Community Insights Government

e-Estonia: Reflections on Life in a Digital Society

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Tallinn, capital city of the Republic of Estonia. (Image: Shutterstock.com)

(“Community Insights” are articles by members of the Techonomy community, contributing to the ongoing dialogue that is our raison d’être.)

Nobody questions any more that the ICT (Information and Communications Technology) revolution is now a permanent part of the landscape and that we should take advantage of it to make the world a better place for everybody. Cyber-technology has come to stay, with all its benefits as well as challenges. The World Bank concludes that “the full benefits of the information and communications transformation will not be realized until countries continue to improve their business climate, invest in people’s education and health, and promote good governance.”

Governments have a crucial role in either promoting the use of ICTs for the benefits of their people, or on the contrary restricting it. A diverse group of global government representatives in 2013 declared that “an open, secure, stable, accessible and peaceful ICT environment is essential for all and ICTs provide immense opportunities for social and economic development and continue to grow in importance for the international community.” But we see that governments’ approaches are different, and unfortunately the same ideological differences that exist off-line are mirrored on-line.

I would like to share some reflections about the success-story of my country – e-Estonia – in introducing, promoting and protecting e-lifestyle, a very digital lifestyle that is easy and convenient, also fast and efficient.

In the beginning of the 1990s, Estonia was left with a crumbling, outmoded and non-functional Soviet infrastructure. We quickly had to figure out how to compensate for both a minuscule workforce (Estonia’s population is 1.3 million.) and a lack of infrastructure. The political decision was made to computerize in every possible way – to try to find efficiencies and innovations wherever possible.

We started off by building a network of public Internet access points for people who couldn’t afford it at home. “Tiger’s Leap”– a program of computer education was implemented. Free internet access points – public access computer rooms and later WiFi hotspots – were put in schools, municipal offices, libraries etc. country-wide. By 1997 almost 97% of Estonian schools had Internet access. In total, today 84% of population (aged 16-74) uses the Internet regularly.

Government has been at the forefront, with innovative e-governance solutions since the early 2000s. Estonia conducts its nationwide elections online. It also was the first country in the world to have paperless government – what we call “e-cabinet.” It allows ministers to prepare for cabinet meetings, conduct them and review minutes, entirely without paper. This multi-user database and scheduler keeps relevant information organized and updated in real time, giving ministers a clear overview of each item under discussion. The average length of the government’s weekly cabinet meetings was cut from four or five hours to less than 90 minutes.

Equally important were private sector initiatives, with Estonian banks at the lead. Today almost all (99 percent+) of banking transactions are done electronically. One by one, the electronic population register, e-tax board, e-school, e-police, e-prescription etc. followed. In 2015, 96 percent of people declared their income electronically, for tax purposes. Estonia has set the world record of 18 minutes for the time it takes for a full company registration in the official business registry. Now 100 percent of companies submit their tax declarations and annual reports electronically. In 2015 parliamentary elections, over 31 percent of votes were cast over Internet. These are just few examples.

As the backbone to the e-government, a data exchange layer known as X-Road was created in 2000. X-Road is a technical and organizational environment that enables secure internet-based data exchange between any kinds of information systems. Today more than 170 information systems and 2,000 services from both public and private sector are connected via X-Road to provide seamless e-services and data exchange. All key governmental databases and registries are fully electronic.

Estonia has the world’s most advanced nationwide public key infrastructure – an electronic identity (e-ID) system. Today all residents have ID-cards, as it is required by the law. ID-card is the primary means for establishing proof of identity for Estonian residents, both offline and online.

E-ID enables citizens to officially offer online digital signatures. More than 175 million digital signatures have been used so far, or about 40 million each year. It is estimated that digital signatures save time and money worth up to 2 percent of Estonia’s GDP of annually.

Beginning in December 2014, Estonia became the first country in the world to introduce e-residency – a secure digital identity to non-residents. Foreigners can thus use e-services from all over the world, mainly to run international businesses on-line and/or administer a company from abroad.

We have had the luxury of experiencing the benefits of e-lifestyle for more than 20 years. We understand that what we are doing today is not the end of the road but rather just another milestone on the path of technical revolution. We also have learned that there are certain principles that have to be followed in order to take maximum advantage of technical innovation.

First, political will and an all-nation approach are crucial. Second, proper legal and technical infrastructure has to be in place. Third, an effective public-private partnership is an essential force for driving innovation. Fourth, digital societies are built on safety, security and trust. Fifth, in order to protect what we have and who we are, we constantly need to be alert, continuously build up and improve our resilience. And finally – we can´t be successful without international cooperation.

If you are interested in more information, visit e-estonia.com.

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