Estonia’s second-ever governmental CIO, Siim Sikkut (37), has led the little Nordic country’s digital efforts during the last three years. And he, similarly to the digital nation itself, is showing no signs of slowing down. In its latest attempt to become more prominent than its size, Estonia now welcomes all tech firms and researchers, big and small, to come to build the digital future on top of Estonia’s digital government stack.
I meet Siim Sikkut at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, where he greets me, wearing a t-shirt and Converse Chucks – just like you’d expect from a startup chief. My arrival was announced to him via an ID-card login I just performed at the information desk – no pen or paper or secretary needed. We sit down at the ministry’s empty lunch cafeteria, it’s way past lunch hour, and during the next sixty minutes, I’ll get to peek into future plans of e-Estonia.
What is it that a country’s CIO does daily?
Meets a lot of people and has a lot of conversations. But on a more serious note, my job is to lead and coordinate our digital state’s development. It’s being done through regulation, through investments and funding, by offering platforms along with Estonian Information System Authority – most notably our X-road. We also are going these days more hands-on and are driving new initiatives, like the current national AI strategy that seeks to boost the take-up of AI in both the private and public sectors. I’d also like to emphasize that it is not a one-man-show; in the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, we have a Government CIO office. We are a team of about thirty people keeping the country’s digital innovation engine humming and cyber-safe.
How many years in the future does the CIO office live? I mean, you certainly do not discuss what’ll happen in 2021 but instead in…?
We operate with multiple perspectives. On a strategic level, we have to envision a decade ahead in the long run because we are just now creating a new national digital agenda with a 10-year horizon. In reality, the technology changes so quickly that it doesn’t make sense to have a solid strategy for more than a couple of years ahead. I’ll give you an example. In 2013, when my predecessor Taavi Kotka served as the Government CIO and worked at the Government Office, we had a vivid discussion of whether AI will become a thing by 2020. Some of the world’s most prominent tech gurus were saying at the time – no way, it is only in the labs, no need to plan for it yet. Four years later, AI was on our phones and in the applications we use. Thus, the strategy has to be nimble to incorporate the fast changes around. Finally, our operational work plans are 3-6 months ahead. Again, that is the way to be agile enough.
We here in Estonia like to think that we have an outstanding reputation as a country – we’ve been even dubbed “the digital nation.” So do the Apples and Googles knocking on our door and offering their products and services – like Siri and Google Assistant – to be used in our digitalization?
Well, we get too often offered what these companies want to sell today. But as a government and as a government CIO Office, we are most interested in a collaboration that builds a future. Often the things of the future haven’t been turned into business yet. But you are right; Estonia does have the luxury as a state to be approached by companies often enough with interest to try something out together. Remarkably, more and more, these are innovative startups and scaleups contacting us, also from inside our own country as we have a vibrant tech scene here. And this is part of my agenda, our plan as the Government CIO office – to open up our national digital government stack more so that companies can come and build things on top of it.
So kind of like Estonian e-state Linux.
Something like that. We are putting more and more stuff out there for reuse: the open data field is growing firm, we are building up a public code repository for government solutions. Plus, we have created a unique legal framework to make the collaboration possible. We call it a “playground” arrangement. So you can be a tech giant, a startup, a researcher from uni, from anywhere in the world – if you have something you are building that could be a good complement to Estonian digital services and tech stack, we’d be happy to offer a testbed so that you can bring it to the world. As a government, we benefit from better solutions; you get a reference that the world notices.
Estonia and Finland are working closely together and even founded a non-profit association with the mission to ensure the development and strategic management of X-Road® and other cross-border components for e-government infrastructure. But what does that mean?
It means that we have put the money together so that both Finland and Estonia would get more bang for the buck than investing in X-Road alone. The Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS) was created with a very logical principle – since we started developing a joint data exchange platform based on Estonia’s X-Road, why not continue developing the X-Road together, too. We get more and better core technology for possibly even less money we would spend alone.
And I would like to emphasize that the X-Road is a free and open-source data exchange platform solution open for anyone, not only Estonia and Finland. All the extra developments made by NIIS will also benefit others using X-Road – whether somewhere in Latin America, the Faroe Islands and Iceland, or wherever the next X-Road users will be. Speaking of NIIS, it is open for the next countries to join and have a say in X-Road core tech development solutions, too.
I’ve heard some discontented rumbles that the X-road is antiquated and shouldn’t be used anymore.
Fundamentally I would say it is quite the opposite. The need for a highly secured data exchange is only increasing globally. And to do it cross-border, in a standardized and highly secure manner, in a scalable way, with any type of data – I do not see anything equal to the X-Road out there. Of course, there are about hundreds or thousands of ways it is being solved for the Internet of Things producers ecosystems, but it isn’t scalable since there are too many different ways. This is the magic of the X-Road – once you’re a part of it, you can collaborate with all other same ecosystem members easily. Plus, we have seen it scale in a way more significant ecosystems than Estonia – take Ukraine, for example. Naturally, I am always open to discuss how to make it even better. This is why we founded NIIS and continue to invest in it along with Finland, and hopefully, others. For example, X-Road version 7 should finally be out. We are constantly improving X-Road to meet changing needs, and any technology must develop continuously. But I have not seen anything better for secured data exchange anywhere in the world.
But coming back to the citizen’s view – why this is whom you work for in your digitalization efforts! – so now Estonians can use digital prescriptions in Finland and Portugal and vice-versa. What is the logic behind these cross-border projects, and why aren’t there more of these?
It takes two to tango. It starts with each country’s technological and political readiness. Suppose with Finland we also have a real use-case. In that case, there’s a lot of travel to and from Finland (at least under normal aka non-COVID-19 times!) – than with Portugal, we wanted to show to the rest of Europe that it is possible to make cross-border digital solutions even between countries that are further apart! Sometimes these collaborations are to spark belief – it can be done; let’s not just talk but do it.
Now there’s talk of a European ID.
A lot of it is due because Estonia started talking about it – with our Prime Minister taking the proposal to the European Council, for example. It is still puzzling that people in several European states do not have a chance to get a secure, nationally recognized digital identity. The idea of the European ID would be to oblige all states to issue or select and nominate a secure identity. In our view, European ID doesn’t mean it has to be issued by Brussels; just all of the existing and future secure IDs should work together as a single European ID effectively.
Who does e-Estonia look up to?
There is no one single country – even the law of comparative advantage says that nobody can be the best in the world in everything. We try to have a close friendship with nations with a consistent track record of doing exciting and useful things in digitalizing their states and doing so in a way that we can learn from. That is why we are a part of the Digital Nations group of some of the world’s most advanced digital governments. But there are others, too, like our friends in Singapore who always make great strides and fast in country-wide adoption of the latest technologies.
How tech are you in your everyday life? Are there gadgets or apps or e-solutions that you use daily?
It’s a good question! As for any professional people, my work-life runs significantly on tech, and I would not be nearly as efficient without a smartphone these days. I do still prefer human-to-human interaction in many ways, too. Of course, I am an advanced user in tech, but it doesn’t dominate my thinking. And I’ve never wanted the latest gadgets for the sake of cool – I am very pragmatic, and I like my gadgets if they add practical value. As such, there is one thing I would so like to use – but it is still to be built, funny enough. A functioning virtual assistant that could manage my calendar without glitches. There are quite a few trials on the market, but they are still too basic to work well.
What was the last book you read and recommend?
I have quite a few still half-way. But the last two I finished are these. First was the memoir of a former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar where he also described – albeit too briefly for my taste! – the early days of what we today know as e-Estonia. And the second one was Anne Applebaum’s “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” which is a great attempt to try somehow to explain our current crazy political times.
If you would have time for only one newsfeed to follow on digital government and society developments and trends, what would you recommend?