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The cornerstone of e-governance is trust

Building an e-state like Estonia comes off very often as a goal that can be reached only by young and small states, or by countries and companies developing and working with the latest technologies available. We read and witness how leaders and policymakers around the world look at our country as a forerunner in the digital development. But what if the most important and fundamental component of the most advanced digital society in the world is not what you’d expect it to be?

Before the IT revolution, before the hot-right-now technologies, before algorithms and Artificial Intelligence: there is no getting away from the fact that trust is first and foremost the foundation of a modern digital society, as well as one of its subsequent achievements. The uniqueness of the Estonian experience resides in the certainty that trust cannot be built overnight: it’s a long and challenging process, requiring help and collaboration from different institutional and private actors, and a matter that it feels natural to address at the very beginning of the process of digital transformation of a country.  At the same time, the replicability of our journey is not something that other countries in the world should dismiss as an impossible task: baby steps, interaction by interaction, service by service, taking reasonable risks and acting fast – that’s what led us to be where we stand. Losing hope would be your first mistake; taking up the challenge, instead, would be your first step towards joining a club of a few top countries in the world efficiently delivering services for individuals and private companies.

Who could be a better Virgil for the purpose than Linnar Viik. With the Tallinn e-Governance Conference 2018 on the go, we decided to talk to one of the founders of the Tallinn-based e-Governance Academy to explore processes of trust building and digital development as an opportunity for anyone willing to transform a digital utopia into an everyday reality. Mr Viik knows very well what it takes to get there: as an expert and advisor, he followed the process of digital transformation in Estonia from the very beginning.

 Photo source: e-Governance Academy

Trust builds gradually

In a first attempt to unravel this chimera, we must start by recognizing what are the core components of a broader concept of trust in e-governance. “It’s a word that can be very holistic; however, trust consists of very specific and particular components, some of which are much easier to manage, such as regulatory aspects and technological elements.  However, then we get to something which is rather sociological, or socio-psychological, and here lies the crucial part: the key ingredient is trust in relations, relationships and communications”, whether these take place between public officials, citizens or businesses.

“In Estonia,” Viik continues “we are building trust step by step, service by service, communication by communication. Trust is like a sand dune on the beach: every single grain is actively part of this process; there might be wind or a wave, and these could take some trust away. Slowly, you’ll start putting grains together, and build trust again. And the most interesting point is that those small components are not at all dedicated to the regulatory environment or the technological aspect, but to people’s personal experiences”.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, a number of non-formal types of communications started being considered, de facto, legit. Since 1994, emails have gained the relevance of official forms of interactions in most of the public institutions. The aim was to slowly take down the institutional barriers impeding communications to be as easy and relaxed as possible. As a result, “People trust digital interactions because we intentionally built digital non-formal forms of communication which people are used to employing, and that is something which contributes to making the social components of trust,” says Viik. Then, the avalanche takes place: businesses started asking themselves why not use the same way they started communicating with public institutions also in talking to their customers, and the revolution began. A steady, careful change, aimed to meet people halfway, started from the government side and ended up as a new way of thinking about interactions in the public sphere and trust relations in society as a whole.

Learning from the mistakes

One must not forget, however, that the moment to formalize these types of communications must come at some point. That moment is represented by the creation of a set of services that the citizen can trust: because they work and because they rely on pre-existent dynamics of trust, functioning as a safety net for both ends of the transaction. In this way, from the abstract, we get to the practical, with a set of trust-enablers such as time-stamped documents – to mention one of them – that balance high levels of cyber security and usability. Basic information distribution channels, chatbots, strategies and services fostering transparency and opening up to the public government databases – all these elements form the prerequisite to build the sand hill at the core of Viik’s analogy.

But as the wind comes, grains can fly away with it. The recent case of the security threat related to the electronic ID cards promptly addressed and solved by different units of public officials, academics and private sector experts, represents a perfect example of the events that can disrupt dynamics of trust previously created. As Viik points out though, the small crisis can often represent opportunities to do better: “I’d say that we did not lose trust in our systems; instead, we actually increased trust in the expert community, as well as our internal ability to deal with incidents like that. Some people had to go through annoying situations, but nothing more than that: everyone understood that this is a very little price to pay for the overall quality of the general digital way of life we’re having. Our ID cards, and our overall digital identity management are now better than ever also thanks to that incident”.

Trust can be, therefore, a fragile thing to preserve. But when a series of successful projects enhance users’ experiences, damages from dangers are not irreversible: levels of trust in institutions and technologies can vary over time, but the core dynamics are those happening at the level of the civil society in everyday communications, in the constant efficient and reliable availability of e-services. How to get there? In the final remarks by Linnar Viik, a roadmap for the early stages of any process of digital development: “Share your information; make yourself transparent; build informal forms of interaction; develop internal secure IT systems for public institutions that can be trusted, from the inside and the outside; only at this point, then, start opening those services to the public”. Easy, or not?

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