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The push to e-government – lessons from Estonia

1 July 2020: One of the legacies of the COVID-19 crisis could be a stronger push towards e-government around the world. Estonia is a case in point.

While e-government is not a new trend, the crisis has accelerated a lot of digital transformation and also pointed the way for future developments. Management of the epidemic has drawn on a plethora of data science as well as innovations such as tracker apps. It has highlighted the value of wider e-health initiatives, like video consultations with doctors, and played an important role in supporting the economy, for example using digital tax systems as a channel for providing financial support to businesses.

However, governments have been trying to digitalise with varying results for many years. There has often been a lot of promise followed by under-delivery in practice. The crisis has also highlighted some of the existing weaknesses in governments’ digital capabilities and access to data. So now is a good time to revisit the lessons from Estonia, one of the leading examples of e-government.

Estonia’s road to e-government

Estonia has been a pioneer of e-government for a number of years, having started when it gained independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s. With a relatively clean slate, like needing to create a tax system from scratch, the government decided to build it in a digital way. As a result, in Estonia you can now do anything online except get married, divorced or buy property. You can even become an e-resident of Estonia from anywhere in the world and make use of its digital business environment.

There has been a lot written about Estonia’s e-government and the reasons for its success. Estonia itself has a dedicated website which outlines in detail its e-government approach and services, for others to learn from.

In terms of the technology infrastructure, Estonia has two key elements that underpin its approach. First, there is a digital ID system that provides access to all digital services. Almost all citizens have a digital ID card which is supported by a card reader and PIN. This card underpins e-signatures, online voting, medical appointments and all other aspects of government administration.

Second, the principle of ‘once only’ means that data is only held once by the government. This principle is underpinned by the X-road, a platform which enables data to be referenced and used by other government services. So, for example, citizens’ addresses are held once, in the database for citizens’ addresses, and this data is not replicated in other databases around government. If an address is needed to deliver a particular service, it is drawn from this address database.

By combining these two features, the Estonian approach becomes highly efficient and effective. Citizens only need to enter data once for it to permeate across all services, and the government avoids duplicate or conflicting data between different departments. It also enables a highly decentralised and secure system. If hackers were to compromise any part of the system, they wouldn’t be able to get much data from a single database. Furthermore, citizens can see who has accessed their data, giving them far greater control over it.

Other elements of success

Estonia has certain characteristics that have helped the e-government efforts. It has a small population which is relatively concentrated in the capital Tallinn. There are high levels of trust in government. There has also been a good partnership with the private sector, which has supported innovation. The success of Skype, an Estonian start-up, has been particularly important, feeding a lot of skills, experience and capital into the start-up and wider digital scene. There has also been a strong focus on design thinking, which emphasises building applications that are easy to use and solve real problems.

These elements were evidenced by Estonia’s response to COVID-19, which has been a blend of traditional public health measures and some digital tools. To start with, government services could continue as usual online, with areas such as health and education well placed to cope with Estonia’s lockdown. Indeed, it made its digital education tools available to other countries to help them cope with school closures.

At the beginning of the crisis in mid-March, it conducted a 'Hack the crisis’ event which led to a number of tools which have subsequently been used, including Koroonakaart, an interactive dashboard of national and local statistics around cases, testing and deaths, Koroonatestan, an online questionnaire for assessing health and risk of infection and Suve, a chatbot which answers common questions about the virus. While none of these is particularly leading-edge – many countries have these kinds of tools – they were delivered quickly and effectively. But there are some more innovative ideas: they are trialling an immunity passport system for COVID-19, for instance.

Lessons for other countries

When looking for relevant lessons that can help other governments shift to a more digital-first approach, it is clear that the underpinning architecture of the digital ID and X-Road systems has been hugely important. The approach has made it easy for citizens to use the e-government services, and built trust in them.

These are not necessarily easy to replicate in other countries, or at least they require some deep change. In the UK, for example, the question of digital identity and identity cards has a long and contentious history. Governments typically operate in a siloed way, so getting to a ‘once only’ system, while highly desirable, requires a fundamental re-engineering of the way that government agencies work and interact. Where the level of trust in government is lower, it can take a very long time to achieve.

Operating from a clean slate as Estonia was, it wasn't contending with the complexity of legacy systems and processes. ICAEW’s report on the Digitalisation of tax around the world highlighted the benefits of creating new, simple processes: digitalising complex legacy processes is hard and seldom yields the same kind of benefits.

However, there are other facets that might be easier to replicate. The interaction between private and state providers and the design thinking approach, for example, support sustainable innovation. The digital savviness of political leaders has also been a feature which has helped to push the agenda forward. This has encouraged a strong digital culture and an appreciation of the benefits of a digital-first approach. Most citizens, for example, recognise the enhanced security of digital signatures and would not trust paper contracts and physical signatures, in contrast to attitudes in many other countries.

Estonia has a lot to teach the world about e-government and it is keen for the rest of us to catch up so that we can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of doing business, and government, across the world. Maybe the experience of COVID-19 will push more governments into making the changes they need to deliver more effective e-government.