Articles

Estonia’s digital ambassador: Nele Leosk’s journey and insights

Nele Leosk

Article content

Nele Leosk, ambassador-at-large for digital affairs at the Estonian Foreign Ministry since 2020, reflects on Estonia and e-Governance.

 

Nele Leosk has led extensive digital, economic, and governance reforms in various countries around the world. Whether working in academia, as a consultant, or for the government, she has become a highly sought-after expert in e-governance.

We recently interviewed Leosk about her current role as ambassador-at-large for digital affairs, the state of e-governance, and the global role that Estonia continues to play as a pioneer and instigator.

 

How did you get into GovTech? Was it a personal choice, or did someone encourage you to become an expert?

I have worked developing our digital space for the past 22 years. I got my first glimpse into the area in the early 2000s when I worked at the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, which is also responsible for digitalisation in Estonia. When I was looking for new opportunities, my colleagues from the digital branch introduced me to the e-Governance Academy that the Estonian government had just founded, the United Nations Development Program, and the Open Foundation. I looked it up, and it seemed interesting, though I didn’t know much about e-governance back then.

It was the time of digital identity, the time of X-Road®, and the time of laying the legal framework that enabled the development of an open, inclusive and safe digital society. In a way, digitalisation gave the impetus for modernising Estonian culture. Quite a bit was happening even before 2000. Several preparations had started earlier, such as the introduction of the eID. We all know about the Tiger Leap and Look at World – the initiatives that introduced Estonian people to the internet and digital technologies. These also happened before then.

So, I started to work at the e-Governance Academy. Initially, I worked closely with questions about digital democracy; then, I served as a program director for digital education and skills. Later, I was involved in different areas of digitalisation. I led economic and government reforms all over the globe, from Haiti to Mongolia, from Tunisia to Ukraine. It was fascinating. Implementing reforms and achieving results in different economies and political, governmental, and cultural environments was also challenging.

Since then, my career path has always involved digital technologies from different fields and regions in other organisations. I have worked with political leaders and high government officials and have been hands-on in developing services and e-participation tools. I have experience in academia, international organisations, and the private sector. After 11 years abroad, I returned to Estonia and started to work on the foreign policy aspects of digital technologies at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia.   

 

What does your current job as ambassador-at-large for digital affairs entail?

Digital diplomacy has been rooted as an essential domain in foreign politics in recent years. The space and scale of technological development and the impacts of these on the economy, democracy and security are immense. For example, comparing current developments to the 2000s is a very different scale. 

Digital technologies do not recognise borders. They bring along opportunities and globalisation. Estonia has benefitted from these. It is not an understatement that digitalisation put Estonia on the world map, with our digital services and startup scene. Estonia is looked up at around the globe, and rightly so. 

But, increasingly, digital technologies bring along risks. Privacy is being violated, and cyber-attacks and technological interdependencies are increasing. What is also a concern is that technological developments are concentrated in very few countries, and big tech and their platforms have increased influence. There is quite a race for digitalisation. 

So, how can we globally ensure technologies are used for good and not for bad? How do we make sure they are used democratically and not autocratically? How do we ensure that everybody benefits from technology, not just a few? How do we make sure that everyone has the necessary skills and capacity to use these technologies: countries, towns, companies, universities, schools, people, also public officials and diplomats? Finding answers to these questions unites diplomats working on tech issues.

But aside from these global issues, I also have the pleasure of representing Estonia globally, our developments, companies, and interests. We recently adopted our digital diplomacy concept paper, which includes several main work streams. Besides global technology governance, it also covers digital cooperation and economic diplomacy. As part of Estonia’s digital diplomacy, e-Estonia still has a substantial role. This is how Estonia is known to the world, and maintaining and increasing Estonia’s global position is one part of Estonia’s digital diplomacy.

 

Are there special conferences or forums for digital diplomats and cyber attaché where you talk about these issues?

Increasingly so, both in the EU and globally. There is an active network of EU digital ambassadors. We work closely with the European External Action Service, like the European Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other EU and international organisations, such as the UN. Increasingly, big tech companies are at the table. We have a very close network that I am very grateful for, as this is where we share our views, discuss different topics, and support each other. 

We also gather globally and often attend events around digital and technology governance.

 

Is Estonia still seen as a pioneer when it comes to GovTech?

Estonia still has a strong global position and is known as a digital leader. And rightfully so. I have not come across a society where everything comes so holistically together. We can conduct most of our public and private business digitally and conveniently. Digital signatures, for example, have made my life so much easier, especially when living abroad, from selling my car to voting via the internet. Still, we also need to be mindful that though Estonia leads in the public sector in digitalisation, we also have to take our industry and companies to higher levels and complexity of the use of technologies. The other aspect we need to understand is that it is increasingly challenging to keep up with the technological developments and investments in infrastructure, as the need for computing power is increasing. But Estonia has always been an intelligent adopter and a brave implementer of technologies, and further investments are needed to keep this going. 

Of course, global expectations for Estonia are high, too. In my field, there are several areas that we need answers for. Estonians are expected to have many answers to these common issues that technology brings. AI governance, data governance, and cross-border data sharing require a lot of resources to understand the problems and what is at stake. 

Estonia has influenced several EU developments, such as the European Interoperability Act and European eIDAS, as Estonia had prior experience here. 

 

You have advised governments in Europe, Asia, Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East. What sets them apart or makes them similar?

Now that we are many years into digitalisation, we have come to realise that despite our differences, there are so many similarities, joint problems and solutions to these problems. For example, all countries need digital identity, data-sharing solutions, registries, and payment systems. This has put co-creation, sharing and re-use of digital solutions on the global agenda. Digital public infrastructure, digital public goods, and digital commons – these trends support openness, sharing, and building on existing experiences. 

Estonia’s X-Road is a perfect example of a global public good that has been re-used in many countries. GovStack – an initiative that Estonia co-leads with Germany, the International Telecommunication Union, and DIAl, is another excellent example of global cooperation that builds on similarities. Amidst these trends, we should not forget that digitalisation is much more than technology, and solutions comprise only a tiny part of the whole. 

But, of course, there are also differences. Differences in economic level, income, and size of a country influence our digital paths. We see countries in the Middle East moving fast, using cutting-edge technologies. However, some countries must consider illiteracy issues and require more electricity when designing digitalisation programs. 

Still, cooperation is essential, regardless of where we stand. Several of the emerging topics are common to all of us. There are challenges that Estonia, or any country alone, may need help to solve. We must find ways to fight disinformation, protect our citizens’ privacy, and regulate tech companies. The EU has been a pathfinder here, and I am glad that some of what we have done in Estonia or the EU could benefit others and the other way around. 

 

Contact

Visit us physically or virtually

We host impactful events both in our centre and online for government institutions, companies, and media. You’ll get an overview of e-Estonia’s best practices and build links to leading IT-service providers and state experts to support your digitalisation plans.

Questions? Have a chat with us.

E-mail:
Media:
Call us: +372 6273157 (business hours only)

Find us

The Briefing Centre is conveniently located just 2 minutes drive from the airport and 10 to 15 minutes drive from the city centre.

You will find us on a ground floor of Valukoja 8, central entrance behind the statue of Mr Ernst Julius Öpik. Photo of the central entrance.

Valukoja 8
11415 Tallinn, Estonia