The key factors behind Estonia’s digital governance success

The key factors behind Estonia’s digital governance success

What’s the secret sauce? ‘The government acts as the initiator of change, but the private sector is perhaps at times the executor,’ says Estonia's CIO.

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In 1991, after achieving independence, Estonia had virtually no services or infrastructure to support its government. Since then, no country has proven a standard bearer for digitisation and e-governance as much as Estonia, with 99% of its governmental services – with the exception of marriages and divorces ­– now offered online in a transparent and secure ecosystem.

iTNews Asia speaks to Siim Sikkut, CIO of Estonia, to find out the factors that contributed to its successful development of a digital government and their key learning points for countries looking to emulate its success.

iTNews Asia: What has been the Estonian Government’s approach to digital governance, and what factors contribute to the country’s success for digitalisation and e-government?

Since the beginning of our digital journey, we have been keen to innovate and find the best solutions available globally to make them work in our digital government set-up and ecosystem. At the same time, we found it crucial to have a number of concrete building blocks as a foundation for the digital government.

For example, we see that shared platforms can make adoption and innovation faster. When setting up a digital identity scheme, it is paramount that it is secure, easy-to-use and can become widely accepted by both the public and private sector.

When we launched the Estonian ID card in 2002, it came along with a digital presence and a digital signature, which enabled us to move towards a wider adoption of digital services in general. People were able to make legally-binding decisions remotely and sign documents with a digital signature of their own.

Secondly, there needs to be the political will to sometimes make the difficult decisions in order to move forward. Digital leadership needs to be continuous across different administrations. This also involves a deeper understanding of the need to educate not just the wider society, but also government officials behind the transformation.

Another important aspect is investment in relevant infrastructure to make services truly available everywhere, regardless of the location of the person.

Thirdly, when building a digital state, it is important that all the different systems and databases are interconnected and can facilitate a smooth exchange of data. Our interoperability platform X-Road enables us to do exactly that. It is a technological and organisational environment that enables a secure Internet-based data exchange between information systems – again, for both the public and private sector to use.

In addition, one of the most important factors that helped streamline the government structures, authorities and databases is  the once-only-principle which exists to this day. This means that any type of data related to an individual can only be collected by one specific institution, thereby eliminating duplicate data and bureaucracy.

So while in most countries many different authorities have the right to ask you for your address, in our case only the population register can ask for your address. Any other authority that needs your address is forbidden from asking you – instead, it needs to get that information from the population register. This is also a necessary precondition for the fully-functional use of X-Road.

Last but not least, the importance of smooth and easy-to-use services cannot be understated. People’s needs and expectations have changed over time and it is important to provide services that are not only available but actually used. In that sense, the partnership between the public and private sector is crucial, and so is having a solid legal background that enables the digital shift.

iTNews Asia: How does the Estonian Government identify areas to improve on and continue to evolve digitally?

On one hand, we have strategic documents with specific objectives that we want to achieve in a certain timeframe. On the other hand, we are on a constant lookout for best practices and lessons learned globally to see which new and emerging technologies or solutions could work in our digital government set-up. We are not keen on “re-inventing the wheel” when there are already great solutions available – it makes sense to first check if these solutions fit our needs and priorities.

For example, in the past couple of years we have been working on the adoption of AI and machine learning in the public sector to make our digital government more efficient and our decision-making more information-based – one example is matching job seekers with open positions.

We were aiming to have 20 AI use cases in the public sector by 2020, but we now have 100 solutions that are either already working or in development. Using those different components to improve our services and decision-making also gives us the opportunity to re-use the same solutions in different domains – meaning that the same logic of not re-inventing the wheel also applies internally.

Additionally, our development so far has been largely based on open innovation and testing out new things. That is why we are also expanding these horizons, to garner more involvement from the private sector and collaborate on our digital journey.

It is important to realise that innovation is not always about making huge leaps forward and having moonshot ideas; rather, persistent, continuous and sometimes even non-exciting small improvements can make you better step by step.

- Siim Sikkut, CIO of Estonia

iTNews Asia: What are the key takeaways for Asian countries to learn from Estonia’s digital governance, and how can they aim to emulate Estonia’s success?

I guess in the same way that others sometimes look towards us, we look towards others as well – to hear about their lessons learned and to share knowledge and experience. It is important to understand that each country has its own context and its own way of doing things. There can be a number of different approaches and aspects that make sense in those specific circumstances. Speaking from our perspective, there are a couple of takeaways that seem relatively universal to us.

First of all, the need for a digitally-minded leadership cannot be understated. This needs to be continuous and ongoing. Just like in our case, there is always something new that could be done and the digital journey needs continuous support from the very top.

Secondly, shared platforms make you quicker. It is useful if a solution gets wider acceptance and usage by both the public and private sector. In our case, examples include the ID card and X-Road, to name a few.

Thirdly, delivery matters – especially fast delivery. It makes sense to test out new things and learn quickly what works for you and what does not. At the same time, keeping in mind the risks involved and managing them where needed.

Fourth, partnering up with the private sector is crucial – there are aspects where the competences lie in the private sector and it makes sense to utilise that. The government acts as the initiator of change, but the private sector is perhaps at times the executor. Working together helps to bring the best of both worlds together.

And last but not least – keeping things short and simple – no need to overwhelm yourself with huge and complicated projects that carry a huge risk in them if you can actually make small and simple steps to make things work. On the same token, it makes sense to pick the low-hanging fruit first and focus on what works before tackling the bigger challenges. At times, it is important to focus on those bigger projects, but the small ones are actually as important and provide faster benefits.

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