“Our country was like a start-up”: Lessons from Estonia and why true e-government requires trust and buy-in

Written by Rebecca Hill on 31 August 2016 in Features

As the UK government pushes its digital transformation agenda, PublicTechnology looks at how other countries have forged ahead. According to an Estonian e-governance expert, identification systems are crucial. Rebecca Hill reports.

Tallinn, Estonia's capital - Photo credit: Flickr, Tim Benedict Pou

Estonia has long been touted as one of the most successful e-societies in the world, having begun its efforts to digitise services back in the mid-1990s.

When asked what the key to success is, Anna Piperal, managing director at the e-Estonia Showroom – which was set up to brief international policymakers on how to create a fully digital society – is clear.

Speaking to PublicTechnology, Piperal says that there must be some kind of identification element for a successful e-government model. However, she stresses that this must be communicated properly with the public so that they trust in the system.

“The UK is spending 400 times more on provision of the same services than Estonia, and it's not just because it has more people,” she says. “The maintenance of our electronic systems, computers and IT costs us much less and we’ve saved 2% of GDP just because we use a digital signature for everything. We are sure this is the way to go.”

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Piperal adds that in Estonia, people can use 99% of all state services online. However, this level of provision needs a more integrated approach across the whole of government, and part of this involved creating an ID card for all Estonian citizens. The digital identity collates a person’s information in one place, and can be used by citizens as an online and real-life form of identification.

The aim is to speed up transactions – Piperal highlights the speed at which someone can create their own company (18 minutes including all background checks) – and to make things more simple for the citizen.

For instance, the country also has a once-only principle – if a citizen has given one government institution certain data, no other institution is allowed to ask for it again – instead the data can be exchanged between departments automatically.

Greater accountability

Piperal is convinced that the ID card system is a necessity for the UK if it is to pursue a similarly streamlined approach to e-government. But attempts to create such a system have fallen flat in the UK. When asked why, Piperal puts this down to poor communication, a misunderstanding of what the ID card is for and a lack of incentives for citizens.

“There were no benefits or services offered with it,” she says. “The time-saving element, the convenience and e-solutions weren't introduced – nothing was put on the table.”

Many campaign groups feel that identity cards are just another way for the government to check up on people, but Piperal counters that the card “isn’t a surveillance tool”.

In fact, she goes further, saying that the public actually get more transparency and are better able to hold the government to account because of the ID card system in Estonia.

“ID cards are the main way citizens can see the data the government has collected on them,” she says. “They can monitor the log file, which shows which government institutions are accessing your personal data. If data is on paper, anyone can read it or copy it and you won’t know.”

She adds that the threat of losing their job or even time in prison acts to stop people with access to data looking at it when they shouldn’t.

“There are many fears and misunderstandings,” she says. “People don't understand that they can be monitored if they have a mobile phone in their pocket.”

‘No Plan B’

Nonetheless, Piperal acknowledges that the two countries have very distinct histories – Estonia only gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, meaning there are big differences in the way the state is viewed, and its population is small and diverse.

“We had minimal resources. Estonia has never been a trade centre, or rich in oil and gas,” Piperal says. “And with a population of only 1.3 million, with a very uneven density, it was really challenging to offer any public services to the rural areas. We didn’t have any other options than digital services.”

But this position also benefited the country – not only did it give both the government and the citizens an imperative to embrace digital, it also began its digital journey at the height of the internet era. Piperal acknowledges that this meansEstonia doesn’t have to deal with the legacy systems the UK is sometimes burdened by.

“We can't deny it – we were like a start-up,” she says. “Sometimes we didn't know how it would work out. We didn't do a social impact survey in the ‘90s, there was just no plan B. Plan A had to work.”

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