Partnering with the public sector to accelerate Europe’s economic recovery
“It is a once in a lifetime chance to emerge stronger from the pandemic…to make Europe greener, more digital and more resilient”.
Digitisation is a key priority of this economic recovery plan. Given the significant payment flows that the business of government and provision of public services generate, several governments in Europe are actively looking at the role digital payments can play – particularly in areas like disbursements, data, tourism, urban mobility and public administration. They have been actively working with the payment sector to accelerate this – by changing the way they manage their own flows, and by enabling and encouraging the uptake of digital payments among consumers and businesses alike.
Good examples can be seen in Spain and Greece.
Fast and efficient, yet secure and controlled
During the depths of the crisis, authorities from Catalonia, Madrid and other regions wanted a fast and efficient, yet secure and controlled way of disbursing emergency payments to families in need. To do so, they partnered with MoneyToPay, a joint venture between Global Payments and CaixaBank, on a series of innovative prepaid card initiatives. The speed of execution was astonishing. Often, it was possible to set up a program and distribute the cards in less than a week. Equipped with merchant category controls, spending could be limited to everyday essentials. The cards were designed to look like any other Visa programme so recipients could make purchases easily and flexibly while not feeling stigmatised.
MoneyToPay worked with more than 100 public sector bodies and non-governmental organisations to distribute almost 400,000 of these emergency aid cards2. Over the last 12 months, the policy considerations that the programme was serving evolved and prepaid programs were used to stimulate local economies. Public funds were distributed to consumers to spend exclusively at neighbourhood merchants that had been hardest hit by lockdowns3. In total, more than 56,000 of these cards have been distributed and, as EU recovery funds flow, MoneyToPay believes that many more opportunities will follow4.
In Greece, the pandemic response has been aligned to a broader set of policies that are explicitly intended to increase the uptake of digital payments and inhibit the use of cash5.
“The Greek government clearly sees electronic payments as an enabler of and catalyst for the digital economy – and has introduced perhaps the most progressive set of policies anywhere in the world,” explains Sevi Vassileva, Visa’s General Manager for Greece, Israel, Malta and Cyprus. “A big objective has been to thwart the grey economy. Thanks largely to a program of measures to increase and encourage acceptance, the so-called sales tax gap is decreasing6. But it goes much further than this. Digital payments are a lever to improve consumer experience, direct government support to where it’s most needed, inform policy and encourage behavioural changes.”
A tool to achieve wider policy objectives
In the post-pandemic context, a great example is the Freedom Pass – a €150 incentive for young adults to get their COVID-19 vaccination. This was distributed in Greece via a physical prepaid card, Apple Pay or Google Pay – and recipients were requested to spend these funds at small businesses in an effort to help re-start the economy. Facilitated by Visa and managed by Alpha Bank7, the entire initiative was devised and delivered in just two weeks.
Looking ahead, digital payments also feature prominently in the country’s national recovery and resilience plans. For example, around €4.5 billion has been allocated for social security payments, all due to be disbursed via prepaid programs8. And, as in Spain, the flexibility of the prepaid platform helps the government by limiting the value of ATM withdrawals and applying merchant category controls.
“What’s particularly impressive is the Greek government’s holistic approach,” Sevi continues. “They are even using aggregated, anonymised payment data to monitor progress, look out for merchant segments that may be suffering, and plan for the future. They see tourism as key to the recovery – and we are working together on programs designed to extend the tourism season, target relevant overseas travellers, and stimulate the latent demand for out-of-season trips to Greece.”
The Greek government’s enthusiasm for digital payments was born from another crisis, namely the debt crisis of the early 2010s9. At the time, there was a real chance that the country may be forced to crash out of the eurozone. To address the risk of capital flight, cash withdrawal limits were imposed so consumers had to rely on their cards – and the value of consumer electronic payments surged.
“Here was a solution that transcended party politics,” explains Sevi. “Everyone benefits from digital payments – and everyone could agree that this was a way to reduce the societal costs of cash, improve efficiencies, revitalise the travel industry, and improve the everyday experience of Greek citizens. Ever since, the growth trajectory has been strong and the pandemic has enabled a further acceleration.”
The Greek and Spanish examples are indicative of approaches being taken by other governments in Europe and across the world. And this bodes well for the entire payments industry.
“Wherever you go in the world, the potential is vast,” says Rob Walls, Global Head of Government Solutions for Visa. “In every country, governments collect taxes, disburse public funds, buy goods and services, and provide public services like public transport, parking and healthcare.”
“It’s an exciting space at an exciting time. As an ecosystem, we’re building up a wealth of experience, some great use cases, and many tailored solutions in areas like funds distribution and mass transit, as well as procurement. And, as you can see from the Spanish and Greek examples, we’re pushing at an open door. We see the opportunity for far greater collaboration with the public sector to help realise the public policy of governments through the use of digital payment solutions, greater use of payment data and a keen eye on end user experience”.
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1 NextGenerationEU, European Union, https://europa.eu/next-generation-eu/index_en
2 MoneyToPay internal database of welfare cards issued
3 MoneyToPay internal database of welfare cards issued
4 MoneyToPay internal database of welfare cards issued
5 Greece 2.0 National Recovery and Resilience Plan, Pillars & Components https://greece20.gov.gr/en/pillars-and-components/, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Transition Report 2021-22, Country Assessments: Greece https://www.ebrd.com/publications/transition-report-202122-greece
6 Greek Ministry of Finance: regular exchanges with the Greek Banks Association and banks
7 Freedom Pass by Alpha Bank https://www.alpha.gr/el/idiotes/freedom-pass
8 Next Generation EU – Greece 2.0: National Recovery and Resilience Plan https://primeminister.gr/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Greece-2_0-April-2021.pdf
9 European Payments Council, Greece’s steady progress towards a cashless society https://www.europeanpaymentscouncil.eu/news-insights/insight/greeces-steady-progress-towards-cashless-society
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