Tales from Three of the Most Digital Nations

The Pioneer, The Smart, and The Paperless

Csilla Zsigri
Oct 12 · 6 min read
https://www.adlittle.com/en/TheDigitalNation

In its recent report on the state of public sector digital transformation, the World Bank has assessed 198 economies around the world and grouped them into four categories, from GovTech laggards to GovTech leaders, with 21% — mostly high-income economies and about half of them European countries — being placed in the highest category. According to this report, GovTech leaders are essentially those nations that have implemented digital/innovative solutions and good practices across key areas, including:

  • Core government systems
  • Public-facing services and citizen engagement
  • GovTech enablement

The World Bank defines ‘GovTech’ as a whole-of-government approach — joint activities performed by diverse government agencies to provide common solutions to particular issues — that aims at modernizing the public sector by promoting an efficient and transparent government with the citizen at the center of reforms. More specifically, it encompasses efficient and transparent core government systems, citizen-focused services that are universally accessible, open data platforms, the effective use of new concepts and emerging technologies, as well as the active support of local innovators, among other initiatives.

Some of these GovTech leader nations have been strongly supporting the use of disruptive technologies — e.g. blockchain technology — to transform core operations as well as public-facing services in a more meaningful way. Emerging technologies such as AI, blockchain and IoT, are even more valuable together than apart — powerful value propositions lead to an economy that is more automated, decentralized and trusted, and is driven by data, efficiency, as well as environmental and social consciousness. The expected impact — on both economy and society — will be gradual but profound, intertwining our business and personal lives more than ever.

Here are tales from three GovTech leaders, each taking different approaches but all of them advocating for a more trusted, transparent and efficient modus operandi, and envisioning a better future enabled by emerging technology, including blockchain.

With its 1.3 million citizens, Estonia is possibly one of the most digital nations in the world. The country has been a pioneer in digital transformation — with e-Estonia being built since 1997 — driven by efficiency, trust and transparency — a vision that ultimately saves people’s time and money, as simple as that. Essentially, apart from getting married and divorced, all bureaucratic processes — 99% of government services, according to the e-Estonia website — can be done online in Estonia, and reportedly, by having digitized all these processes, it saves the country about 2% of its GDP every year.

As I see it, the two key pillars of Estonia’s digital success are the country’s national electronic identity (eID) infrastructure and its data exchange platform X-Road, which digitally links all governmental databases — e.g. education, healthcare, tax, police. When it comes to health-related records, for example, Estonian citizens are identified by their eID, and their medical data is controlled by them and accessible by authorized individuals or institutions. All activities are digitally logged and verified, using Guardtime’s Keyless Signature Infrastructure (KSI) technology. Estonia has also been working with Finland to extend its X-Road data exchange platform and provide digital services across borders.

Among key lessons learned to highlight is the reaction of the Estonian government to cyberattacks — well, they have suffered a few since 2007. However, instead of chickening out and shutting down promising digital initiatives, they decided to fix things and be transparent about them. I personally love Estonia’s e-Residency program — conceived in 2013, when the government’s CIO, Taavi Kotka, was tasked with expanding Estonia’s population — that essentially allows anyone in the world to apply for a transnational digital identity, which can be used for establishing and running a location-independent company, signing contracts and documents digitally, accessing banking and other business services, as well as accepting payments. It is a unique and forward-looking initiative.

Digital Government is one of the three key pillars of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative — launched in 2014, with the vision to create a nation where people live fulfilled and meaningful lives, enabled by technology, and offering exciting opportunities for all. As former prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his speech: “We should see it in our daily lives where networks of sensors and smart devices enable us to live sustainably and comfortably. We should see it in our communities where technology will enable more people to connect to one another more easily and intensely. We should see it in our future where we can create possibilities for ourselves beyond what we imagined possible.”

In Singapore, the Government Technology Agency — GovTech Singapore — is responsible for implementing national digital government strategies and services following a whole-of-government approach. The Digital Government Blueprint (DGB), in particular, was launched in 2018, and updated based on needs that were amplified by events such as the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic recession. A ‘digital to the core’ framework was developed to set out what needs to be developed and how progress should be measured, and greater emphasis was introduced with ‘serves with heart’ on educating how the use of digital technologies help the government achieve its purpose of serving citizens better and building trust.

DGB is essentially a commitment from the government of Singapore to harness data and emerging technologies to drive efforts to build a digital economy and digital society, which are the other two pillars of the country’s Smart Nation initiative.

Singapore’s government portal — gov.sg — serves as a single pane of glass for open data, e-participation and public procurement, among other digital government services. As part of its digital services, Singapore has launched OpenCerts, an open-source blockchain-based platform for issuing and validating tamper-resistant and immutable digital academic certificates, to combat fraud, speed up the verification process, and save costs.

At a 2018 event I attended as a technology industry analyst, the government of Dubai talked about its ambition to become fully paperless by 2021, by building an efficient ecosystem where all government transactions were digital and all citizens could participate. This vision of becoming 100% paper-free is closely tied to the broader ambition to make Dubai a truly smart and ‘happy’ city that is operationally efficient and environmentally friendly. Dubai has also expressed its desire to set an example to the rest of the world and motivate other cities and nations to follow suit.

The nation’s digital identity and signature system — the UAE Pass — was also introduced in 2018, at the GITEX Technology Week, and is powered by blockchain technology. By downloading the app and creating an account, UAE citizens and residents have a single digital identity that they can use across federal and local governments, as well as with various service providers. The UAE Pass includes a blockchain-backed digital wallet for storing and sharing digital documents.

The UAE government has been championing the use of blockchain technology as part of its digital transformation efforts. The UAE’s blockchain journey began around 2016, with the creation of the Global Blockchain Council, which brought together the public and private sectors to explore how blockchain technology could be used.

Launched in 2018, both the Emirates Blockchain Strategy and the Dubai Blockchain Strategy laid out ambitious plans to blockchain-enable all government transactions and go completely paperless. By using blockchain technology, the UAE government expects significant efficiency gains in terms of time, effort and resources, and is looking to give people the ability to process transactions at the time and place that best suit their personal and professional lives.

Particularly, Dubai’s commitment to become fully paperless, is that after December 12th, 2021, no government agency will issue any internal or external paper document. In an interview earlier this year, Younus Al Nasser, Assistant Director General of Smart Dubai, said that “Dubai’s paperless strategy has come a long way and is advancing rapidly towards its primary goal of digitizing all internal government operations and services offered to the public.”

Can’t wait to find out more about where the UAE is at with its paperless and blockchain-enabled government ambitions at the upcoming Future Blockchain Summit, taking place in Dubai, from the 17th to the 20th of October. It’s an in-person event…can you believe it?! BTP will be exhibiting, demoing, talking about the DLT Landscape, and taking part in a panel discussion on the value of blockchain technology in the public sector.