e-Estonia: the ultimate digital democracy?

This article was originally published in French. To read this text in pdf, please click here.


Tallinn, May 2018. The Estonian capital is hosting the annual Tallinn e-Governance Conference, organized by the renowned e-Governance Academy: half research institute, half consulting company specialized in digital transformation, it is one of the flagships of Estonian global soft power, based on its capacity to show the way to a fully digital state.

The Estonian success story is now well-known worldwide. This small Baltic republic, with its 1.3 million inhabitants, used the newest technology to build its administration “from scratch” once it recovered its independence following the implosion of the Soviet Union.

Now, every administrative act of daily life can be done in just a few clicks, on a laptop or a smartphone, at home or away on holidays: from signing administrative paperwork to paying for the parking lot to voting at elections. Indeed, it is almost the full range of what the public sector can offer to its citizens that is available online, through a now-mandatory unique digital identity, and the single portal eesti.ee. The only 3 exceptions to that rule (getting married or divorced, selling real estate) are so due to political choices and not for technical reasons.

This undeniable success intrigues and inspires many across the globe. Mostly among small countries with emerging economies and young or still underdeveloped state institutions, where the Estonian model is the easiest to replicate. But also within giants of this world, such as India with its colossal project “Aadhaar” that is in part inspired from the Baltic experience.

Over the last few years, countless business and government delegations rushed to the shores of the Baltic Sea in order to understand the secrets of this success story that sounds like the best sagas from the Silicon Valley. The number of media articles and think tank grow exponentially ; all have the credit to help discovering this still little-known country that indeed has a few lessons on digital transformations to teach us.

However, there remains a blind spot in the way e-Estonia is covered, both in international press as well as by Estonians themselves. What about citizens, and their relations to their e-government? Did Estonia, “the only digital society which actually has a state” as President Kersti Kaljulaid enjoys to say, manage to invent a new form of democracy, or at least, find the way to upgrade liberal democracies for a digital world?

The question is rarely discussed in a consistent way. And yet, it should concern way beyond circles of open government activists, at a time when the perception the general public has of a digital transition of our democracies is often limited to a few notions of Russian hackers trying to disrupt electoral processes.

The crisis that liberal democracies are facing around the world is now well-documented. Pressures exerted on our liberal regimes are growing and increasingly visible: from the feeling that sovereignty is fading away to privacy concerns ; from risks for social equality and stability to the competition between the legitimacy of the public sector and the efficiency of the corporate world ; and many more.

Not that a change of institutions could instantly solve all of these tensions, but it is crucial to build the foundations of a new democracy that better fit this new deal. In that respect, it can always be useful to look abroad in order to learn a thing or two.

Can Estonia, a globally recognized reference of e-governance, serve as a model of a novel kind of digital democracy?

Let’s head back to the Tallinn e-Governance Conference, where the top billing of this 2018 edition might be Andrew Keen, a British-American entrepreneur who became well-known for his techno-critical books such as The Internet is not the Answer (2014). In a plea for the Estonian institutions, Keen came to promote his new publication, How to fix the future (2018). In it, he classifies 4 main state models of digital institutions, according to the way they use data.

Thus, China and its digital 1984 in the making embodies the totalitarian dystopia. Less efficient, the Russian model is supposed to be based on data, falsified if needs be, as a weapon towards enemies of the regime. In Western democracies, the ongoing reflexion is on how to adapt their founding principles of political liberalism to a world devoured by digital and data — a transformation that they, in fact, haven’t really started yet. And finally, Estonia is the alleged model of a state that managed to invent a new social contract with its citizens.

Mutual accountability

The core of this concept is the transparency allowed by the infrastructure in Estonia. On the one hand, every interaction of a citizen with their administrations is linked to a single identity, verified by the state, which is supposed to make fraud tracking easier. Estonian authorities claim they have built the most transparent business environment in the world. On the other hand, every citizen can, by logging into their account, verify who accessed their personal data, and when. If someone seemed to have done so without prior consent of the concerned citizen, the latter is entitled to hold the administration accountable. Several proven cases of data misuse, such as policemen that showed to be a bit too curious about personal information of people they knew, have led to severe sanctions. Unknown in other countries, this mechanism allows, according to Keen, to give birth to a mutual accountability — a concept theoretically enabled under the rule of law, but technically hard to put into practice with analog administrations. If the state has a way to control its citizens, citizens have in return the power to control the state and make sure their rights are respected.

It remains thinkable, however, that this promise of mutual accountability could have gone even further. There, the logic does indeed apply at the scale of the sole individual, facing its administration on its own — a balance that may be acceptable in a mature democracy like Estonia but would probably raise more issues in regimes where power is less efficiently limited. How to deepen mutual accountability? Open data advocates see it as the key to increase transparency of governments, which should in turn increase their accountability. It could scale this concept to the society as a whole, by allowing counter powers to be armed by data. Such an approach has not been developed in Estonia. Surprisingly, while the country is monopolizing the first ranks in international rankings for the most digitized governments and states in the world, it appears much less at the cutting edge of open data (23rd in the EU in 2018 according to the DESI standard from the European Commission). This can easily be explained by the fact that authorities have long considered open data to be a secondary topic, since citizens can access their own personal data on their account. Aware of the stakes, Estonia is now, however, strengthening its open data policy.

Strengths and limits of a model

This vision of a new social contract for a democracy in a world of data has two main interests for foreign eyes.

The first one is to highlight the notion of trust as a cornerstone of digital institutions. For Keen, trust, trust trust is to the cyberspace what location, location, location is to real estate. The Estonian success is indeed less a story of technological pioneering than the construction of a relation of trust between administrations and their citizens.

The second one is to underline the role that the Estonian infrastructure played in the construction of that relation of trust. It is the transparency by design of the system that balances the relations between the state and the individual, and gives citizens the power to effectively control their administration. Even if the Estonian context is also the result of a particular history and culture — other nations will probably have to lead their digital transformation by different means if they hope to reach comparable results.

This model, such as it exists and as it is told by Keen, shows however two main blind spots that deserve to be questioned as they limit the extent to which Estonia can be seen as a model of digital democracy: the importance of privacy, and the active role of citizens.

While most delegations are usually very enthusiastic about their visits to Tallinn, it is not so much the case with fierce advocates of privacy. Considering such a level of transparency, and the amount of data linked to a single ID, this model doesn’t easily inspire trust to them. Especially when they hear the words of some Estonian officials.

States and post-privacy

A good part of Keen’s demonstration of a new social contract is based on the discourse of Thomas Ilves, former President (2006–2016) and one of the main architects of the digital transformation of e-Estonia. Quoted in How to fix the future, he estimates that the classic liberal thought — the one that considers privacy as a sacred component of free individuals, from Benjamin Constant to Edward Snowden — has lost. In the 21st century, he goes on, what really matters is not privacy at all costs, in a world where trends lead to ever more data aggregation ; rather, it is to ensure data integrity. This, at a time when a big neighbor is developing a model where falsified data is used as a political and geopolitical weapon towards enemies of the regime. Data integrity is supposed to be ensured in Estonia through the transparency of the system already mentioned, and should be reinforced through the growing use of KSI, a technology derived from the blockchain, in order to ensure the traceability of data.

This vision of the decades to come are surprisingly close to the discourses held by the executives of the world’s biggest platforms, according to whom the world is entering a “post-privacy” era, which always sounds more like a political agenda than an inescapable truth.

Is it really the role of a democracy to rule in their favor and embrace their paradigm? Recent scandals, although poorly understood by populations, legitimized privacy advocates that were seen until recently as paranoids. European legislation, from the GDPR to e-Privacy, is attempting to protect individuals from the far west of data that is today’s economy. And a whole ecosystem of privacy by design seems to be willing to emerge and face tech giants. Wouldn’t the role of a liberal democracy in 2018 be to support that trend, and protect its citizens from the threats of a cyberspace where data is too easily collected and shared?

For instance, Yanis Varoufakis, herald of the European radical left, considers that the main use of the Internet for our republics, rather than fantasizing an agora 2.0, is to re-democratize capitalism. Which he understands first at the micro level, and then for financial capitalism. Yet today, it might be a platform capitalism and its business model based on data aggregation that is the most threatening to liberal regimes. How should the state react? Perhaps by embracing the same logic, which foreign advocates of the Estonian model see as the only shield against private platforms. It doesn’t mean that no alternative is conceivable, and that a democracy cannot choose to remain faithful to the classic liberal thinking that sanctifies privacy.

To each his own digital transformation

Estonia is obviously not a dystopia of data centralization halfway through the Chinese model. The European legislation on data protection is in force ; public data is decentralized through different databases of distinct administrations ; the right for every citizen to oversee the use of his own personal data truly begins to answer the question of privacy ; and personal data is always shared with a principle of requesting only the minimum amount needed. For example, for a Tallinn resident validating their card on a bus, the transport authority doesn’t need to know much information about the passenger. The fact that the card is linked to an ID of someone residing in the capital, thus benefiting from free public transportation, is sufficient. And as for security, while authorities recognize there is no such thing as zero risk, the architects of the infrastructure claim it is easier to detect any data hack or leak with their system than with paper administrations.

The e-Estonia success story is nonetheless the result of a very particular local context, where worries about data being misused by the state is not as shared within the population as it could be in other regions. France and a fortiori Germany would probably witness oppositions within their populations, should the same model be strictly replicated in their national context. One could regret it, thinking this new “social contract” is the only way to go ; or welcome it, hoping that democracies should take another path. What is certain is that other European regimes will have to adapt a different approach in their own digital transformation. This could, for instance, take the shape of creating strong safeguards within institutions, or embracing a more participatory approach when designing the new services.

Anatomy of trust

Where does all this trust come from? Once introduced to the technical characteristics of e-Estonia, that is the question that comes from every mouth of delegations visiting Tallinn. When asked how Estonian institutions managed to gain so much trust from their citizens, President Kaljulaid likes to answer that they “never lost it”.

In fact, it is the result of many different factors — some technological and others more psychological ; some that could be replicated elsewhere and others that are too linked to the local context. I don’t think anyone came up yet with an exhaustive list of these criteria, but here’s an attempt to detail the most important ones.

Building this relation of trust was first and foremost a pragmatic move. It is, to an important extent, the result of the transparency already mentioned and the ability to oversee one’s data (mis)use. When progressively building the digital infrastructure, public authorities actively promoted the benefits of the new e-services in their communications towards the public. The most famous example is online taxes, with refunds that took an average 5 days instead of several weeks in case of overpayments. Other administrations grew a positive image during the development of the young republic, as with the police that became popular due to its ability to fight organized crime in the 90s. It is worth noting that despite the fact that trust seems to be more generalized in the Estonian society than others, it would be wrong to assume Estonia is a depoliticized nation, standing apart from trends that other liberal democracies are witnessing (defiance towards the elites, rise of populism, etc.). Institutions in themselves are positively perceived, much more than representatives and political parties that are facing their own legitimacy crisis — one that does not reach extreme levels but is relatively comparable to the rest of the continent. Estonia is even witnessing the rise of its own far-right party, named EKRE. All in all, the fact that the institutions inspire trust, much more than the individuals that rule them, tends to prove that the efficiency of the digital administration played a role in that result.

The Estonian context is historically and socially specific nonetheless. Drawing general lines about nations or peoples is always risky and easily tends to caricature, which the following lines will probably sound like. But it remains important to realize how the Estonian model is the fruit of a different mindset than, say, France or Germany. First of all, in 1991, the country became an Estonian state governed by Estonians, for the second time in history and after half a century of nazi and soviet occupation. The new institutions mechanically gained some trust among the population. While the effect might not be eternal, it is undoubtedly still alive as Estonia is celebrating this year the 100th anniversary of its first independence in a joyful, patriotic atmosphere. Then, and maybe most importantly, Estonia is a nation like few others. A lot has been said about the size of the population (comparable to Lyon or Lille in France), underlining that it’s easier to build infrastructures at such a small scale. While this is true, it is probably much more on the level of a national feeling that the size of the country actually matters. Estonians make a small nation, deeply attached to their unique language, used to sticking together for centuries of foreign occupations, of which most economic and political forces attended the same university, and that has — like other Nordic populations — a rather horizontal conception of society. All of this generates an atmosphere of trust between nationals. An activist once told me that the very concept of elite made little sense in the local mindset. As a result, it is much more difficult there than elsewhere in Europe to imagine that a fraction of the population would take advantage of accessing data to the extent of generating systemic oppression.

It sill remains surprising to see that worries of a new form a totalitarianism, a digital one this time, are so low when the country had to endure one until just over two decades ago. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Germany became very suspicious of any tech-related invasion of privacy, for understandable historical reasons. I haven’t seen this gap between the two national mindsets explained in a fully satisfying way so far. Perhaps, one key factor was that Estonians only suffered from totalitarianism imposed by foreign powers and not by their own institutions. In any case, I personally don’t think that the answer offered by President Kajlulaid, for whom totalitarianism “can exist with paper” anyway, is convincing enough.

Trust and cyberspace

One could retort Keen and the Estonian officials that there is no place for trust in the cyberspace. That the safety, reliability and efficiency of its components can only be continuously demonstrated, without any intervention of human feelings. That is, by opening source codes and hardwares.

With this in mind, the Estonian example is precisely useful for foreigners if they distinguish the technical elements (the efficiency of e-services, the source codes now open for most bricks of the infrastructure) from the more passional reasons (the local social context) that gave birth to this relation of trust. It doesn’t mean, though, that the non-technical factors should be dismissed altogether. For President Kajulaid in her speeches, the level of trust in a given country is a useful indicator on how a national digital transformation should be led. She recommends to start with the most basic e-services (taxes, for example) and go gradually to more sensitive issues (online voting is an extreme case) as the population can feel the benefits of the ongoing transformation.

Unlike what could be perceived from a laudatory, monolithic foreign press coverage, Estonians are actually extremely humble and underline that their model is too unique to be simply replicated. As perfectly shown in a recent interview of Sandra Särav, Global Affairs Director for the Government CIO of Estonia:

“Most often [foreign delegations] want to know, ‘how can we be like Estonia’. The answer is you can’t. And you shouldn’t want to. Each country has its own specificities, political structure, historical background, and different user needs. Plus, as I said in the beginning, we have had more than twenty years of experimenting. If you start now, you can be smarter than we were, faster than we were, and more efficient as well.”

With data, the role of citizens is the other blind spot of e-Estonia. After all, citizens is what a liberal democracy should be all about. The Estonian digital state is praised for its user-centric approach, and its efficiency in meeting individuals’ expectations in the most simple way. While the efficiency of e-services is beyond reproach, the question of democracy in the whole system requires a more balanced assessment.

e-services or e-democracy

The Estonian model is the fruit of an efficient collaboration between the private and public sectors, conceived in a top-down approach that left little to no space for consultation and participation. It leaves individuals in a passive role, to such an extent than officials start fantasizing an “invisible state” which a smart use of data and AI is supposed to give birth to. More than a citizen, the e-Estonia user is first and foremost a consumer of services. The term is not used in itself by local authorities, but they do embrace the logic behind it. What about open data or citizen participation thanks to civic tech? Taavi Kotka, first government CIO until 2017 and one of the main architects of the national digital strategy, openly dismissed it. In a French-Estonian conference about digital democracy last year in Tallinn, he said the former was a trend that wouldn’t last, while the latter was largely useless ; for him, only the efficiency of services consumed by citizens really mattered. Few in Tallinn fully share the bold, sometimes deliberately provocative views that Kotka likes to be vocal about. The government even decided to strengthen its open data policy. But it is clearly this conception of e-governance that is the most prominent in the e-Estonia strategy. One could reply that a liberal democracy should get its citizens actively involved, and that digital tools hold the promise to make it easier.

The reasons behind dematerialization

In order to understand why the reinvention of democracy was not at the core of the Estonian model during its development, we need to look back. From a historical perspective, it made complete sense to choose dematerialization of services as the national priority. Many factors explained this strategy since the 90s, of which 3 probably deserve more than others to be mentioned here.

The first one is the “leapfrog” argument. It is the most used by Estonians to explain their choices, as it puts them in the role of avant-garde visionaries — which they were to a large extent. Once its independence recovered in 1991, the country was lagging behind the West socially and economically, despite being at the forefront of certain industries like cybernetics within the Soviet Union. The Finnish neighbors offered to deploy their analog infrastructure, but Estonian leaders chose to bet on technologies of the future, by embracing an ambitious digital strategy. A smart bet for a country in transition that could quickly catch up with its neighbors.

The second one is also very pragmatic, this time for geographical reasons. Estonia, with more 50% of its territory being forests, has one of the lowest density in Europe (4 times lower than France, 8 times lower than Germany). Dematerialization of public services was seen as a way to ensure equality of all citizens before the state. This is probably the biggest democratic success of Estonia: after 20 years of education and important policies for deploying high-speed internet infrastructure, the digital gap is not so much an issue anymore throughout the country. Equality of access to all public services is ensured for citizens of all ages and locations.

The third one is most of the time implicit, but not especially hidden by locals. It is the crucial question of ensuring national sovereignty in relation to the neighbor and former occupier that is Russia. The digital strategy of Estonia, through all layers of cyberspace, can be understood to a large extent through the prism of the necessity to ensure the sovereignty of republican institutions in all circumstances. This includes the highly unlikely event, but nevertheless widely shared in the collective mind, of a partial occupation of the territory. A state that accomplished dematerialization is a state that remains able to run almost normally, should hostile forces take control of the streets. Thus, one of the latest innovations of e-Estonia is the concept of data embassy: a data center backing crucial data sets of the Estonian state and located in a foreign country that doesn’t face the same geographic risks. The first one opened this year in Luxembourg and others might follow elsewhere around the globe.

In a word, the priority for Estonia in more than 20 years was to build a state as dematerialized as possible, in order to face very specific issues of geography and national sovereignty, while seeking to catch up with the economy of the West. It is thus understandable that questions like reinventing the role of citizens in the political decision making process, or redistributing power in the society, were of a lesser strategic importance. The peak of this digital model conceived as consumption of online services is probably the e-Residency program. This “government start-up“ is a totally novel concept that raises fascinating questions about the future of state institutions. To date however, it is mostly a revenue channel through which foreign e-residents are incited to consume e-services (administrative, financial, commercial) available to nationals.

Estonian digital services are mostly conceived to be consumed by a passive user. However, there exists several ways for citizens to get in touch with their political system.

Electronic voting is not sufficient

The most advanced e-service of Estonia is probably electronic voting, which still sounds like science fiction in the rest of the world, but has been functioning in the Baltic country for 13 years already. Unlike American voting machines, Estonian i-Voting uses the eID card (or its mobile version) to be accessed through any portable device, from home or away. Estonia is to date the only democracy in the world to allow such a system for official elections, which could make it a pioneer of democracy. In fact, while i-Voting has been adopted widely by the electorate, its impact on the democratic process of the country is hard to perceive. And in any case, it didn’t give birth to a new form of government.

In October 2017, I could participate to local elections in Tallinn using my personal laptop

I-Voting started off during local elections in 2005, when 2% of voters used this brand new technology to cast their vote. It is now used by about one-third of voters, a relatively stable figure since the 2014 European elections. This service is widely popular through all age groups: 8400 citizens aged 75 and more voted that way in 2017. The same proportion in France would mean close to half a million senior i-voters! Technically smooth, electronic voting has at least 2 limits when it comes to assessing its impact on the renewal of democracy.

First, it didn’t seem to have an impact on the turnout. Abstention in Estonia is comparable to other former communist countries, and higher than in the West: around 35–40% in the last parliamentary elections, against 25% in Germany or 20–25% for the French presidential runoff. The turnout increased by approximately 6 points in the last dozen years, and no data shows that this small increase was due to electronic voting. No data is pointing either that i-Voting would be used by the least politicized citizens. It seems that this tool is mostly an opportunity seized by citizens who would have voted anyway but found it time-saving to cast their ballot electronically. This would be in line with the results of smaller scale experiments of online voting: in France, where expats were allowed to vote online until 2017, data tends to show that electronic voters were the same that were previously voting in their embassy, sometimes located a few hours driving away.

Analyzing the positioning of Estonian political parties on the matter can reinforce the feeling that i-Voting doesn’t enhance participation of the least integrated citizens. First, it is important to understand that electronic voting is part of a e-Estonia “packaging” that any political party seems to have no choice but to accept and promote when in power. Despite pointing out relevant critics (the trust in technology, for example), electronic voting is never called into question as a whole. Rather, only a few details regarding the process of online voting are up to debate. And the position of each party on the matter is often perceived as the result of clear electoral sociology. On one side, the most favorable to i-Voting seem to be the pro-business, center-right Reform party that gathers the ballots of the most educated urban voters. On the other side, the Center party (center-left, the party of the current Prime minister in a coalition government) has been pushing to restrain the period during which electronic voting is open. This party can count on an overwhelming majority within the Russian-speaking minority (30% of the country) that is less socially and economically integrated than the Estonian-speaking majority, and which is less using online voting.

Second, electronic voting has in itself no impact of the democratic process of Estonia. It is merely used as a way to simplify participation to official elections, that are held once every several years like in other countries. Fervent advocates of online voting across the world argue that lowering the cost of citizen participation thanks to digital tools should be the occasion to increase the number of interactions between the government and citizens, or even to change its nature by trying new electoral processes like majority judgment voting. That is what the concepts of “continuous democracy” or “liquid democracy” (pushed by pirates and some crypto communities) are all about: imagining a democracy that conceives the role of citizens in a whole new manner thanks to digital tools. The Estonian i-Voting does not, and is not meant to, meet these expectations.

As it exists today, online voting is not a tool through which citizens that were previously the most distant from their democratic institutions can be empowered. Nor it is a lever through which the relationship between the government and citizens can be transformed and deepened. It is merely an efficient way to make voting even easier for those who had planned to do it regardless of the technology.

In order to transform the nature of participation or render governments more accountable, more sophisticated tools are required — that is what the civic tech movement has been working on for the last few years.

Failed attempts of participatory democracy

It would be false to claim that Estonia didn’t attempt to take advantage of civic tech. In fact, it probably did before everyone else. But no initiative so far seems to have found the key to a novel, large scale form of democratic participation.

The first Estonian platform for citizen participation was called TOM, the acronym for “Today I decide”. Probably one of the first of the kind in the world, it was born in 2001: three years earlier than Facebook! A relatively basic tool, designed by the government to gather ideas from citizens, it was quickly seen as a failure for most stakeholders. TOM was probably ahead of its time, when the digital transformation of the country was not yet at its cruise speed. It is also possible that the rise of social networks, a few years later, was required before citizens learned new ways to express themselves online — often for the worse, but also sometimes for the better.

Two other attempts followed in a decade, trying every time to draw lessons from the previous failure. Osalee.ee (2007) was designed to gather on a same platform different features like information of the legislative process, consultations regarding current bills, and crowdsourcing of ideas from citizens. In a narrower way, Rahvakogu (“the People’s Assembly“, 2013) asked Estonian citizens to submit ideas in order to reshape the rules of national democratic processes, on the initiative of the President and several associations.

Users, experts and initiators of these tools agree to consider they failed to reach the expected impact in terms of participation, of the number of propositions that led to bills adopted by the Parliament, and more globally on the overall perception of the national political system.

The “Estonian paradox”

In their paper “Success in eVoting — success in eDemocracy? The Estonian paradox”, three researchers of the Tallinn Technical University (TTÜ) analyzed these recurrent failures, concluding that “Estonia’s success in e-voting does not mean the country has been successful in promoting and enabling e-democracy in general”.

They list several factors that seem to be required to allow for e-democracy tools to reach expectations. First, they need a good integration in “organizational procedures and broader political processes”. Second, they have to have an “easily demonstrable impact”. Third, some “administrative and political championing” is required. Fourth, the mandate given to each tool should be clearly defined. And fifth, the experiment needs to be led in a general cultural context that favors democratic participation and trust in institutions. Estonia is clearly a good pupil for the latter, but all other criteria never could have been met on the same project. On the contrary, electronic voting benefited from a clear mandate, easily perceivable gains from voters, and a strong political support. Its success is thus easily explained.

Is that the end of Estonian civic tech? Clearly not. The new flagship of citizen participation is Rahvaalgatus (“citizen initiative”), a platform designed to implement a right of collective address to the Parliament — a right that Rahvakogu gave birth to, two years earlier. Its strength is that it relies on the unique national digital infrastructure: every signature is authenticated, thus reinforcing the legitimacy of petitions. Elsewhere, online mobilizations using commercial platforms like change.org or partisan tools such as Avaaz are often accused of having their figures inflated by fake email addresses. The Estonian legislation imposes the Parliament to take on any proposal that gathered the support of 1000 citizens, which happened 18 times in 2 years. To date, 2 bills have been adopted as a direct result of citizens using Rahvaalgatus, including one concerning the protection of biodiversity. Other petitions allowed public authorities to commit on different topics through other means than legislation.

Will Rahvaalgatus and its 10.000 monthly users put an end to this “Estonian paradox”? Probably not on its own, but the team of the project run by the NGO Estonian Cooperation Assembly underlines the progress it already allowed. For its CEO Teele Pehk, the tool is already lowering the threshold for policy-making, and contributing to a culture of trust between representatives and citizens. Aware of the limits met by previous experiments, the Rahvaalgatus team is now seeking to strengthen its impact on national politics. Two angles are under development: better integrating in the institutional process, as one of the criteria listed by the TTÜ researches calls for ; and replicating both the tool and process at a local scale, knowing that citizens often feel more confident to participate at this level and that the impact of their input is the easiest to observe. In their quest for progress, e-democracy advocates in Estonia can count on a high permeability between activists and decision makers.

In the end, Estonia managed to develop a digital model that is highly interesting to help imagine the future of states and their institutions. It might even have proved to liberal democracies that the way of digital transformation doesn’t have to lead to dystopia.

But it didn’t reinvent yet a novel form of democracy that shapes the role of a connected citizen in a whole new manner. Mostly for the reason that this was not the priority during its digital transformation ; and also because the task is probably too big for a sole country in just two decades.

This will be one of the great missions of our generation. Estonian activists and officials, that have the knowledge of their unique experience of digital transformation at a national scale, will be precious allies in that regard.

🇪🇪 I have been lucky to spend 2 years in the fascinating country that is Estonia, where I scrutinized digital policies and enhanced bilateral cooperation for the sake of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Once my mission had come to an end, I found important to share my views on the Estonian model, focusing on an often dismissed angle that is dear to me: elaborating a new form of democracy thanks to digital means. These views are mine only, and are published in order to be questioned, discussed and contested.