Twenty years ago, Estonia was at the beginning of what was to become our digital success story. Where we are today is the result of having the right minds, at the right place, at the right time – executing a common vision through an effective public-private partnership. Nortal, the change and technology company exporting Estonia’s e-experience globally, is one of the valuable players we have to thank for where we have arrived and where we still aspire to go.
As the company celebrates its 20th birthday this spring, we decided to sit down with Priit Alamäe, Founder and CEO of Nortal, to reflect on the past two decades and what’s yet to come, as the current times mark another milestone in all of our lives.
It is the year 2000, Estonia is at the beginning of its digital development and the foundations for Nortal have just been established. How would you describe the beginning and course of this 20-year journey?
Thinking back to the international perception of Estonia in the early 2000s, I would say we were still perceived as a mildly interesting post-Soviet backwater. This perception only started changing at the beginning of the century. Our development story as a company is pretty much in sync with the perception of Estonia internationally. We have been growing, maturing and internationalising together with Estonia. We like to think that we have played a small but important role in the building of e-Estonia as a local reality and global phenomenon.
By today, Estonia has become a pioneer in state and society digitalisation and Nortal is behind 40% of Estonia’s digital services. What have been some of the defining moments of success in reaching this 40%?
There is an old saying, how do you explain the job of a janitor in NASA – are they cleaning the floors or are they helping put man on the moon? When we look at 40%, it’s perhaps important to look at what is behind it as a whole. We are not always visible as a company but our mission-critical systems keep the country running. Making sure that the simple things are happening – pensions are paid on time, the right social benefits find the right people, the electronic ID works flawlessly. These are some of the things we are really proud of.
What keeps our people going in Estonia is the knowledge that they are building the greatest e-government in the world. And everyone is doing their part in keeping things moving forward. This is not a small responsibility. Estonia may have a small population, but it is still 1.3 million people. It is important that this 1.3 million gets the best possible service from their government and that the e-government we are building leads the Estonian image globally.
Nortal has also become a major partner in building digital societies around the world. Are there some common factors for success or challenges that have emerged when it comes to digitalisation in other countries?
There are some common denominators, similar to what we have seen in Estonia – you need to have the political will, the champions that are able to make decisions, the legal setup, the infrastructure, the IT literacy and incentives for people to move forward. There are many building blocks that are the same in each major digital transformation case, but the Lego that is built – the end result looks different every time.
Any digitalisation project we run, requires combining the experience of Estonian reforms, with a deep understanding of local realities and the global technological development curve. These are three things that come together every time and every time they produce a unique result. Most important is the local reality. Every country has a different history with its public administration, democracy, past digitalisation attempts, political realities and political pressures. You need to understand these intricacies to ensure success.
When we talk about challenges, the very first thing to understand is the motivation of the decision-makers and their willingness to embark on change. By definition, reform means that in the long-term, life will be better for everyone but in the short term, some people might lose out. You will always have people who fight change. The question is if the decision-makers are ready to take that fight on and push the right decisions through. That we see every time.
Looking at the way Estonia and its people function today and during the crisis, what are the greatest benefits of a digital state?
When the COVID crisis started, in the private sector it was expected that people – at least the ones who have a desk job – go home and continue working from there. Looking at different governments around the world, for many, the stay-at-home order meant a vacation. They were not able to continue working without being able to sign papers, receive papers, send papers, meet people physically. In Estonia, the government went home, and work continued, as it should be. The Estonian government is functioning the same way as a well-run private enterprise should be. That’s a big lesson to learn for any other country.
For us, digitalisation has not been something that is just nice to have. It has never been a matter of “should we do it”, but rather “how do we do it.” Because for us it is a necessity, not an additional option. This also shows in times like this.
But no system is perfect, where do we still have room for improvement?
Oh, everywhere. When you look at the typical transactional e-government services, we are almost at the top in terms of how much we have – everything that can be digitalised, has basically been digitalised. But two questions always remain.
First, how conveniently have the services been built for the end-user? Have they been built from the perspective of the civil servant, the entrepreneur, the citizen, the mother, the child, the grandparent, the jobseeker? Although we are the best in the world, we still have a long way to go in terms of improving the user experience.
Second, how can we utilise more data to create proactive services for the next decade? Thanks to our underlying interoperability system, we are the world champions at gathering data and integrating data, but now we also need to take lead in using that data more effectively to provide our services.
So Estonia’s stated goal of moving towards proactive services* is the next big wave. Here, we lose the concept of citizens having to file applications when they have the right to a service defined by law. The system knows your parameters, knows where you are, there are triggering events and the right services will come and find you. You do not need to understand the complexities of the legislation or the details of how the government or the public sector works – you should be able to go on with your life and smart services will come and find you.
*Tune into our upcoming live webinar on our Facebook page, with Andre Krull (Nortal) and Janek Rozov (IT and Development Centre of the Ministry of Interior) on May 27, to learn more.
What would be your prediction for the post-COVID era we are moving towards?
Digitalisation is proving to be a great insurance policy – the ones who have gone down that path are the ones who are currently coping much better in comparison to those that have not. As mentioned above, digitalisation has at least helped keep our country and economy humming even during a global lockdown. This is not going to be the last pandemic. And hopefully when the next one hits; the world will be better prepared.
My prediction is that the golden age for e-services is coming. Both from the public and private sectors’ perspective. This is not something that is just nice to have. It is an insurance policy.
We, at Nortal, believe that the best years are ahead. Despite the fact that I have been working on this company for 20 years, it feels like we are just getting started. There is no feeling of routine – the spirit of the company keeps us in constant motion, always continuing to challenge ourselves and seeking for new challenges. We are never happy with what we already have, there is always another mountain to climb.
Today, e-governance and e-services have become a necessity in every country. e-Estonia Briefing Centre – the gateway to Estonian expertise in e-governance, invites you to connect with the Estonian IT companies directly responsible for the successful functioning of the e-state even during a pandemic. Get in touch with us to set up your custom virtual programme with the best partners you could get: firstname.lastname@example.org