Estonia’s CTO Kristo Vaher on building digital nations, one small (agile) project at a time

Many of us have marvelled at Estonia’s journey to becoming a fully digital government — where citizens have one universal digital identity card, and can transact 99% of all government services online. FWD50 sat down with Kristo Vaher, Chief of Technology for the Government of the Republic of Estonia, a country considered the most advanced digital society in the world. Our wide-ranging discussion covered building seamless citizen experiences, why small projects equal success, and what it really means to run an agile public service.

FWD50: You’re new to your role as Estonia’s CTO. What are you excited about building? What’s next for Estonia?

Kristo: One of the unique challenges that we have here is: how can we make our public sector and private sector cooperate better? I think that a lot of important things that Estonia has done have been in cooperation between these sectors. This is why we are looking into various new technologies to see how we can use them to our benefit.

A lot of people use terms like AI, data analysis, and all the big data stuff. Everybody is always talking about blockchain. These are a lot of technological trends that sometimes become like buzzwords for their own sake.

I think we need to look at the actual problem to solve it…. not just how we can apply this technology. We are looking at where the technological trends are going. We are looking for problems in Estonia in our private sector and in the public sector and how we can actually solve these problems using technology… with new trends or maybe with old ones.

One of the strengths of Estonia is that we are a small country. Finding ways and the ease of applying technology to our small country is in some ways a lot simpler than for a large country.

If you look at Estonia from a world scale, you see a small project. A small, agile project. A lot of stuff that we can do in Estonia cannot be used as a blueprint or template for other countries. It can be exactly this kind of learning point: to see what we’re learning and succeeding at. Then that could be something that is tried and tested in other countries. We are able to kick these things off government-wide, country-wide for all of our citizens. When we see if this model works we can talk about scaling this.

FWD50: What are the challenges to adopting agile methodologies in government?
Kristo: Agile has been one of the cornerstones in Estonia for the last few years, at least. It is one of the great challenges in the public sector to make it work. It will provide a lot of value.

The biggest challenge is the public sector as a whole usually works with a budget and project management long before anyone ever writes a single line of code. This makes it really difficult for agile to actually happen.

I don’t like to see projects that are absolutely huge. It makes no sense. I’ve seen projects that are millions of Euros and they are very ambitious because they seem important, they seem hard. The problem is: if it’s such a huge project, you sometimes lose focus on the important, small details that are actually costing you.

I think that the important part is being able to streamline the process for funding and project planning in a way that we can actually enable smaller projects to be planned. Then we can enable projects that are much better because we create an environment where these smaller projects are able to be run on agile means. We can see if this smaller project fails or if it succeeds. Then we can see which projects we actually want to do. This requires a kind of dynamic budgeting and dynamic planning that is not very common in the public sector.

Once we can get there, then we can really talk about agile public service.

FWD50: Can you see Estonia’s system working successfully in a country with a much larger population?

Kristo: If you want to create your own model digital nation, you can’t just look at the model Estonia has put up, because times have changed. If you try to do that model you are bound to make mistakes, a lot of new mistakes even. When we are trying to get a new country to be more digital, we need to look at what the needs are for technology today. It’s not about technology itself — it’s about the problems we are trying to solve. You’d need to look at us, learn from our mistakes, and see how you can adapt some of those solutions to your own country.

FWD50: Many people look at Estonia as a kind of digital utopia. What is it about Estonia that enabled technologists to build a model digital government?

Kristo: Most of my life I’ve worked in the private sector. I got into the public sector over a year ago in one of the IT houses as a technology architect. I was really inspired by the engineers in the public sector. It was inspiring to see that a huge reason that they work on these projects is that they feel like this is important: this is important for my family or for our brothers and sisters and other citizens in our country.

The seed is passion in our public sector, in our engineers’ eyes. Passion is incredibly infectious. Estonia has been incredibly passionate about using technology to make our everyday world better.

FWD50: Does this passion come more from the perspective of citizens, the government, or both?

Kristo: Sometimes we develop something more from the perspective of government, rather than the perspective of the citizen. I think this is a worldwide problem.

In the future, the goal is: how can we make these experiences seamless and transparent for our citizens, so they don’t have to deal with a lot of governance stuff?

In Europe, a lot of people are talking about this ‘once only’ principle, where you shouldn’t be asked your home address multiple times. You shouldn’t be asked for your data by government multiple times. If you already have this data you should use this data. Next step is: when something important happens in your life, it should be incredibly seamless. There shouldn’t be multiple forms, multiple websites that you need to fill in. It should just kick off a chain of events.

If we can be seamless, especially at a time of need for our citizens, then they will also give a lot more in return because they will also be happy with the world they live in. It makes a lot more sense for them to participate. I think we can get there.

At FWD50, Nov 7–9, Kristo is giving a keynote called Killing routine and leading a breakout session on Estonia’s digital journey.