A significant number of the people that applied for the benefits offered by the government to counter the effects of the economy’s lockdown, will have the money in their bank account by today. They did not have to queue up at a labour office to pick up the cheque or wait for it to arrive in the post. And they did not have to go to a labour office to fill in and hand in the application form. The whole process was done electronically with money going straight into the beneficiary’s account.
What was astonishing – some could say miraculous, given how slowly state services usually operate – was the programmes that made all this possible were prepared in less than a month. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Under normal circumstances, the benefit payments would have been discussed at inter-departmental committees for six months before any concrete decision was taken and the whole process would have been done on paper rather than electronically.
Not this time. Social distancing dictated that everything had to be done electronically and this had to be done in record time, because people depended on these benefits for their livelihood as they would not be receiving their wages this month. And it was done thanks to the recently-established deputy ministry of research, innovation and digital policy. Of course the setting up of the deputy ministry was not in itself the answer. It was the appointment as deputy minister of a man with a wealth of experience in IT who had been a former executive and partner of IBM holding several key roles in the multinational – Kyriacos Kokkinos.
Kokkinos provided the leadership, expertise and most importantly the can do approach that is completely lacking in a public sector run by committees of responsibility-shy bureaucrats. He utilised the state’s 300-strong IT department, that was under-utilised for years, recruited the help of professionals from the private sector and had the programs for the benefits ready in a few weeks. Under normal circumstances, it would have taken two or three years for these programs to be completed and go live. The program for providing authorisation to leave the house via text messages was completed in a few days, another astonishing achievement.
“We are doing in three weeks what had not been done in 10 years,” he told the Sunday Mail and nobody could disagree. The conditions created by the coronavirus have forced the authorities to speed up the digitisation of state services and, most importantly, we were shown that it can be done within weeks rather than years.