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Cyprus tech policy needs reboot

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The inoculation portal crashed for a second time in a week, and the excuse provided by the ministry in charge of innovation is not satisfactory.

To point the finger of blame at the ‘excessive’ number of people applying to get an appointment to be vaccinated should have been hailed by the government, not criticised.

Instead, we heard comments along the lines of the pompous administration’s response to opposition political noises, desperately trying to play down its poor handling of the ‘golden passports’ debacle and its refusal to allow total transparency.

A blunder that we will continue to suffer from and pay the price for years to come.

But technology and innovation, or at least the adaptation of it in the public sector, is not Cyprus’ strong point.

Since the pandemic struck the island for over a year, schools are still struggling with online learning. Some teachers even undermining this tool that in any other advanced economy would have been a non-starter, as it radically improves efficiency and productivity.

The deputy ministry for innovation had tried to streamline many public services to bring as many of these online as possible, a task that should have gotten underway when the current Finance Minister tried to restructure in his previous life as Undersecretary to the President in charge of reform.

Cabinet ministers are seen using their laptops in a commendable show of progress, but the problem lies further down the government food chain.

Many public sector workers refuse to adopt change, saying the right platform is not in place or haven’t been appropriately trained.

At the same time, however, they boast how they make their online bank transfers and use Zoom meetings to chat with friends and faraway relatives.

The Cyprus Investment Promotion Agency, responsible for attracting foreign direct investments and rebooting the economy, has wisely adopted the IT and communications sectors’ enhancement as one of the key pillars for a restart and sustainable future.

But CIPA is asked at roadshows basic questions, such as how advanced is eGovernment, how quick do public officials respond to emails and, the simplest one, can one submit online the entire process of applying for, say, a building permit or opening a bank account.

They are services that ‘rival’ jurisdictions offer to businesses relocating.

If Cyprus wants to follow the global trend of narrowing the digital divide and not be left behind, then we need not just a drastic policy change but also a revolutionary attitude to change.

Those who refuse to adapt should be retired to make way for those with the skills and attitude to transform government services.

That is the progressive image we need to project abroad and to potential investors.