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Greek prime minister fights "credibility deficit"

George Papandreou has stuck by his pledge to increase transparency despite economic woes.

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.”