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The tenacious traveller on a digital journey

The road to innovation is not a private business trip traversed only by stakeholders, corporate partners, and governmental agencies. Afterall, what innovation is complete without the input of its users? Along the way those who embark on this voyage will realize that they’re not alone; other travellers have walked the same path to get to similar destinations. So, what’s the final stop of a journey made of technological progress, increasing efficiency, and digital evolution?

Estonia found some answers during its twenty years of experience, from building a telecommunication infrastructure from scratch to presenting itself as one of the world’s most advanced digital society. Solutions often differ from place to place, but among the many things we learned along the way, the importance of cooperation and networking cannot be understated. Now more than ever, it is crucial not to rest on our laurels and continue to improve our e-government strategy.

Sandra Särav is the Global Affairs Director at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications. Who better than her could tell us what it means to build partnerships and meaningful international cooperation? We reached out to her to find out how Estonia is viewed abroad and what other countries can do to transform their potentials into a digital reality.

You are one of the faces of the Estonian e-government journey abroad, presenting our experience to lawmakers, policy experts, and entrepreneurs. What’s coming up next for Estonia in the world?

I like how you call it, “the e-government journey”. That’s perfectly accurate. I see digitalisation in Estonia as a journey with an unknown destination. We are enjoying the process and learning while making things happen. Plus, people want to see changes all the time, correct? As we are the e-government of the people, by the people, for the people, we need to see what the next step is in making life easier for our citizens and we strive towards that. I present our journey globally, and while there are numerous countries who look up to us – when I look at the big picture – there’s a lot to learn from other countries as well. One of my favourite networks to share experiences with other countries is the Digital 7: the group of most ambitious e-governments as I like to say. We do have a lot to learn from each other, which is why I’m especially happy that our digital family will expand this November. We will adopt two new members during the Summit in Israel; meaning, we will also get a lot of fresh ideas and brilliant minds on board. I am very excited to welcome Mexico and Portugal into the Digital 9!

The Digital 7 is about sharing best and worst practices with the countries part of the network. We have a lot to give, but what and from whom we can learn?

We do have a lot to give, but others do, too. Estonia has the advantage of having started early, so we’ve been through this process already for 20 years now. Others don’t necessarily have that. They may have been in the boat for shorter periods of time, but this also means that they had to be faster and more efficient.

There are so many countries we look up to. The current digital buzzword is AI, and we are looking at how to best exploit it in Estonia and what the technology has to offer.

But we are small, which means limited resources. On this topic, Canada is definitely one of our role models: they’ve invested great sums of money on AI-related research and they also see potential use-cases in the public sector. I also have to mention Finland when we talk about AI. They’re not in the D7, but they are our closest neighbours and I admire how advanced they’ve become.

Other examples come to mind quite clearly, basically straight away: New Zealand for open data (not something we’ve excelled at in Estonia, yet); UK for cybersecurity, as they see it as a national priority and I must say this is what we should all do; Israel is in the list too, they’re directing crucial financial resources to the digital playground like everybody should, and they have praiseworthy level of information and system security. But we must not forget also about countries outside of the D7, like the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Singapore, and so on! There’s a lot to share and even more to learn.

Can Estonia make the public administration work even more efficiently and invisibly than now?

Nope, we’re done. Just kidding!

We’ve moved most of our public services online, but now we have to find a way to make them work even more smoothly for the citizen. Efficiency is crucial – we’re bragging how much time using digital signatures or X-Road saves us each year. But the fact is that what concerns basic life events (birth of a child, registering a car, running a business, etc.), the citizen still has to reach out to the government and ask to be serviced. What if we didn’t have to do so? What if the government has the possibility to come to you?

When designing new services, we should focus on a citizen-centric approach. Citizens should be able to receive services within one click and, even better, with the state being the proactive part.

The goal is to have more machine-to-machine interactions: what could be done automatically, should be done so. We’re working on the Reporting 3.0 now, but this is just one of the things where we expect the state to be proactive. We’ve listed 15 life events to begin with, and intend to make them as seamless for the citizen as possible.

Estonia has the potential to take a leading role in the Baltic area and be the driver of a Nordic digitization. How is the cooperation going with the Nordic countries? Can this part of Europe establish itself as an example for the rest of the continent?

The Nordic-Baltic cooperation is another working formation which I’m excited about. At the working group level, we come together once a quarter and our ministers meet approximately twice a year. We’ve pinpointed a few things we want to come to life in this region, and we’re working towards our goals. Currently run projects are focusing on 5G, cross-border services, and cross-border eID recognition. For instance, we really want to design a few most-needed services to run digitally cross-borders between our countries – most likely related to business management – and we absolutely strive to become the 5G hub. You asked me who the countries we look up to are: well, when it comes to connectivity, it’s the Nordics. Our big telecom companies are from there, and they have a mindset that I like (making telecoms services more accessible, cheaper, creating revenues from wide-scale use and from not high prices). The world’s first 5G phone call was made between Estonia and Finland – we’re cool like that.

When attending conferences or international meetings, you probably get asked a lot how to enable processes of digital development in other countries as well. Is there a fixed recipe for that?

You’re absolutely correct, they do ask me that.

Most often they want to know, “how can we be like Estonia”. The answer is you can’t. And you shouldn’t want to.

Each country has its own specificities, political structure, historical background, and different user needs. Plus, as I said in the beginning, we have had more than twenty years of experimenting. If you start now, you can be smarter than we were, faster than we were, and more efficient as well.  But there are a few things I deem crucial for the beginning of digitalisation process.

First, political will: you need to have the mind-set to desire a change and the will to change. Second, vision: you cannot digitalise for the sake of digitalisation. You need to determine the user-needs and focus on them. After all, what governments need to do is service our citizens. Third, determination: you cannot have it all at once, you need to start, for instance, with detecting one service that’s proven to be slow, burdensome, expensive, and inconvenient, and make this service work digitally. And last, but not least: experiment, experiment, experiment!

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