Estonia and the Digital Enlightenment

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The history of techno-economic revolutions proves that any innovation tends to diffuse slowly. They are preceded by the financial crises which in hand pushes for institutional changes that serve as an eye-opener for all. After the events of the last decade, the time has come for the digital enlightenment.

Pioneers from the public sector

With internet, computers, and technology, mankind has shown a much faster development pace—embracing new ways and gadgets at cyber speed. This change is strongly initiated by the first adopters in the private sector; leading to the fast growth of the often speculative and not-so-legal ways of speedy earning. Like mushrooms after the rain, cryptocurrencies and mining companies emerge, shared-economy companies tear the markets apart, personal data is lost and sold, fake news gains extreme interest, and hackers take advantage of the system’s holes for the purpose of commercial gains or political diversion. The fruits of such transformation become more of more disturbing; especially, to those who were granted with power and are, therefore, responsible for society. Simply because when things get out of control, it is always the government who is guilty and is tasked with saving the day.

Should we just ban it all or try to control the new dimension? How can we set the rules in a way that technology adoption is fostered in legal and ethical, but open-minded manner? Who should be held responsible? How long can we really afford to discuss without acting? These are the questions that roam through my head looking at the problems governments face today.

While the society obsesses with privacy and big brother topics, governors see the most reasonable solution to avoid the risks: retreating to their small pond, doing nothing, or—even worse—going back to the paper world. Another fallacy is the lack of trust towards those whom the people elected to make tough decisions: harshly judging and pushing back on every initiative to change the paradigm in fear of disruption of the opportunities of the status-quo. But it does not have to be that way. New patterns and philosophy have to develop. Because neither massive funding nor technological innovation can flourish without digital leadership; without real and substantial adoption.

The most advanced digital society

An example of a state that could break the cycle of bureaucracy, take control of digital companies, and use technology for the sake and safety of its people, is definitively Estonia. Referred to as the most advanced digital society in the world, Estonia’s commitment to the development, sophistication, and integration e-services took 26 years—starting with the countries reclaim of independence to its rapid expansion today. Leading EU in public services as for DESI, first in Global cybersecurity index in Europe the country has also reached top rank in entrepreneurial activity by WEF.

In many countries, having super databases in every government body is the basis for data misuse and loss: when hacking the centralized databases, multiplied by the number of institutions, the bad guys get the full reward. In Estonia, there are no super databases as data is collected once and stored in only one place, where it has been collected in a distributed manner. At the same time using the safe and open-source platform connections between the organizations, the country institutions exchange and reuse data electronically, which, altogether, saves over 840 years of time annually, that otherwise would be spent on sending emails or documents and going to state offices. Literally, from all the burdens there are, at most you would only have to see a notary, buy a flat, pick up your compulsory ID document, and show up for your wedding or divorce—all of these for ethical or cultural reasons.

99% access with eID

Lacking digital identity serves the base for rather blurry accountability and no real transparency while accessing the private data, yet many countries do not have a digital identity in place. There are even plastic ID-cards, similar to Estonian ones, but with no chip and significantly less functionality than an Estonian ID-card. Estonian Identity card serves a key to access to 99% of services online: do taxes, vote, use most of the private sector services, bank, travel in the EU, present it as a loyalty or library card, and even use it for public transportation or instead of a driver’s license. Moreover, Mobile-ID has the same electronic functionality for active mobile users.

Ironically disconnection and mistrust of state institutions towards each other around the world are not guaranteeing anyone privacy or security, but instead initiating the start of the dictatorship from the state, pushing all the burden of bureaucracy to people’s shoulders and making their life way more complex and costly. Do we really want our taxes to be spent on tasks that can be done with basic computers? What is it really the role of the government—employing as many people as possible?

The success of the digital signature

For an Estonian, it sounds absolutely natural, that you never have to visit the state office, collect and archive papers, prove your entitlement to get some service or wait in long lines. The impossible to hack digital signature, allows you to legitimately sign and email any document from a simple working agreement to a multi-party million EUR contract. Moreover, the digital signature is so powerful and loved, Estonians were giving over 340 men signatures for 1.3 mln of the population, making it more in total than the whole Europe signatures combined.

Getting a notice of residence, enrolling in a university, ordering the new driver’s license, or setting up a legal company, takes no more than a couple of minutes, a computer, and a personal e-ID. It seems unbelievable to most, that papers, applications, confirmations or other home-stored documents are not necessary to retrieve and are, therefore, present anywhere.

When it comes to personal freedom, ease of doing business, tax competitiveness, respect for your personal data, data ownership rights for citizens, transparency, accountability, as well as the openness of the state, no one can compete with tiny Estonia.

Development of Blockchain technology

Blockchain has been tested since 2008. By 2012 the technology is and has been used for audit and integrity purposes within a growing number of the state institutions. Today it is offered by state institution RIA to other government offices and is used for succession documents verification, e-health system and log-files, state gazette, business registry, as well as the data embassy project in Luxembourg—in which Estonia e-government data is stored in a highly secure server environment.

Freedom in Estonia does not mean the ability to do whatever you want with no consequences; rather it is the right to get secure services 24/7 from anywhere, control access to your personal data, and the ability to hold people responsible for any data misuse accountable—including the state.

Breaking the common rules, Estonian hospitals are obliged to digitize and reveal the information to their patients from 2008, who in turn may decide to partially restrict access to the doctors or close it down completely. The e-Patients portal is the gateway for doing that. As in the Estonian view, no one should be restricted to take responsibility for his/her own health. If needed asking for another opinion for any research or from any other doctor, let alone, having the right to choose the medicine of any brand with the same ingredients, and to be made aware of your own health information are the essential rights.

From Estonian experience, we conclude that trust as the main barometer of the citizen-state relationship can only be built on positive practice, openness and transparency.

Build trust further

By offering working solutions, providing convenient e-services, saving people money and time, and freeing them of bureaucracy, you can gradually and steadily grow trust. If not trust towards politicians, then trust towards main state offices and functions; trust towards the technology and e-services, which are already substantial in terms of the budget. Can you imagine that spending 1% of the state budget on innovations for several years, 2% of Estonia’s GDP is saved purely by massive use of the digital signature?

When the trust bank is at least half full, no technological breakdown, failure or temporary issue can shatter the understanding of the benefits of administration-free life and therefore continue saving resources.


Just last year, Estonian national elections again brought the highest amount of internet given votes—31% of them in fact—regardless of the ongoing crisis with the ID-card chip impacting 53% of the population and card users. The important measure managing that crisis was the government deciding to initiate the discussion and speak openly and publicly about the potential problems with the card’s chip and their steps to repair the problem, instead of hiding the possible threats. Consequently, the problem was solved in the best possible way; causing some disturbance in the ID-card use, but with no damage to the trust in the e-state.

Sometimes it is so hard to admit that we have not been operating in the most effective way; only the brave ones can do that. Knowing that today Estonian government moves towards 0-bureaucracy, not only in the digital dreams but in reality. It is a time of the Digital Enlightenment, losing the old authorities, gaining new logic, the new science of managing society, and the new ethic of the data ownership, new philosophy for governance and governments and its role. The system should become citizen-centric, yet invisible and convenient for the people, as this is the only way how trust and relevance of the state would have any significance to the people living in it in the future years to come. People demand services here and now, individualized and convenient. The government should be able to provide that at any cost, starting with its comfort zone.

The article was originally published in GOV Magazine.


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