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How does Estonia use digital tools to get the best people into the public sector?

Florian Marcus of e-Estonia

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In my line of work, you learn, listen, and talk a lot about digitalisation. It’s about all things “e-, “from education and health to governance and tax declarations. We cover all those different aspects in our presentations and our Speakers’ Corner articles, but there’s one topic to which I had remained almost entirely oblivious – until now. 

The National Public Service Commission of Colombia reached out to me a couple of months ago with an invitation to speak at their 5th International Meritocracy Congress entitled “Application of emerging technologies in the management of human talent in the public sector”. In a nutshell, I was asked to answer the following question in my talk: How does Estonia use digital tools to get the best people into the public sector, strengthen their skills, and keep them happy?

I didn’t know the answer to that question, so I reached out to several HR execs in different government agencies and ministries to find out more. The first task was to get a lay of the land: What are the main challenges for HR people in the public sector? In my interviews, I was able to whittle it down to three core challenges.

Three tonalities of blue boxes listing challenges in the public sector
The three core challenges in the public sector. 

  1. User-friendliness: Creating an easily accessible interface for both sides – the staffers and the applicants. These solutions would be needed every step of the way, during the application process, during the onboarding, and of course, as part of their daily routine.
  2. Budget: Our old arch nemesis money is back! The primary challenges in this subject area were as follows: First, where do we get the money from to develop the systems we need? Second, who’s going to pay for maintenance once it’s up and running?
  3. Self-development: Last but certainly not least, charting how the team’s performance could be improved and determining how to acquire the necessary skills for that purpose were also very high on the agenda. Anything else would lead to a stagnant public sector.

Tools for the job: User-friendliness

One example of a solution in the area of user-friendliness is EHIS. EHIS is short for Estonian Education Information System (that acronym makes more sense in Estonian, I promise!) and – with the permission of the applicant – it enables HR specialists to check whether the applicant in question has indeed graduated from high school or university, and in what field of study. This is possible because Estonian institutions are connected to EHIS and enter graduation data there.

While people in other countries have to scan in their degree diplomas (and staffers either have to trust that scan or start doing time-intensive research if this diploma is real), graduates in Estonia have it a lot easier – in some ways, one could call it an invisible service. But one catch is especially relevant for the more international ministries and agencies: EHIS only receives data from Estonian education institutions; if you did your Master’s abroad, tough luck!

This brings us back to a general struggle in Estonia vis-à-vis the rest of the world: interoperability. We can make the fanciest solutions ever, but they can only do so much if they are limited to our nation’s borders. There is a lot of work left to do.

A screenshot of the EHIS interface
A query to EHIS confirms that someone had the sense of humour to bestow aMaster’s degree upon me.

Tools for the job: Budget

Shared challenges are always also shared opportunities. One thing that unites all the different government entities is that their employees need an online environment to register their holidays, work-related trips, etc. So… why not (1) build an interface on top of an established ERP like SAP and (2) implement it across the public sector to save costs? Well, that’s exactly what happened with RTIP, the Government Employee Portal. There is no point for anyone, including Estonians, to reinvent the wheel.

A screenshot of RTIP interface
RTIP shows us what kinds of seminars are on offer over the coming weeks.

Tools for the job: Self-development

One bugbear that is a concern for virtually every public sector staffer worldwide is the disparity between what public and private sector entities can offer their employees. The former is usually regarded as a safe place to be employed but also as a bureaucratic behemoth that stymies innovation and pays you cents on the dollar. Cue the private sector that can be quite capricious at times, but promises an agile working environment, innovation, risk-taking, a higher salary, and – seeing as we’re living in the era of start-ups – an avalanche of free fruit and office dogs. Put yourself in the shoes of a public sector HR exec: How do you compete with that?

Some things you can’t change alone. You can’t magically double salary offers and the only way you could make your organisation more agile and innovative would be with fresh staff which brings us back to square one. To be frank, Estonia doesn’t quite suffer that issue of lack of innovation because the government has been – at least in relative terms – very open to innovative solutions and cooperation with the private sector. Initiatives like the Digital Testbed Framework and global hackathons are no fluke and they don’t come out of anywhere. But still, what do we do with our fresh talents once they’ve signed on the dotted line?

Screenshot of HEA interface

Above, you can see a screenshot of a pilot of HEA, an evaluation and self-development tool currently in development for the Estonian Foreign Ministry. It goes a couple of steps further than the usual quarterly feedback talk with your superior and enables 360° feedback loops. Tying this aspect into platforms like Moodle or Coursera could create a competent tool that helps us find out about our core strengths, discover the main areas where we can still improve, and assemble the material to make sure that we do precisely that.

Every day’s a school day!

So, there you have it. This was a small glimpse into how HR specialists use digital tools in Estonia. Some are custom-made for Estonian needs, others are off-the-shelf solutions from abroad, and yet others would only be possible in digitally mature countries like Estonia. None of those mentioned above paths is right or wrong – in fact, the odds are that it’s a similar picture in your country. I hope you found this small overview insightful – I know I learned a lot during my research that would not have been possible without the kind HR specialists that work hard every day to get the best possible people into the public sector. 😊

Written by
Florian Marcus

digital transformation adviser at the e-estonia briefing centre

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