Estonia’s interoperability as a blueprint for Canada’s digital efforts

Estonia interoperability digital Canada

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Amidst the global crisis, where everyone is facing common yet contextually different challenges, we have heard a lot about the value of collaboration and experience sharing. As the President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid noted in the recently held e-Governance Conference, this is something Estonia has been doing for a long time.

One example of such collaborative efforts was brought to life between Estonia and Canada a few years ago when Canada’s Deputy Minister, along with the Secretary of the Treasury Board, visited Estonia. After witnessing first-hand how digital the nation was, the Deputy Minister at the time, Alex Benay, travelled back to Canada with one message – “I want what they have, let’s make it happen.”

As the backbone of Estonia’s digital state is our interoperability framework, at the receiving end of the Deputy Minister’s message was the Director for Interoperability, Teresa D’Andrea. So for the past 2.5 years Teresa has been leading the efforts in building Canada’s own interoperability solution, The Canadian Digital Exchange Platform (CDXP), working closely with her Estonian counterparts to “make it happen.”

But interoperability goes significantly beyond downloading the correct toolkit with the best technology. We caught up with Teresa to understand how Estonia’s experience has provided value in developing an interoperability framework in a vastly different context.

In order to set the scene, let’s start by outlining how the CDXP compares to Estonia’s interoperability platform, the X-Road?

From a technology perspective it is quite different. However, when it comes to the people, processes and information required to make interoperability sustainable within the Government of Canada, we are trying to mimic what Estonia has done as closely as possible. The technology is never the hardest part, it is all those things around it that make or break an operation.

Firstly, when we talk about the people aspect, we loved that Estonia’s approach was to make the training free for developers. That is something we are trying to do in Canada as well. To make sure that through the provision of free training, our staff has the necessary skills to build robust Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), understand how to set up messaging queues, and are able to prioritise interoperability and the reuse of data in their day-to-day work.

Second of all, our Estonian partners have taught us the importance of having the appropriate processes in place to make onboarding onto their X-Road interoperability platform (or in Canada’s case, the CDXP) seamless and simple. What makes an interoperability system effective is its widespread adoption. The question then becomes, how do you shape your processes in such a way that adoption becomes the easiest path? The answer lies in transparency, free initial onboarding, effective monetisation schemes, and the appropriate incentives.

And the third aspect relates to information. Estonia’s setup, from a data perspective, is based on having single authoritative sources of data or sources of truth. This is baked into legislation where there is one population registry, one address registry, and one business registry etc. Whereas in Canada, data replication is a common practice, which inhibits us from providing seamless service delivery for citizens and businesses across the entire federal government. We are therefore still looking at how we can enable authoritative sources of truth and leverage a similar federated data model as in Estonia.

Based on your experiences working on this for over two years now, where do the greatest challenges lie?

As I mentioned, technology is rarely where you get stuck. You build an API, put it in the API store, set up an event broker – that’s the easy part. Getting people to start thinking about building APIs in the first place and start thinking about how they can set themselves up for data reuse is much trickier. On a larger scale, this is about culture change. Getting the people who have spent their entire career doing something one way, to suddenly completely transform the way they work and deliver services is not an easy task. It’s a tough shift, especially when you have established practices that have been in place for over 20 years. I think that is our biggest challenge in adopting an interoperable approach to government.

We are definitely talking about big systematic changes, which require time. Do you already see small shifts happening?

I do see shifts. I always try to attack things from above and from below. That way, you are more likely to be successful. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat is responsible for the administration of the Government of Canada, and my responsibility is to drive interoperability. I am really here to evangelise and lead change on this key file, and to help departments see an alternative universe from what they are used to.

We need to help people understand that there is this thing called interoperability, this is what we are doing, this is why we are doing it, and this is what the CDXP offers. We need our executives to understand that there is a new world order, and in order for us to become digital, interoperability underpins everything.

I also work at the community level, with the people who are developing and working on delivering technical solutions. If those working in this field understand that there is a shift and they are supported from above, it tends to meet in the middle.

It is very heart-warming to hear at various meetings that others are embracing interoperability and baking it into the solutions that they are developing. To me it is a confirmation that they get it, which is wonderful. I love that.

But since interoperability is only one of the building blocks in the foundation, how does the CDXP fit into Canada’s wider digital efforts?

The three components that Estonia had put in place to become digital was 1) identity, 2) interoperability, and 3) the policies and legislation to support data exchangethat is exactly what Canada is doing.

We are taking that model and we are applying it to a Canadian context. Identity is being tackled through The Pan-Canadian Trust Framework and Sign In Canada, data exchange through the CDXP, and the policy and legislative aspect is something we are currently exploring.

What is great about collaborating with a country like Estonia is knowing that we are not going at it alone. We are not the first ones out the door trying to figure out how to be digital, but rather using something that Estonia has spent 15-20 years building as a blueprint. Essentially, this means we can do in two years what took Estonia much longer, because we can learn from their trial and error. There was no one else that Estonia could point to and say, “it worked over there, so it will work here.” Whereas we have that, and this helps propel us forward.

At the end of the day, what we strive towards is invisible bureaucracy and seamless service delivery for citizens and businesses, just like Estonia does. Our intended outcome is essentially the same.

Photo source: Pixabay


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