Four lessons from building the most digital society in the world

digital society

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Reaching greater heights often requires extracting lessons from past experiences and applying them to future pursuits. This idea tends to apply to all aspects of life – digital transformation is no different. Although Estonia’s story of becoming “the most advanced digital society in the world” may be underlined by a sequence of seemingly logical positive outcomes, the digital success of any country is never predetermined.

It is hindsight that has helped us map out the past 30 years of digital transformation as a continuous journey. From shaping a favourable legal system to establishing secure data exchange to implementing a nationwide digital identity.

The world seems to now look to Estonia for the secret to the successful digital transformation of a state. And the secret is… there is none. From decades of sharing our experiences, we have seen that every country needs to pave their own path to their unique digital success. But this definitely does not mean that they should do it alone.

After talking to a several representatives from Estonia’s public and private sector, we have compiled the four most valuable lessons from Estonia’s digital past that these experts deemed important.

Lesson #1: Courageous and patient digital-minded leadership

Naturally, we start from the ones leading the way. The leadership of a country that is on the path to digital transformation does not only need to be digital-minded. It also needs to exude characteristics that embody an understanding of what digital transformation entails – courage to experiment and patience to let big changes take effect.

Hannes Astok, Development Director at the e-Governance Academy, looks back fondly to the experimentation that led to the e-solutions that have become the core components of Estonia’s digital state. “When it came to nationwide ID-cards, the X-Road or even online tax declaration, there was no guarantee that any of it would work. But the courage to experiment was present throughout the public sector,” Astok notes.

The online tax declaration is a great example. “The Tax Board understood that the benefits of correct and timely tax declarations outweighed any potential risks,” Astok explains. “So they decided to experiment. From the digitalisation of the system to how they would encourage people to start using the online service.”

“They tried saying you could get your tax return within 5 days if you declare your taxes online. And it worked. Now, The Tax Board has to annually ask citizens to hold back and pace their tax declarations to avoid overwhelming the system on the first day. It’s incredible, I have not seen anything like this anywhere else in the world.”

Experimentation may sound like a rapid trial and error process. With digital transformation, however, we are still talking about big societal changes. Having witnessed these changes first-hand, Arne Ansper, Development Manager at Cybernetica, finds it important to highlight that a big part of our success was also determined by an admirable societal stamina in adapting to change.

“The public IT-leadership remained patient during this societal adaptation period and the time it took for old thinking patterns to change,” Ansper remarks. Whether it comes to the adoption of the ID-Card or the slowly growing participation in i-Voting. “You have to give it time. These are such big changes. Maybe not even technically but precisely in how they fit into social patterns and behaviours.”

Lesson #2: Combining public and private sector forces

But leadership is not only about the few bright minds at the top. Rather, it is distributed between multiple stakeholders within the public and private sector. The second major lesson is therefore connected to combining forces to deliver digital excellence.

In addition to the observation on the leadership’s courage to experiment, Hannes Astok also emphasised the will and consensus between the public and private sector as well as universities in going through with established plans. “There was a mutual acknowledgement of shared responsibility and goals. No one decided to go their own way and later blame the other when things did not work out,” Astok notes.

Data exchange is a significant example. The fact that the X-Road has become the backbone of Estonia’s digital state, is primarily owed to the public-private partnership that laid its foundations. “Often you see that some sort of platform or application is built, but the necessary stakeholders do not hop on the boat. If you have effective public-private partnership from the beginning, this is less likely to happen. The adaptation period will be less painful.”

Lesson #3: Embedded transparency and trust … on all levels

We often hear the term “trust by design.” It was also brought forward as one of the major lessons by Indrek Õnnik, Global Affairs Director of the Government CIO Office at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications. At its core, this refers to embedding security and privacy at every stage of technological development.

On a more philosophical level, however, we can also talk about more general principles, such as transparency. “For example, we support open-source software and our systems are, by a matter of principle, designed without any backdoors,” Õnnik emphasises. “That is what we are known for and that is definitely the direction we want to keep pursuing.”

Once the “promise” of transparency has been made, it must be upheld as much as possible… also during the times when things go wrong. In August 2017, the Estonian Information System Authority was informed about a security weakness that affected about 800,000 Estonian ID cards – one of the main means of authentication and electronic signing, which over 67% of Estonians use on a daily basis.

“The first decision was that we will not hide anything and as much as we could, talk about the situation openly,” says Margus Arm, the current Director of the State Information System Authority. “We chose to disclose what we are dealing with, where we are heading and the risks we are facing. We hoped that this openness would maintain the citizens’ trust in our digital state.” Authorities quickly provided the means for the remote renewal of the affected ID cards, out of which half were renewed by the end of the year.

Looking back, this was certainly the right approach. Only a few months after the incident, local elections saw the greatest number of i-voters to date. This was one of the indications that people’s trust in the state’s digital infrastructure did not suffer a tremendous hit. It is believed that the strategic, transparent and incredibly quick action taken by the authorities played a significant role in that.

Lesson #4: Context is everything

The final lesson will take us right back to the beginning of this article, where we brought up experience sharing. This is something we, at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre, and Estonia’s public and private sector representatives have been doing for years. We believe that if digital excellence was possible here, it is possible anywhere.

We are however also aware that it is not always an easy path, as our solutions cannot be merely copy-pasted. Taavi Einaste, CEO of Nortal Germany, chose to highlight just that, as he shared the company’s observations from the past 20 years of delivering digital transformation in Estonia and across the world. “We, as Estonians are proud of what we have achieved. We are inspired to tell our story and support digitalisation in other countries,” Einaste points out.

“But when it comes to building digital infrastructure elsewhere, we have to be honest and admit something upfront – Estonia’s digital solutions will not work in other countries the same way they worked here. Digitalisation is highly context dependent. Effective digital strategies must, therefore, be shaped in accordance to the local context – taking into consideration everything from legislation to culture.”

Once this is established as the starting point, digitalisation truly becomes possible anywhere. And the lessons, such as the ones outlined in the given article, become transferable to all countries around the world.


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Written by
Adhele Tuulas

Creative Assistant


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