How Estonia became the most modern digital state in the world

Anna Savina
8 min readJan 23, 2016

Estonia was the first country in the world that allowed voters to participate in the parliament election using the Internet, conducted the world’s first e-census and now it offers foreigners to obtain its digital citizenship. Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the tiny country outran the entire planet in the quality of public e-services. I figured out how it did it.

Estonian capital Tallinn may seem the town that is lost in the Middle Ages, but the local community is living in the digital future. Many Estonians haven’t visited any of tax inspectorate offices and did not go to the polls to vote for years. They don’t have to leave the house to comply with the laws and to enjoy their civil rights. They can deal with a significant amount of bureaucracy without leaving their computers.

Estonia was the first country in the world where the parliament was elected through the Internet, e-census was conducted online and electronic citizenship for foreigners was introduced. A small North European country with a population of 1.3 million people is ahead of many world leaders who spend hundreds of millions of dollars in order to build a digital state. The World Bank puts Estonia above its neighbors — Russia, Lithuania and Latvia in the list which take into account effectiveness of governance. How was this achieved and on which principles is the Estonian electronic government built?

Principle number 1: Stability and smart investments

After the collapse of the Soviet Union Estonia did not have enough resources to organize public services as well as West European countries. The local government has decided that the use of the Internet and digital technologies can help to reduce costs. Today, regardless of the balance of political forces, Estonia is spending about $60 million per year to build the information society. However, it’s not much compared to other countries.

For comparison, the U.S. spent from one to two billion dollars to create a health insurance site, and at first the service worked with myriad errors. The Russian government has spent more than 20 billion rubles on the implementation of the federal program “Electronic Russia”. In 2010, the program was considered unsuccessful, almost nothing has not been realized, and some of the money disappeared completely, dissolved somewhere in the “virtual space”. Estonian «IT-minister” Taavi Kotka maliciously wrote on Twitter that the UK government’s spending on information technology per year is bigger than the entire GDP of Estonia.

Estonia’s secret is that the country doesn’t attempt to create new websites for the old state structures. Instead, bureaucratic mechanisms were originally invented with the idea of ​​the future where there will be no papers and stamps.

Alternation of generations also played an important role. Young politicians are more receptive to new ideas and trends. In the early 1990s, the average age of members of the Estonian government was 35 years. At the beginning of the 21st century more than half of state employees were younger than 40 years. Now the government also has a lot of young people — for example, the above-mentioned «IT-minister» Taavi Kotka, who oversees the development of information technology at the Ministry of Economic Development and Communications. He is 36.

Principle number 2: Every citizen should have a personal code

The first step toward building a functioning e-government is distinguishing one citizen from another. In Estonia, a universal ID-card helps to achieve this goal. The card is used to login bank systems, government organizations and hospitals — four thousand various services in total. You can use your ID to buy a fishing license as well as to pay a public transport fare. In 2000 the government allowed to use digital signatures, so now people can interact with the state and with each other without papers. Since then, the Estonians left nearly 200 million virtual autographs.

Each ID-card has a chip that has two “keys” — one allows you to sign documents, and the other — to login to the governmental websites. To do this, a citizen should insert the card into a special reader and connect it to their computers. With the proliferation of smartphones and mobile internet, cards are now integrated into the SIM-card.

The law passed in 2000 forced all government agencies to accept digital signatures along with usual ones, and now no organization can request a paper version of a document. This law guarantees equal access to public services for all citizens: even if you live in a remote village, you don’t have to spend more time on paying taxes than residents of the capital.

Principle number 3: Support local IT-companies

Estonia does not pay the license to large international IT-companies: governmental services use open-source software and digital products of local startups. The biggest of them is called Nortal, and it is the largest IT-company in the Baltic region. Nortal specialists have developed online platforms for public services, not only in Estonia, but also in Finland, Lithuania, Qatar and Oman.

The level of e-services in Estonia is higher than in other countries, says a member of the board of directors of Nortal Oleg Shvaykovsky. “The way we understand the provision of electronic services is different from how it is understood in Russia”, — he notes.

According to him, Estonian websites are able to provide “contextual services”. It means that users are offered different options depending on their personal data. For example, a woman may be advised to introduce the child in the kindergarten’s waiting list at the stage of processing aid for a mother if it’s necessary. Big data helps to analyze the context and offer services for each individual user. For the moment, such online public services aren’t available in any other country in the world.

Principle number 4: Education in the field of digital literacy

The Estonian government has made an effort to educate people how to use electronic services. A lot of attention is paid to teaching computer literacy. Since the end of the 90s, all schools in the country have access to the Internet. In addition, the project Tiigrihüpe, launched by the government to support the new technologies, involved teaching programming in high schools. Recently Tiigrihüpe leaders have proposed a method of teaching computer literacy for preschoolers.

A service called eKool helps children to get used to electronic services. eKool stores all grades, course assignments and attendance information. Parents can access the data. All these measures have led to positive results, and many children who graduated from high school in the 2000s are becoming businessmen. In Estonia we can see the highest concentration of technology start-ups per capita.

The government has also invested in education for the older generation. For example, in 2009 they launched a program for the elderly called Ole kaasas («Be enabled”). Classes are held across the whole country and the program provides subsidies for purchasing computers for seniors. Over two years 40 thousand people were trained .

Principle number 5: Elaborate the system of personal data protection

In Estonia, there is no single repository of data, all the information is distributed among different institutions. Government organizations can pass the information with the help of a system called X-road, but all operations are tracked. Every action of a person or an official who requests information leaves a trace. At the same time, civil servants should indicate the reason for the request. If they do something unreasonable, you can contact the Data Protection Inspectorate, a division of the Ministry of Justice.

“There were a few cases when officials accessed the data with no reason,” — says Shvaykovsky. According to him, one of the famous cases involved a female investigator who found out where a man lives, after her friend asked her for information to make an ex-husband pay alimony. The man saw who requested his identity using the public web-service and made a request to the Data Protection Inspectorate. The investigator lost her job.

Principle number 6: Resist cyber attacks

Theoretically, the distribution of the system must protect it from hackers and server crashes caused by too many requests. However, sometimes problems still occur. For example, after the introduction of digital medical prescriptions in 2010 Estonian medical portal collapsed because thousands of elderly people were trying to enter the site to get a monthly pension.

The system of public services, banks’ websites and online publications has undergone a powerful cyber attacks. For example, in 2007 many online resources didn’t work for several hours. The attacks began after the country’s Prime Minister Andrus Ansip (now he is the Vice President of the European Commission and is engaged in the development of digital services in the EU) proposed to relocate the monument called the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn. Estonia suspected that attacks were linked to Russian authorities, but officially it was not proven. After the incident Estonia allowed NATO to build in Tallinn Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. Internet security became one of the main topics of national political agenda.

To protect itself from large-scale attacks, Estonia plans to create “digital embassies” in servers located in friendly countries. Now important information is stored in the servers of some Estonian embassies, but the government is going to go ahead and rent well-protected foreign servers to store copies of all important databases and services. In the case of a mass attack, these “embassies” will ensure uninterrupted work of all critical websites.

Principle number 7: Build electronic infrastructure in other countries

Government e-services not only make life easier for Estonians and help them to better adjust to life in the digital age, but it also helps the people from other countries. This is what Taavi Kotka thinks. Earlier the «IT-minister» ran Nortal, and then he joined the civil service. “We established an excellent technological infrastructure in both public and private sectors, and we’d like to open this environment for foreigners,” — says Kotka. He helped to create a new law that allows foreigners to obtain Estonian ID-card and to use local online services. This policy can attract capital, Kotka says.

“Estonian domestic market is relatively small, and we need more online-users from all over the world to support the economy, “— says Kotka. After opening the sites of state and banking services for foreigners, the Estonian government hopes to attract businessmen who want to register a business in the European Union. “If your company is registered in Estonia, you need to think mostly about the development strategy and customers, because all tax and financial transactions don’t take much time”, adds Kotka. He hopes that by 2025 the number of “electronic Estonians” will surpass ten million people.

Estonian government does not yet know which service will be the most popular one: like founders of startups, officials and developers are ready to gradually work on new features, improve the most popular ones and change the strategy according to the behaviour of users. Perhaps Estonia is so successful in the field of electronic state government services because it constantly adapts to changing conditions.

The original version of this article was published in the online publication called Apparat (in Russian).

Photo via Creative Commons / Dennis Jarvis