffers.

His actions were not welcomed by everyone, however, and particularly not the unions and tabloid press. “Some managers complained that the data did not take into account the lack of staff,” he says. “But this is why we published it: to expose problems. They should have the nous to bring in more people”.

But Arsenis and Rebecca Basmatzidou, head of the union, say they never opposed more openness, and that after the financial crisis the number of tax officers dropped from 15,000 to 9,000, resulting in much heavier workloads for remaining staff.

Privacy concerns
We help those responsible for monitoring corruption. They check our website every day
Kristina Tremonti

Spinellis fears that further reforms could be hindered by privacy breach scandals. In 2012, Greek media reported that the data of millions of taxpayers was used for advertising purposes by data companies. The government department holding the data has been fined by the data protection authority. “The government wants to set up wealth databases,” says Spinellis. “But how can people trust the state if this has shown that it cannot be trusted?”

He suggests that Greece could take its cue from abroad. “Nordic countries publish tax returns,” he says. “This would be a good measure for Greece. Here, even public sector salaries are considered private data. Doing away with these restrictions could make the state more efficient.”

Ordinary Greeks are stepping up
While the government struggles to keep up with technology advances, ordinary Greeks are becoming more tech-minded in the battle against corruption.

Whenever Kristina Tremonti sees complaints about a civil servant piling up, she sends them to the anti-corruption authority.
In 2010, angry after watching her grandfather being asked for a kickback at a hospital, Kristina Tremonti set up a website, EdosaFakelaki, where people can share stories of graft. About 2,000 cases have been reported so far, involving nearly €5.5m (around £4m).

Whenever Tremonti sees complaints about a civil servant piling up, she sends them to the anti-corruption authority. “We are not investigators. We help those responsible for monitoring corruption. They check our website every day,” she says.

The website can also help citizens bypass corrupt civil servants. “One of the most encouraging stories is that of an unemployed pregnant woman,” Tremonti says. “Her husband had lost his job and they were living on unemployment benefits. A doctor asked them to pay €1,500. They used the platform to find another gynaecologist.” Tremonti hopes her platform could evolve into a Yelp-like ranking service for doctors.

She thinks crowdsourcing can tackle corruption: “We connect people without them even knowing it. If someone paid a doctor at a hospital in Athens and a woman from Kalamata did the same, how are they supposed to communicate?”

However, few users have given away their names. “People are scared. They may get involved in endless judicious procedures and may be hunted down. There is a law saying that those who give kickbacks are equally responsible with those receiving them. If this changed, corruption would disappear,” Tremonti says.
But the union’s Arsenis says those reporting corruption should have to provide their full details. “If it’s done anonymously it can be used as a means of settling scores and stigmatising people,” he says.

The Greek branch of Transparency International launched an app in September 2014 that allows citizens to report corruption. Take-up is still low, as most people prefer to report via a phone call. “Older people do not want to use technology. They are afraid they will be recorded. They feel more protected if they just call you and don’t leave any traces behind,” said Sophia Ioannou, communications officer at Transparency International.

 Author Nikos Dimou says technophobia is widespread in Greece.

Technophobia in Greece
Author Nikos Dimou, who writes about Greek technophobia and its repercussions for the public sector and beyond, believes that Greece’s problems go much deeper. Technophobia is widespread, with roots in history and culture.

“We don’t have much technology and science in our education system. And we have an inherent conservatism that resists change, along with the influence of the church and the left, which for different reasons oppose anything coming from the west,” he says.

What’s more, Dimou thinks that brain drain may deprive Greece of an opportunity to see a tech revolution: “There is a generation of tech-savvy young Greeks, but many of them leave the country.”

But Tremonti, a young expat who returned to Greece to help the country overcome its crisis, is more optimistic: “Technological illiteracy is a problem. It is often the older people who fall victims of corruption. But if the state offered the online option to a younger generation, we could see some change.”