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Four lessons from 20 years of championing digital societies

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This spring, the Estonian e-Governance Academy (eGA) celebrated its 20th birthday. Born when Estonia took its first steps of digital transformation, the organisation has been sharing Estonian experience with the world as a leading consultancy. To celebrate its anniversary and to take stock of the experience it has gathered in consulting governments in over 140 countries, at the eGA annual conference 2023 a book, “Twenty Years of Building Digital Societies: Thinking about the Past and Future of Digital Transformation”, written by Peeter Vihma, was presented.

What makes eGA – and the book – special is that experts of eGA whose knowledge is distilled in the book have been personally involved in securing Estonian digital success. To name just some, Arvo Ott, a member of the management board at eGA, was Estonia’s first chief information officer; Linnar Viik, the co-founder of eGA, advised the prime minister on digital affairs in the ground-breaking 1990s, Uuno Valner, senior expert on interoperability ate eGA, was one of the “fathers” of the Estonian X-Road; Liina Hänni, a senior expert of e-democracy at eGA, is the “mother” of i-voting, and so on and so on. Hence, the experience captured in the book reflects not only the state-of-the-art knowledge of e-governance in the world but a very practical and hands-on approach to building digital societies. Here we present four key moments from the book.

Think Big

One of the key messages of the book is that to extract the most public value from digital technology, its implementation should be systematic. People interested in digital transformation are often motivated by advancements or technological solutions such as blockchain, interoperability, services, or any other part of digital governance. However, perhaps counter to widespread expectations, digital transformation is not primarily about technology but about improving the public sector. This requires returning to the drawing board and thinking through what the government is offering, for whom and by whom. Also, the values upon which services and interactions are built are not unimportant. Because as one of the interviewees said, “If you put stupid service online, you get a stupid online service.”

Along with these realisations comes the need to ensure that the whole public sector is aware of the digital transformation. For example, the legal framework that regulates digitalisation should be developed parallel to administrative and technological changes. The book showcases several examples of countries where the involvement of different branches of the government either hinders or advances systemic transformation.

Think Sustainable

To ensure that the country does not paint itself into a corner on its road to digital government, it is vital to ensure that the core technologies and competencies remain at the government’s disposal. Digital transformation is not a one-off endeavour. Digital transformation often advances incrementally in small steps, and after the initial deployment, systems and services need to be maintained and developed. While numerous commercial solutions could be installed quickly, unless the state has full knowledge and control over how the technology works, it could lead to significant unforeseen costs or backlashes. The same applies to technological donations or development aid that can lead to unwanted dependencies. This realisation applies equally to large back office systems (such as interoperability solutions) and citizen-oriented services. In digital service development, for example, civil servants must maintain their knowledge of how the service functions to maintain and improve it as necessary. Hence, while installing “black box” commercial solutions or accepting donations may seem like initially lowering the costs, building domestic competencies and maintaining technological awareness will be more efficient in the long run.

Think People

In digital transformation, like in any other government reform, the number one concern should be how it affects the people. eGA is arguing and working for a human-centric approach to digital governance, where each step should allow more inclusiveness, transparency and comfort for the citizens, not less. These values are not for granted and must be consciously safeguarded. Attention to people includes both making sure that the citizens have the necessary knowledge and capacity to use digital services, but also that civil servants stay on top of their end of digitalization. Digitalisation may improve communications between citizens and the state if these aspects are catered for. This may come in direct participation, as discussed in the case study of the city of Tartu, or in the form of i-voting, where Estonia is the world leader. The book also touches upon the issues of digital vulnerability and responsibility that come with digitalisation. The digital divide is real, but there are clever ways of overcoming them. For example, the book features a case study of Benin which has found a way to introduce digital services to a country with a 40% of illiteracy rate.

Think Secure

Cybersecurity is a growing concern worldwide and a logical consequence of trusting core functions of the state to digital technologies. While it is easy to create a highly secure digital society, the difficulty lies in ensuring that it remains free and democratic. eGA is building on the experience of Estonia and also on the experience of its allies in arguing that achieving cybersecurity is a task that requires cooperation between all branches of the government, but also between the public and private sector and internationally between countries. The cooperation involves both tactical levels through creating cyber-guards (CERTs) or digital training fields that increase digital resilience, but also on a strategic level in ensuring that the legal, political and administrative tools and capacities are understood and shared between those who provide critical (and even not so critical) infrastructure and services.

Cybersecurity is more salient, given that countries have grown digitally mature over the years and have also experienced cyberattacks and malfunctions in various parts of their systems. Also, geopolitics plays an increasingly crucial role in the field of cybersecurity. It is, therefore, not only more challenging to ensure the functioning of the increasingly interconnected digital infrastructure, but it requires also the awareness and basic cyber-hygiene by its users – the citizens. Looking at the future of digital governments, how security and freedom are balanced in the digital realm will be one of the critical global issues.

In the book, these four key messages are elaborated thoroughly and illustrated with case studies ranging from Tonga to the Faroe Islands. The book is available on hardcover and digitally here

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