Posted Thursday 19th June 2014 by Paul Masterton

e-Estonia: Thoughts on a digital society

The northern-most of the Baltic states, Estonia is a small country of 1.3 million with a growing and global reputation as a leading digital society, where technology is applied to improve the lives of citizens, how they work, live, play and deal with the government.

e-Estonia: Thoughts on a digital society

Becoming independent in 1991, Estonia commenced its digital journey in 2001 and today is ranked in the 95th percentile of global indexes for digital enablement and eGovernment effectiveness.  Estonia is justly proud of these pioneering developments and that their e-solutions have resulted in

  • Unprecedented levels of transparency and accessibility in government
  • Safe, convenient and flexible exchange of private, government and corporate data
  • A healthier, better educated population, with easy access to all services
  • A prosperous environment for business and entrepreneurship

 

As Jersey begins its own journey towards eGovernment, Digital Jersey led a small delegation to Estonia to look and learn, to understand how they have come this far and, as importantly, where they are aiming now.  Including politicians, civil servants and industry, the Jersey delegates returned with a clear sense of what eGovernment means and can deliver and how this could be transformational for Jersey.

Thoughts from the visit:

What does eGovernment mean in Estonia and what are the benefits?

Estonians access more than 3000 services online, via an eGov portal, simplifying how they interact with the government in every aspect of their lives, both as private citizens and in business.  Further, these services work seamlessly with the private sector, especially for banking and payments, to increase speed and effectiveness and simplicity of use.  Highlights of these services include:

  • 99% of all banking transactions are done on line
  • 94% of Estonians now file tax returns digitally, using eforms that come to them with data already added
  • Estonians own and control their own medical records
  • Legally binding contracts can be signed over the internet from anywhere in the world
  • House purchases are completed online, in less than a day
  • It takes less than 20 minutes to register a company
  • 50% of Tallinn drivers pay for parking with their phones
  • More than 30% of the population, and rising, are now voting online

The government estimates that online services save each citizen more than 2 weeks in time each year.

An effective digital ID card and a mobile ID authentication, provides for secure access to all eservices, gives definitive proof of ID in an electronic environment, enabling electronic signatures and an array of transactions, from paying for buses and car parking, to financial payments and voting.

 

How does Jersey’s eGovernment vision compare to Estonia?

At a high level, it was encouraging to see that Jersey’s vision, plan and system architecture is very similar – Jersey is clearly on the right path. What sets Estonia apart is the significant integration of the private sector, especially banks, and the breadth and depth of the services provided. These are key lessons for the Jersey plan.

 

How did Estonia manage this change?

Estonia points to the key change ingredients as being a forward thinking government, a pro-active tech sector and a tech savvy population and it was clear that they focused their change management energy on people, process and technology. 

Delivery of eservices is made possible by Estonia’s adoption of an open decentralized system that links together databases and services. They actively stay away from single, all - encompassing systems, ensuring that their infrastructure is open, flexible to use, able to interface with existing and legacy systems and equally able to benefit from the constant stream of new development, such as open source applications. (The Microsoft v open source debate that occurs in Jersey was not a feature of our time in Estonia.  They handle both as easily, focussing on the best solution that delivers the most benefit).

 

Underpinning this is a set of elegant principles that guide the digital foundation

  • Decentralisation:  There is no central database and every stakeholder – government department, ministry or business- gets to choose its own system in its own time
  • Interconnectivity: All elements in the system must be able to work together smoothly
  • Open platform: Any institution can use the infrastructure
  • Open-ended process: A continuous evolution, growing and improving organically driven by the needs and creativity of citizens, business, government and the IT sector
  • Infrastructure: A flexible and open system linking together various data bases

 

A crucial element of the technology platform is X Road.  X Road is a tool that connects all decentralised components of the system together.  It’s the environment that allows the many eservices to be delivered, no matter what platform they are on.  In the Jersey vision, this is being termed the eGov Bus, and is practically an identical concept.  When this extends in to the private realm it will exactly mirror the Estonian approach.  Note X Road has a ‘brand’ in Estonia, a strong public face.  We need something better than eGov Bus for ours!

 

Our hosts emphasised time and again that the challenge was not and is not technology.  It is managing the people aspect.  This starts with clear and simple processes, with common standards and user interfaces.  It then extends to alignment of messaging from the top down and leadership behaviour that supports the message - Estonian cabinet meetings are totally paperless as an example (Interestingly they now take half the time and are viewed as more productive – SoJ take note!).  Similarly, in the 8 presentations we had in Estonia the message was completely consistent whether we talking education, Health, Justice or government.

 

Another key lesson is that Estonia has achieved this with the ‘carrot’ not the ‘stick’.  They ensure services are created that are needed and wanted, that are simple to use and communicated well.  We did not witness any use of punitive measures to force use.  Widely available and free, broadband internet connection is also an important enabler, together with broad 3G and 4G coverage.  This is complimented by extensive availability of community centres for those without home access, though Estonia reports that 75% of homes have the internet, while 100% of schools have broadband and the capital, Tallinn is in the world’s top 10 cities for Wi-Fi convenience.

Today Estonian citizens expect to handle their everyday needs on line and believe something is not right if they cannot.

 

Where is Estonia heading now?

The digital revolution continues to push into every element of society and business and we participated in discussions around developments in health, education, law and justice and the bigger challenge of how to integrate these capabilities in to the European Union. What is clear is that they have the platform and momentum to build on their position and many of our hosts view this capability as a strategic advantage, not simply as internal efficiencies.

 

The drive to a digital society has been a vital catalyst to the IT sector in Estonia, with the majority of the development and ongoing support being outsourced.  They are challenged though, as Jersey is, in attracting and retaining skilled staff in this sector – one of the few moments when we could empathise instead of admire during the visit.

 

What about ‘Big Brother’ and Cyber Security concerns?

Given the history of Estonia, one might expect concerns about big brother government use of citizen data, it is certainly a topic of concern in the UK and will need addressing in Jersey.  Surprisingly, it was not an issue raised in Estonia, not least because each citizen can log on to their files and see who in government has been looking at them through an activity log.  They take this matter and the challenge of overall cyber security, seriously and have dedicated resources to ensure that citizens, business and government have effective protection.

 

Were the expectations and objectives of the visit met?

We went to learn, to compare plans, to make contacts that can assist us and to be inspired.  We did and we were.  We need look no further than Estonia as a jurisdiction to emulate.

 

What does this mean for the Jersey eGovernment initiative?

Digital Jersey is consolidating the thoughts and perspectives from those on the trip and will make this available to the eGov team.  Included in these thoughts agree the following recommendations to consider

  • Expand the Jersey egov vision to include the private sector, especially the banks
  • Review the fundamental principles underpinning eGovernment
  • Build in the capability for Jersey citizens to view who has been accessing their data
  • Invite key players from Estonia to present to stakeholders in Jersey
  • Establish formal connections with various departments for idea exchanges

 

In Summary

  • Jersey is on the right track conceptually
  • Estonia is an excellent model to emulate
  • We are a long way behind
  • We can achieve in 5 years what Estonia did in 10
  • This should transform Jersey

 

The presentations that we were given in Estonia can be accessed on our Resources page. 

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