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The ‘digital by default’ mindset isn’t prevailing everywhere?

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Speakers’ Corner is an article series where the e-Estonia Digital Transformation advisers talk about the digital society and their personal experiences related to using public e-services. Today you will meet one of our newest advisers Erika Piirmets via her very first article.

Our interaction with many public and private services occurs through online channels in Estonia. I rarely emphasise that I am about to consume a digital service as it is a common practice by now.

Similarly, I highly doubt my Grandma is aware that she uses a digital service while the pharmacist sells her medicine via e-prescription. There is no separate offline and online Estonia. It is all one Estonia, where simply 99% of the governmental services are accessible online.

My first digital signature

Even though the first e-governance services are only slightly younger than me, my first conscious memory brings me back to high school, where we had to register for the final exams – online using our ID cards. While my handwritten signature looked still raw and awkward, the digital signature felt incredibly official and adulty. Later on, naturally, more digital applications followed.

A woman in front of a classroom
Erika talks about the Estonian (digital) society to the pupils in Southern Europe.

After graduating from high school, I spent one summer in France doing a European Voluntary Service. As the scholar year approached, I announced to my peers during one dinner that I had just confirmed my bachelor studies back in my home country. I did not make much out of my peers’ scepticism when I explained that no, I did not receive an invitation letter on paper, and neither had I submitted a whole stack of diplomas, supplements, nor applications on paper to apply. They probably thought I was about to study in a sketchy institution. Which I, of course, was not about to do. A well-known university accepted me in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. This was the moment I realised that my life experience is a tad different from my mates in other countries.

Labour pains of the digitally born

The Estonian government made a strategically correct call to make the ID card, which holds our digital identity, compulsory for the citizens and residents. That enabled the expansion of digital services and made them available and way more comfortable for the users than physically going to a state institution. However, not everyone was delighted to jump to use them or didn’t know how to. While I worked as a librarian-consultant in a public library, I witnessed a more troublesome side of the digital society. A vulnerable part of its members was given the tools and obligations they had no grasp over. 

When the time approached to file the tax report, I was occupied assisting people, often elderly non-citizens and non-Estonian speakers, for weeks in a row. Their qualms ranged from holding a mouse to using e-banking to translating the government messages they received throughout the process. ‘Is this the digital discrimination I am witnessing?’ I thought as I saw their worry turn to anger or indifference when I had to firmly decline to set their passwords or use their authentication methods to proceed with services. 

In their despair, my clients were ready to trust all their digital identity to the hands of the library consultant, a stranger they had met just moments ago! Thanks to several supporting services, I am delighted to see the exclusion gap narrowing as people become more tech-savvy. Still, we mustn’t forget to show empathy along the way because digitalisation is a convenience and optimisation tool and must never be used as an elitist perk.

Yes to fiesta, but no to bureaucracy, please

Years later, when I had moved to the South of Europe after the first wave of pandemic, I experienced the limitations of not having the luxury of functioning digital governance. When it was time to isolate and close the society, a big part of life was put on hold, when in Estonia the few remaining offline things were, too, moved to the alternative channel – online. I do not wish to set Estonia as a prime example of how to manage its society in times of uncertainty and change because the pandemic also taught us many valuable lessons. However, I do want to point out that it is essential to have backups and alternatives available to have bigger freedom in arranging their lives. 

A woman standing on top of a rock
Traveling teaches one to appreciate the ease of dealing with the state when 99% of public services are available online.

As a curiosity for Estonia arose among my local pupils and coworkers, I introduced my country and culture. I could only talk about bogs, black bread, and sauna for so long until I noticed how e-services and the advanced education system were the main topics of interest and, above all, how mind-blown people were to hear that digitalisation can be user-friendly and functional. Like it is in Estonia. Seated in a town hall of a small Spanish village one afternoon, I observed how a civil servant diligently typed all my data into the database, then proceeded to print it all out and asked me to sign the papers physically. It was then that it struck me how self-evident the Estonian digital society is to me and how little I spend talking about it.

Digitalisation as the awaited simplifier

So, when the job offer in the e-Estonia Briefing Centre presented itself, I knew it was the opportunity to spread the message I truly and fully believe in. That digitalisation is the awaited simplifier of many public and private processes, and Estonia as the pioneer in the field, shows the example of how valuable and essential it can be for every single individual.

A woman working remotely on a laptop
There is nothing left undone if you have your ID card and a laptop – you can access e-services and sign contracts even when in a forest or at the beach.

Coming back to my handwritten signature – it remains clumsy and awkward, just as it was over ten years ago, thanks to the minimal usage due to signing most official contracts and documents digitally. However, what is not clumsy is the intertwined digital society in Estonia. And we, too, are ever-evolving with the growing emphasis on putting the user experience design and seamless services first. Occasionally one hears belittling comments that the e-Estonia is visible only when something is broken. I would argue that this is precisely how it should be – fully integrated, running on the background and invisibly enabling the functioning of the society.

Written by
Erika Piirmets

digital transformation adviser at the e-estonia briefing centre

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