e-Estonia: leading the way on digital government

By Steven McGinty

 “We should talk about a digital-embracing government, not e-government”

These are the words of Andres Kütt, system architect and adviser to the Estonian Information Security Authority. By this he means that the term ‘e-government’ implies a separation between digital and government. So, instead he advocates the term ‘digital-embracing government’ as it highlights that digital should be embedded within all aspects of governance.

Why does the Estonian view matter?

In Estonia, digital has become the norm, and most government services can now be completed online. They have managed to find a way of creating partnerships between the government, a very proactive ICT sector and the citizens of Estonia. As a result, the country of just 1.3 million people has become a leader in digital government.

The ‘core’ of the Estonian model 

  • Electronic ID cards

Key to the Estonian approach is the use of an electronic ID card. As of 2012, more than 1.1 million people have ID cards. The Estonian population have been described as ‘tech savvy’ and ‘pragmatic’. This could be the reason ID cards have been successful there, whereas in the UK concerns about threats to privacy have always led to their rejection.

The ID card acts as both an identity document and, within the European Union, a travel document. It provides a way to verify citizens using online services. The card is secure, and is used for activities such as internet banking, participating in e-elections, and buying public transportation tickets. Mobile phones can also act as an ID card, allowing citizens to confirm their identity online.

  • Population Database

The Estonian government has a national register (called the Population Database).  This provides a single unique identifier for all citizens and residents in Estonia. Similarly to the use of ID cards, these forms of large scale database are unlikely to be accepted by the British public. For instance, concerns were raised when it was suggested that a Scotland-wide ID database, which would have included records from 120 public bodies, could be introduced.

Estonian digital government services

  • e-Elections

Since 2005, Estonians have been able to participate in e-elections using their ID card or their mobile ID. Once a voter’s identity has been verified, the connecting digital signature is separated from the vote. This allows the vote to be anonymous.

In the 2011 Parliamentary elections, 140, 846 people voted online, representing 24% of the eligible voting population. Recent elections have also shown that online voting has had a positive effect on voter turnout.

However, security concerns have been raised over Estonia’s voting system. Researchers from security firm SafelyLocked have suggested that the software has insufficient security safeguards to protect it from hackers.

  • e-Health record

As of January 2010, Estonia’s citizens have been given access to their medical records via a medical information system. It contains information such as diagnoses and doctor’s visits and is accessed using the ID card.

What could the UK learn from Estonia?

In a recent presentation, Andres Kütt was the first person to admit that you can’t simply take the Estonian approach and implement it into another country. However, he does suggest that methodologies used by Estonia can be adopted by other countries to help them come to their own digital solution. There are also wider lessons that can be drawn from the Estonian experience.

In the UK, the Government Digital Service (GDS) have an ongoing arrangement with the Estonian government – a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2013 committed the two countries to working together to advance digital public services. The GDS highlights that a lot of Estonia’s success comes from the fact that they started with no pre-existing infrastructure. This means that they were able to avoid legacy problems, such as the challenge of integrating older and newer systems.

However, Pete Herlihy of the GDS, reported that on a visit to Estonia he realised that:

  • The government needs to publish details of the data it holds for each of their systems
  • The government needs to publish an agreed set of open data and messaging standards and protocols, to allow easier communication between systems.

Final thoughts

The eventual solution for the UK will have to be different to that of Estonia. Yet it’s clear that when government, the private sector and citizens come together, it is possible to create a society that is digitally connected.

Here are just a few final facts about the success of Estonia.

  • 98% of banking transactions in Estonia are conducted through the internet
  • In 2013, over 95% of income tax declarations were processed through the e-Tax Board
  • Cabinet meetings have become paperless sessions using a web-based document system.

Further reading

IDOX is a market-leading developer and provider of a broad range of software solutions for UK and international public sector organisations – especially local government. These solutions are designed to help clients comply with regulatory requirements, as well as enable online delivery of public services.

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