Greek prime minister fights "credibility deficit"

ATHENS, Greece — Government jobs in Greece have long been seen as the spoils of power, handed out by whatever party was in control to reward supporters. But when Greece’s new Socialist government won national elections last October, it did something unexpected: Instead of quietly appointing party faithful, it started posting top jobs on the internet and inviting applications.

The number of responses took the government by surprise. When jobs were posted for 79 general secretary positions — top officials responsible for running ministries — more than 23,000 people applied and many of those ultimately hired came from outside traditional party structures.

Greece’s new prime minister, George Papandreou, has put openness and transparency at the heart of his political agenda and says addressing Greece's current economic woes — which some fear are putting the stability of the eurozone at risk — requires addressing the country’s deep-seated culture of nepotism and corruption. His new open government initiative, Papandreou says, will harness the power of the internet to make public information available and promote dialogue between citizens and the state.

“It’s imperative that we break away from the past and old mentalities,” Papandreou told journalists at a three-hour-long national press conference last month, warning that the country’s economic crisis required radical action to address ingrained problems. Greece, he said, had a “credibility deficit.”

In addition to expanding the open application process to all government positions, Papandreou has promised to put every government document — including the national budget — online. Draft legislation has been posted online and public comment solicited.

In Greece, such moves constitute a minor revolution. But as Greece struggles to fend off a looming economic crisis, many at home and abroad wonder if the new prime minister has the courage and political capital to see his plans through.

“These efforts are all in the right direction and we applaud that,” said Constantinos Bacouris, chairman of the Greek chapter of Transparency International. “But we’re waiting to see if they follow through or whether the changes will simply be cosmetic.”

Corruption and nepotism are not new problems in Greece, but the global financial crisis has focused attention on the country’s governance problems. And Greece hasn’t fared well under the increased scrutiny.

The European Commission recently accused the country of falsifying its economic data to hide a ballooning national debt and surging budget deficit. Moody’s, one of the world’s biggest credit rating agencies, warned that the country was heading for a “slow death.” And the international markets are openly speculating whether Greece will survive as a member of the eurozone.

At home too, Greeks are deeply cynical about their government, which they see as corrupt and inefficient. According to a recent survey by Transparency International, 84 percent of Greeks think there is a high level of corruption in their country.

“We Greeks, we exaggerate, but there is truth in these complaints and the dissatisfaction with the way the state works,” said John Panaretos, deputy minister of education and head of Papandreou’s open government initiative. “And our European allies don’t trust us and the figures we provide.”

“We have to go back to fundamentals to rebuild that trust,” Panaretos added.

The openness push, Panaretos admits, has not always gone entirely smoothly. The flood of job applications, for example, took the government by surprise and it did not have systems for sorting through applications. Greek media criticized the resulting delay in appointing key officials at a time of national crisis.

Some ministers have also delayed posting documents online, saying they are waiting for official legislation authorizing the practice. Others have chaffed at losing control over the hiring process.

Some critics also fear that the invitation to dialogue could bog down important initiatives or give undue voice to fringe opinions at a time when bold action is needed.

A draft law that would give citizenship to the children of legal immigrants who were born and raised in Greece, for example, has inspired a fierce response from members of the far-right. And austerity measures to bring the state debt under control, economists say, will be necessary but likely unpopular.

But Paneretos, who blogs and tweets to keep the public informed about the open government initiative, says the program is part of a long-term process.

“The prime minister is trying to create a direct relationship between the government and the people, to make people feel that what they say will be taken into account,” he said. “He’s sent out a signal that he will take his time, but he means what he says.”