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Estonia - an example of what’s possible in digital public service delivery

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez April 21, 2016
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia used it’s new found independence to build one of the most advanced digital states in the world.

You may not know a great deal about Estonia, a small country of 1.3 million people that found independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

However, if you spend any sort of significant amount of time talking about or researching digital government, you will soon come across someone talking about how Estonia is one of the most digitally advanced nations in the world.

And that’s largely because of the fact that Estonia had to start from scratch - it was forced to form a new state and the most logical way to do this was with an e-identity system and digital transactions. As close to a greenfield digital government project as you are likely to find.

Which is why when I saw that Anna Piperal, E-Estonia Showroom Managing Director from Enterprise Estonia, was speaking at SOCITM’s Spring conference this week in London, I was keen to find out just how far ahead Estonia is when it comes to digital governance compared to the likes of the UK and the US.

And I was not disappointed. The UK has arguably come a long way in terms of technology strategy, and thinking about user need and designing useful online services, compared to days gone by. However, compared to some of what Estonia is doing, we are lightyears behind.

But it’s worth pointing out now, that that’s largely because Estonia issues each and every one of its citizens with an e-ID - everyone’s details are stored centrally and this information can be used across a number of services. In fact, Estonia has a rule that if you’ve told the government information about you once, they are not allowed to ask you that information again - even if it is being asked from a completely different government agency.

This is something that the UK has been rather risk adverse towards. We as a country rejected the idea of ID cards many years ago and the public don’t feel comfortable with the government holding all information about us as a population in one place - there is some comfort in the messiness of our country’s data.

That being said, because Estonia has taken this approach, it is now able to deliver 99% of its state services online. Piperal said:

We are a country where we have proven that anything is possible.

When I just arrived here at Gatwick, [I realised] my driving licence had expired. I logged onto the Estonia registry portal, with my mobile ID and in 2 minutes I could renew my driving licence and order that to my home address.

So by the time I’m home next week, my driving licence will be there. My medical information is up to date, so it knows I’m suitable for driving, and I could choose from two pictures, and I could pay in just a few minutes.

Humble beginnings

Piperal began by explaining that Estonia was forced to be innovative in its approach. Unlike the UK, it didn’t have a choice to carry on with the status quo. She said:

To give you some background on how our country emerged this way - in the 90s when the Soviet Union collapsed, we had to build an independent state. We don’t have gas, oil, gold, nuclear power - just 1.3 million population and land half covered with woods.

But from the Soviet time we had gotten a technological competence and a lot of engineers. So our government started to push and built a totally new legal framework that supports IT and data exchange. We just had to be innovative, it’s not because we wanted to be.

And because we couldn’t afford the Microsofts, Ciscos and Accentures, at the time we could only use local companies. There was no Plan B, Plan A had to work. Today we are recognised internationally.

Piperal said that this time was about “redefining the whole government”, she added that it wasn’t about putting PDFs on a web page, it was about understanding service delivery. Piperal said that Estonia believes that government should be invisible and that using technology provided by government shouldn’t require intense internet/web based skills.

Some of Estonia’s core principles include asking for information online once, having services available 24/7, being digital by default, using open platforms to enable new institutions to be build by attaching to data exchange layers, and user friendliness. She said:

We have 99% of all state services available online and people are actually really happy about it. When I say 99% of services, it’s much easier for us to list the things you cannot do online in our country. We don’t have marriage or divorce online, or buying and selling a property.

But everything else, applying for a driving licence, naming your baby, applying for social benefits, you can get all of that through one single state portal.

The benefits

Piperal noted that the UK wasn’t keen on state issued e-identities. However, she said that the benefits far outweighed the risks.

Once you offer people services and benefits, and there is no need to queue somewhere or pay additional fees, maybe they will reconsider having some state issued digital identify.”

[For example] when it comes to tax declarations, 95% of all our tax declarations are submitted online in the first two weeks. And it’s done this way because it takes me three minutes to check the data the government has, which the banks have verified, so it’s just about checking and submitting. The legal guarantee for people who prefer online for a tax declaration, they will receive a minor refund in just 5 days time.

Financial transactions, almost 100% is happening online. My last time to the bank was five years ago. In that time I’ve got a home loan, I’ve leased a car, I am making all my payments every month online.

Eight years ago when I was in London and I was sick, none of the pharmacies here would give me my prescribed medication. Because I didn’t have a paper with me. In Estonia I can get a prescribed medication after a phone call to my doctor and I can visit whatever pharmacy in the whole country and I can pick it up based on my e-ID.

To establish a company in Estonia, it takes 18 minutes. We don’t have lower expectations, we don’t have less checks. We check the criminal record, the population record, the credit information, talking to the bank, checking the validity of the name and all the process, in just five minutes time.”

Piperal said that these things have meant that the police are 50X more efficient than they used to be and

estonia e-card
Estonia e-identity card

queues in hospitals have dropped by a third.

Estonia spends 50 million Euros a year on maintaining its technology. The UK, according to Piperal, spends 400 times that amount.

My take

An incredible story to listen to. As a citizen of the UK who has had to struggle for years with poorly designed online services that often don’t amount to much more than lipstick on a pig (print off a form and post it in), Estonia seems like the holy grail of digital government.

However, the e-ID commitment shouldn’t be taken lightly. I know, for instance, that Estonia is quite nervous that its data is all stored centrally and if that database was to get into the wrong hands, that’s a very sticky situation to be in as a country.

Which is why we need to think of innovative ways to overcome that challenge. We need services like this, so if we aren’t comfortable with e-IDs, what’s the alternative?

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