The inspiring Estonian digital society: When political willingness makes the difference

Since its independence from the USSR in 1991, Estonia has progressively become a fully integrated digital State : ICT and digital services are now widely used both in the public and the private sectors. 
Estonia is a Baltic State of 1.3 million inhabitants with a GDP per capita of US$17.075*, a member of the European Union since 2004 and has reached an amazing internet market penetration of 86,35%, 98% of citizens under 35 being frequent internet users. Various successful projects have been launched since the 1990s on the initiative of the State or the private sector: Tiigrihüpe (1996) had the primary objective to connect all schools to the internet, Look@World (2001) enabled to develop 500 public internet access points and aims at developing IT skills in the population, EstWin (2009) had the goal to make 100 Mbit/s internet available for all citizens by 2015, etc. Last but not least, Estonia is also known as the country where Skype was created and developed in 2003.
These initiatives have been supported by legal and administrative reforms : The Personal Data Protection Act passed in 1996, followed by the creation of the Data Protection Department in 1999. In 2000, the Digital Signature Act gave the digital signature equal legal force as a handwritten signature, and the Digital Identity has enabled citizens to get an electronic legal representation and to sign documents digitally.

In 2001 was created X-Road: a strong IT infrastructure that links users** with a secure data exchange layer that now manages numerous public and private services (such as e-parliament, e-participation, e-tax board, i-voting, e-police, e-health, e-school, m-parking, e-banking, e-business and e-energy, among others). For instance, e-participation provides citizens with access to public information, to local governments online and to an OS tool for citizens’ initiatives. 
Some services are quite standard from today’s perspective : The e-school system benefits parents (who can access grades, attendance and homework assignments of their children), teachers (who can send notes to the class, to the parents and plan their curricula) and students (who can follow up their progress and access their work through the system). 
Others successful digital public services — such as the e-health system — still appear as a utopia in many developed countries while they have been successful in Estonia for years : One single record for each patient can be accessed and filled in by different healthcare service providers, including drug prescriptions. Health data can also be anonymised and used for national statistic purposes by the Ministry. Efficient digital services have a strong impact on countries’ image and attractiveness : E-business services have strongly facilitated company registrations, making Estonia ranked among the TOP 20 out of all countries in the World Bank Doing Business Index.

One of the primary objectives of the Estonian digital system was obviously cost efficiency, as a solution to budget limitations. At the same time, by enabling interactions between stakeholders, X-Road has contributed to reduce bureaucracy, save time and improve efficiency and convenience for citizens, companies and governments agencies. It takes 5 minutes to file taxes and 18 minutes to start a company in Estonia. 80% of companies communicate with public agencies using online services. 
Along with those benefits, two principles have been made mandatory: According to the « once-only principle », public agencies are not allowed to ask citizens or businesses twice the same information (meaning the public administration has to internally share the data). The « twice-mandatory principle » states that the data collected has to be used for two different purposes at least to be requested to citizens or businesses. 
The e-government system has also improved democratic participation and transparency, contributing to reduce corruption in the country.

After its independence, Estonia took the opportunity to think differently about how a government can work, based on limited financial resources and how to make the most of ICT. This was of course facilitated by the absence of legacy (administrative paperwork, incompatible IT systems) so that today’s public services have been designed to directly be digital. 
Privacy and protection of personal data are at the core of the Information System: Each citizen is the owner of its personal data and can view a log that shows who has access to its data. The government has also invested in cybersecurity and a specific department is in charge of evaluating the security and risks of Information Systems. Voting online, for example, involves two different PIN codes (one to authenticate the citizen’s identity and one for digital signature), as well as a software checking identity with a smartphone camera. Overcoming a fear of State surveillance similar to the Orwellian dystopia, Estonian people’s trust in the national digital system has undoubtedly contributed to its success.
Indeed, another reason for the success of the Estonian integrated e-government and digital ecosystem is the continuous stakeholders’ involvement and general consensus in the society. Political elites have played an active role in promoting internet inclusion and public resources have been specifically and continuously allocated to ICT development (1% of yearly budgets between 1994 and 2004). The mix of public and private initiatives might also have boosted the ecosystem.

Estonia has now become a global model for e-government and keeps progressing, if we consider the blockchain partnerships it has recently engaged in, in order to protect data records. It is also the first country in the world to propose a virtual (or e-) residency offer to non-citizens, which enables them to establish an Estonian company online and to administer it from anywhere in the world. The objective is to reach 10 million e-residents by 2025. The government is now planning to introduce its own digital currency for foreign e-residents to be able to fund the public tech innovations such as those in Artificial Intelligence. The Estonian e-society is definitely an inspiring case study for other countries. Stay tuned.

*The EU average is US$32.047 (2015 data)

**Via a digital certificate with an ID card or a SIM card

Data sources:
EC DG InfoSoc, GSMA Intelligence, World Bank data bank

More information on:
Vassil, Kristjan, 2015, Estonian e-Government Ecosystem: Foundation, Applications, Outcomes.”, Background Paper for the World Development Report 2016, World Bank, Washington, DC