One of the biggest problems of the Greek economy is tax evasion. If you ask any ordinary Greek he’ll tell you several cases of tax avoidance that he knows. I recently read the story of Professor Diomidis Spinellis of Athens University of Economics and Business. In 2009, the Greek Ministry of Finance hired Spinellis in an attempt to organize the approach to tackle the problem.
Spinellis tackled the problems like it was programming challenge. He made something called a mind map. A mind map looks like a tree, and it maps how your brain works. And Spinellis’s mind map illustrated in a precise, clean manner why Greece is missing so much of its tax revenue.
First on the mind map. Locate the tax evaders, he thought, and improve tax collection. It should be easy, because wherever he looked in the data, he saw tax evasion.
Spinellis’s program found hundreds of thousands of cases of potential tax fraud.
Greece has three hundred regional tax offices. Spinellis thought the solution was simple. Share the data with all of them and wait for the revenues to come flowing in.
Most Greeks will tell you there is widespread corruption in the tax offices. Collectors take bribes. So Spinellis added a new item to the mind map. Management issues at regional tax offices.
Spinellis wrote a small program that would extract each day’s performance data from every single tax office. It recorded information on how much revenue was collected, how many cases were closed, the number of days it took to close a case, etc. It also kept a list of the tax offices that had not closed a single case that day. There were hundreds of them.
The program sent an email every single afternoon to the finance minister and every tax collection office, reporting which offices did absolutely nothing that day. And still, days passed with no action.
The whole idea behind Spinellis’ project was so simple that one can wonder why the Greek Finance Ministry hasn’t thought of it until now. Why wait until 2009 to organize the country’s tax income? And why hire someone outside the Ministry for something so simple when the Ministry and the Tax Offices employ several thousands of people?
It is around this point, two years in, that Spinellis had a disturbing thought. A new item on his mind map. Fixing Greece’s tax system, and ultimately making the Greek economy work, was not a matter of tweaking his computer programs. It was not an information problem. It was a culture problem.
If the people don’t want to pay taxes, the collectors don’t want to collect, and the politicians don’t want to punish them, perhaps Greece needs more than a mind map.
At the end of 2011, Spinellis resigned from his government job. He’s back to teaching.