This year alone we have received more than 10,000 people at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre from countries big and small around the world. While the vast majority of politicians, entrepreneurs, academics and journalists leave the Briefing Centre in good spirit and with lots of food for thought, some primarily see the disparity between Estonia and their own country. More often than not, their first question is “How come we don’t have all these digital services while you’ve had the basics in place for almost 20 years?” In response to this I figured I’d take a look at the most pressing reasons why some countries are early adopters while others are late bloomers when it comes to digitalisation. But before we get down to business, we need to get one more thing out of the way: not a single point on this list means that a given country won’t digitalise or will do so only very slowly. In fact, there will always be a handful of countries that defy the odds. Still, statistically, the following three points make it less likely that your country will be a digital trailblazer in the coming years.
1. Federal political structures
Countries that rely on decentralised and federalised structures commonly have a harder time putting together national-level strategies because the individual states within their borders insist on a degree of self-governance. Some countries like to spin this as a benefit because it supposedly incentivises the creation of small pilot projects or test-runs. This approach is called sandboxing and it can definitely work, but only once you have caught up with the pack. If a late-blooming country sees a policy that it wants to adopt, it should do so nation-wide and catch up. Once a country is “up-to-date”, however, grass-root clusters and localised pilot projects can be real game-changers that breed innovation. As an example, highly federalised Switzerland tested its electronic voting system on a local level in 2003, two years before Estonia made headlines by being the first country in the world to introduce i-Voting for legally binding, nation-wide elections. So yes, this bottom-up approach can work; it just makes no sense to rely on sandboxes when you don’t even provide your citizens and residents with a uniform type of electronic ID yet.
2. A never-ending debate about privacy concerns
Many people seem to think that digitalisation and privacy are somehow two mutually exclusive topics and that digital societies rely on a transparent citizen. Granted, if government built a system with the citizens’ ultimate transparency in mind, of course this could be done. In Estonia, meanwhile, the opposite happened: In the different government portals I can check who has looked at my personal data, ranging from healthcare professionals to government authorities and, wherever I have granted that access, also private sector companies. This goes far beyond the degree of privacy and actual data ownership that most governments provide for their citizens. Meanwhile, many of the most vocal privacy advocates happily use Google Maps, Facebook, or newspaper websites that use dozens of tracking cookies, all of which amass more data than the state even intends to gather in most cases. So in my opinion, the discussion on privacy has become very warped and polarised to the extent that, in some countries, it’s a knockout argument against digitalisation as a whole.
3. Your country (thinks, that it) can afford not to digitalise
If you were to look at a list of the 30 countries that currently digitalise the most quickly, you might be surprised by quite a few entries. Estonia was a dirt-poor, former Soviet republic (with a government budget of €130m in 1992) when it made the decision to go digital. Namibia implemented an Estonian-made, commercially available version of the X-Road data exchange layer between 2014-16. Registering a company in Oman only takes two minutes now, thanks to an Estonian-made portal that saw the Sultanate jump 127 places in the Starting a Business category of the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking. The simple truth is that many countries that have lots of manpower and resources, be they natural or financial, tend to rely on those resources rather excessively, too. This might be a short-sighted approach; young professionals are more mobile than they ever have been and they care less about cold, hard cash than they do about the tangible and intangible quality of life.
So these are three of the most prevalent hurdles that countries face on their digital journey. If one or even several of these points apply for your country, don’t give up. And if you have other points that you think are missing on this list, feel free to get in touch with us.
Speaker-analyst at e-Estonia Briefing Centre