Thursday 22 October 2009

Come to Dinner

Last week, I received news that a project in Ukraine that was supposed to start this past Monday was moved to Monday, November 2nd. Being in Athens, I decided to invite some friends to dinner that I hadn’t seen in a long time.

First I emailed Stratos and Olga: Come to dinner. Fifteen minutes later, I received an email from Olga: “Stratos is in Cairo this week, getting back on Thursday.”

Then I emailed Kostas: Come to dinner. An hour later, Kostas calls me: “Re file, I’m at the airport now, leaving for Skopje. I’ll be back on Wednesday, but landing at 21:30, and it will be too late.”

“OK, I said, “how about next week?” “Next week I’m leaving for Bulgaria…will be gone the whole week.” “Kala,” I said, “let’s keep in touch.”

Then I emailed Alexandros and Christiana. Alexandros could make it, but Christiana had a university session after work and would arrive later. I count myself lucky to see them: apart from a totally chance meeting in Thessaloniki last week, we’ve only managed to see each other twice in four years, despite being holiday neighbours.

Luckily, Eri and Christos agreed to join us, and I managed to get the magic number of four friends together.

But then I had to call the cleaning lady. “Jenny, hi, will you come on Wednesday?” “No Mr. Philip. I’m leaving for Canada to see my relatives.” "Great Jenny. When will you be back?" "In three months sir."

In a fit of reflection, it occurred to me that we’ve all become a bit like the Massively Productive Business Executive I knew while living in Paris, scheduling breakfast meetings two months in advance.

But writing this blog post, I suddenly realise that yes, we’ve actually become “Europeans." Our goal of convergence has been achieved:

• The spontaneous visits of friends and relatives has been replaced by rigidly scheduled meetings, planned far in advance and ending early due to the need to wake up for a demanding next day.

• The emphasis on personal contact over a coffee or ouzo has been replaced. Now, we far more available in terms of communication--we are logged on to Facebook or Skype nearly 24/7; we have email and GSM. But while this medium provides ready contact, it is impersonal and superficial, dominated by the technological channel and in some cases can lead to dramatic misunderstandings.

• The days we used to know where our parents would work until some time in the afternoon, and then leave their business and worries behind, are over. We are now in business mode 24 hours a day. If not actually working until 20:00 or so, we are still thinking about work issues. Or logged onto Internet. Or watching TV. Or doing something solitary rather than collective.

• Our vacation habits of decamping to the village for weeks on end are over. We are lucky to get much vacation time at all, and we typically split that between multiple locations over the year. As a result, we have almost no ties to the rural environments our families come from.

So we face a shortage of these two most valuable resources—time and friends—as a consequence of our professional success and our modern lifestyle.

Another irony is that in a time of high unemployment and massive investment in vocational education and training, finding skilled labour in Athens today is practically impossible. Our cleaning ladies travel to Canada and simply can’t be replaced. And if your regular plumber disappears, try finding a new one.

Don’t get me wrong: We had a great dinner! The [new] plumber finished installing a new kitchen faucet 5 minutes before the first guest arrived. We managed to pull off a cleaning job in record time. And I didn’t burn the food.

But the best part of it was enjoying the company of good friends and great people that we all too rarely see. The simple act of breaking the weekly routine and taking time out for something different, for ourselves, was revitalising. It’s a habit we will develop more of.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Going Postal in Greece

The phrase “going postal,” for those readers of this blog unfamiliar with American culture, has its roots in a series of violent incidents by United States Postal Service employees. The most serious of these occurred in 1986 on Oklahoma, in which 14 people were killed and several wounded. In popular vernacular, “going postal” refers to someone who, goaded beyond his endurance, breaks out into violence.

It’s a feeling that anyone standing in one of the seemingly interminable lines which afflict Greek public administration is familiar with. The last time I visited the Geraka post office (ELTA), there were literally 30 people in line, served by 2 postal employees who, while making every effort to be helpful, probably would have lost a footrace with a snail.

And yet, yesterday, Christine and I had an experience in the ELTA Post Office at The Mall which contradicts all previous experience. We visit this branch often because (a) it rarely has more than 2 people waiting in line; (b) parking is easier; and (c) there are convenient outlets of Cosmote (for paying bills) or Eurobank (for other transactions) right next door.

Yesterday afternoon we were sending brochures for a training/consultancy programme I’ll be delivering in Cyprus on November 10-11. There were 57 envelopes to send; each envelope cost precisely 1.42, and required four stamps: 2 x 50 cents; 1 x 40 cents and 1 x 2 cents.

To my vast surprise, after watching Christine and me struggle with the stamps for about 5 minutes, two of the three staff in the room came over and started to help us separate the stamps from the sheets, stick them to the envelopes and prepare everything for mailing.

I was astounded. This was a simple, spontaneous act of kindness which one sees all too rarely in the public sector. As a result, we were finished in about 20 minutes rather than the 40 minutes it might have taken.

Unfortunately, besides my profound gratitude expressed at a personal level, there is probably no chance these employees will be rewarded for their effort. “Customer” feedback is, as far as I know, unknown at ELTA. If anyone knows of any way for me to send a formal letter of thanks to ELTA, please let me know.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Greek Political Madness

I can’t help but be impressed by the apparent lack of any shame or sense of personal responsibility of politicians in general, and in this case, the politicians in Greece.

At lunch I briefly turned on NET, the Greek public television, and saw none other than Mr. Antonis Samaras. While I greatly respect his personal abilities, I was struck by the fact that in the interview, he stated that his goals are to re-unite ND, and re-connect it with the citizens. I couldn’t help thinking: isn’t this is the same politician who’s defection from the Mitsotakis government caused the fall of that government in 1992? Exactly which unity is he talking about?

NET then showed a GPO poll with the four contenders for ND President. Once of these candidates, who’s name I will omit, was widely known as “Mr/Ms. 10%” during their term in office. The 10% was a reference to the kickback level requested when confronted with a licensing request or other regulatory issue.

Just before this, NET showed Minister Filippos Petsalnikos, now Speaker of the Hellenic Parliament, receiving an update on the Greek economy from the Governor of the Central Bank of Greece. Mr. Petsalnikos is the same politician who, together with Theodoros Pangalos and Antonis Papadopoulos, was forced to resign over their handling of the Ocalan affair in 1999. Today, Mr. Pangalos is Deputy Prime Minister.

What to make of this? Should we assume, as the optimists do, that everyone is entitled to a mistake, and that a re-election is sufficient grounds to wipe away past sins? Should we assume that no one is perfect, and therefore we cannot cast any stones?

Should we relativise the issue? Since all Greek politicians are corrupt, why do we worry about these individuals in particular?

Should we assume that there is quite simply no accountability in politics?

One thing is quite clear to me: I’m disgusted at seeing these same faces, preaching their tired speeches of responsibility and duty, when they apparently consider themselves exempt from this. Given that none of them has shown any particular sign of competence in terms of good public administration, I honestly wonder why they are there.

It’s too bad that neither the heads of our political parties, nor our voters, have determined that the best thing to do with a useless politician is to retire them. This does not mean promote them, it means send them home to anonymity, where [one hopes] they can do no more harm to the country.

Instead, we have the opposite system: politicians collect a long and impressive record of failures, omissions, accidents, errors and corrupt or at least highly questionable decisions. And to reward them, they are not only re-elected, but re-nominated to sensitive, executive posts.

This apparently lasts for generations, either until they suffer a crushing electoral defeat, or they suffer a debilitating health crisis, or they parachute their children into their Parliamentary seat.

Is there such a collective failure of innovation, creativity and effectiveness in our political system? And what are we going to do about it?

Monday 12 October 2009

Living in a Parallel Reality

All last week, I had a powerful sense of living in some form of parallel universe. The dislocation began sharply on Sunday evening, when the election results in Greece rolled in: PASOK won by a landslide. In this universe, it did not matter that PASOK has no economic platform to speak of: it was elected by a margin of 10.5%.

It did not matter that in the week before the election, PASOK shadow Minister of Economy Louka Katselli made repeated references to the state re-nationalising “strategic enterprises”, such as Olympic Airways or the Hellenic Telecommunications Organisation, or the ports of Athens and Thessaloniki.

In this parallel reality, it was not impossible that a bankrupt government would conjure money for this like candy-cane. Nor was it a problem to believe that a government role in these organisations was beneficial. The disastrous result of previous government ownership would be miraculously annulled; a new era of Socialist efficiency would flourish.

In this utopia, it was possible to believe that a efficient government was possible, when Socialist dinosaurs like Theodoros Pangalos, perhaps best known for his role in the Ocalan case, or Evangelos Venizelos, who’s capers in the Ministry of Culture are still celebrated, hold key positions.

It was a parallel universe where speaker after speaker representing the defeated New Democracy would claim on television that self-reflection was needed, and ignore what so many voters know: that New Democracy failed to deliver most if not all of its election promises, and leaves a mess behind it.

No, of course it can’t all be blamed on ND. But enough can: two disastrous fires; the Siemens bribery scandal; the Vatopedi scandal; the structured bonds scandal; the Zahopoulos “revelations” on public finance in the Ministry of Culture. Each of these dossiers today is either closed or unresolved, and something tells me PASOK will not be in a hurry to re-open them.

It was a parallel reality where the hapless leader of the Coalition of the Left (SYRIZA) got up and proclaimed victory because “we are in Parliament,” despite having lost nearly ½ his electoral strength. As if the electoral result was not enough, we heard renewed promises of some kind of “real” socialist revolution in the years to come.

And, I’m afraid it was a parallel universe where on Friday morning, the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to Barack Obama, “for achievements already made.” I was almost sure this was a hoax, but no, it was true. Somehow, his meager diplomatic triumphs—including paying some destitute South Pacific island to resettle Uigher “terrorists” from Guantanamo, or convincing Turkey to drop its veto of Anders Fogh Rasmussen as Secretary General of NATO—were sufficient for the prize. Certainly, there have been no other achievements in the international realm that I can think of.

And here I was thinking that Mother Theresa or Woodrow Wilson had actually achieved something. Not any more, not judging by this standard.

We are asked by politicians across the world to suspend our disbelief, to turn off our historical memory, to cease any form of independent or objective analysis. And instead of this, to slavishly accept election slogans as a substitute for reality. It’s really no surprise to me that our countries or our societies are in such a mess. What is unfortunate is that I see almost no serious signs that we are prepared to do something about it.

It was with great relief that Friday evening arrived, the weekend started, and I resolutely logged off my news accounts and turned off the TV. Forty-eight hours of peace, calm and sanity returned to our little neighbourhood of Geraka. I’m really dreading what this week will bring.

Monday 5 October 2009

Karamanlis deserved to lose; did Papandreou deserve to win?

A powerful sense of surrealism hit me upon my return to Athens on Monday evening. For those unaware, national elections were held on Sunday: the opposition PASOK party received what amounted to a landslide victory, winning some 44% of the popular vote and a majority of 160 seats in Parliament. The ruling New Democracy (ND) party received some 33.5% of the vote, and 92 seats in Parliament (down from 151 in the previous government).

The results were unequivocal. Yet I watched the evening news in disbelief as successive ND worthies gave variants of the standard line: “We need to investigate the reasons of our failure.” “We need to engage in a dialogue as to what went wrong.” But aren’t these reasons obvious?

The past 5.5 years of the two Karamanlis administrations have been a litany of failure and lost opportunities. Kostas Karamanlis was elected with overwhelming support, precisely to implement the same electoral promises he has made in the most recent election:

• Reform and streamline public administration
• Reduce the public debt
• Eliminate corruption
• Improve public services, particularly in education, healthcare and public security.

Instead of using this mandate, it’s been business as usual:

a. A succession of corrupt practices, ranging from the improper re-selling of a structured bond to the Zahopoulos fiasco to the Vatopedi scandal to the Siemens corruption probe was essentially allowed to go unpunished. The public simply does not believe that “all cases have been sent to justice”, when it was obvious that not a single person has faced criminal prosecution, and the statute of limitations on crimes by politicians has been repeatedly used to provide immunity to key parliamentarians. No justice has been served. To this day, we still do not know who was responsible for the Vatopedi scandal, how much property was illegally “transferred” and what the government got back when it “froze” the deal.

b. Government debt rose from EUR 195.3 bln in 2005 to 237.2 bln in 2008, according to Eurostat. Taking into account government borrowing which has already occurred in 2009, debt is forecast to rise to between 108-110% of GDP by the end of this year: over EUR 260 billion.

c. In addition to heavy borrowing, there are high unfunded liabilities in pension funds, healthcare and salaries of temporary staff. IKA and OAEE (the two main insurance funds) stated that they needed at additional EUR 553 million to cover obligations in November – December. Hospitals owe over EUR 4 billion to suppliers (some estimates are as high as 6-7 billion). Some temporary staff in the public sector report that their salaries are 3-4 months in arrears. All this indicates that despite the high on-record borrowing, there are still large amounts of operational budget arrears which are not funded.

d. There has been no discernable fall in either public administration headcount, or rise in public administration efficiency. Some strong steps have been taken, such as budget consolidation, limited online interaction, privatisation of Olympic Airways, etc. But few core structural reforms have been made.

e. The Greek state educational system is irrational and uncompetitive against most of its OECD peers. The continuation of Article 16 and the issue of university asylum remain deadlocked. Greece is in violation of the spirit and letter of EU law on academic and vocational education, and shows no signs of addressing this in a coherent, systematic way. The fact that private higher education is unrecognised in Greece by the government is incomprehensible. The fact that primary and secondary education has among the shorted school hours and the most theoretical, centralised standards for curricula and teaching may have been acceptable in 1929, but is no longer acceptable today.

f. Public security has not improved. Complicated the situation is the influx of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who live in an illegal limbo, with no recourse to law and no means of support.

Karamanlis was elected in March 2004 to solve these problems. One of his memorable campaign lines at this time was “Η Ελλάδα εχει γίνει ξέφραγο αμπέλι” (“Greece has become a fenceless vineyard”). What has changed since then? Not much. Yes, there have been positive changes, but these are mainly at the periphery of public administration and national competitiveness. As a whole, his leadership has been a disappointment. He has never demonstrated a control over his own party, let alone the functioning of the government. Without this basic pre-requisite, it is impossible to take control of the issues and work systematically towards their solution.

For me, at least, it’s clear that Kostas Karamanlis justly deserved to lose this election. It is not at all clear to me, in contrast, that George Papandreou deserved to win it. His party, like Karamanlis’, suffers from the presence of party “barons”, many of whom have a long and painful history of blunders, errors and corruption. His political promises were nebulous, and often relied more on stringing positive adjectives behind a noun than offering any meaningful number or innovative policies.

Several leading PASOK members (and soon to be ministers) are Socialist academics with no real private-sector work experience, and a worrying willingness to re-insert the state in sectors “of strategic interest”, such as Olympic Airways or Hellenic Telecom. This ignores the disastrous consequences of government management of these companies in the past.

Yet Papandreou’s greatest problem is a lack of credibility. I don’t see how you can leave your walled villa, get into a chauffer-driven Lexus 4x4 each morning, and be driven downtown to practice Socialism. I don’t see how being leader of the Socialist International qualifies you to solve the problems of Greece’s public administration, since many of these problems date back to previous Socialist administrations. And I don’t see how the issue of corruption or the public debt or healthcare or education or any of the other pressing problems will actually be solved.

In my opinion, we’ve changed one outmoded political party for another. There do not appear to be any serious plans for meeting Greece’s obligations either under the Lisbon Agenda or the Stability and Growth Pact. Instead, it’s nice words, incremental promises to special interests, but no willingness to take the cross-party, clean-slate, cost-benefit approach which is critically needed to solve Greece’s problems.

My feeling continues to be that unless a totally new political party, indeed a post-ideological political movement is created, we will be arguing exactly the same questions four years from now.