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UN e-Government Survey: Numbers don’t lie…maybe

TL;DR: Estonia is ranked 1st and 3rd respectively, all is well in the world, have a great day!

Do you know that popular phrase, “show me your favourite statistic and I’ll tell you who you are”? No? Well, it should be a more popular phrase because once you look behind those gloomy graphs and cheerless charts, you can unveil the deepest and darkest thoughts of individuals and global organisations alike! Today, we get to see what the United Nations believe e-government means and what it should look like. Let’s all sit down. Breathe in. And open your mind for the UN e-Government Survey 2020.

What does e-participation mean?

I say this half-jokingly, of course, but there are genuine gems in this report, and it opens up lots of interesting discussions about our values and expectations. Let me give you an example: In the e-Participation Index, Estonia is ranked 1st. “No surprises there”, I thought. After all, Estonia is the only country in the world where you can vote online in local, national, and even EU elections (since 2005)…and surely, voting is the pinnacle of participation?

Actually, it’s not that easy – says the UN – because Estonia shares 1st place with tech-savvy South Korea and… the United States of America. Now, this took me by surprise. No disrespect to my American friends and colleagues, but your country is perhaps not the first country I think of when someone says “e-participation”. Unless, of course, you only measure “the supply side of e-participation (opportunities offered by the Government) […without measuring…] the demand side (the uptake of opportunities and the quality of e-participation)”. Of course, we can see the reason behind that approach – it is easier to check what a government provides than to quantify how many people are aware of those services, let alone use them. But it’s a mighty big caveat in my book.

…and what about e-government development?

The main part of the e-Government Survey deals with the state of e-government development around the world and in this section, Estonia is ranked 3rd behind two worthy digital nations – Denmark and South Korea – and just ahead of… Australia and the UK? This surprised me – after all, neither Australia nor the UK have an electronic ID which would enable citizens to authenticate themselves and use online services securely.

So how did this classification come about? Well, it’s because the methodology focuses on 19 key metrics, 13 of which deal with strategies and legal as well as institutional frameworks. There are only two metrics that focus on the end-user and those are not about user satisfaction rates but whether the country in questions measures usage rates at all. Let me over-simplify this: if you offer one badly made online service and you measure the usage rate (which will, in all likelihood, be close to 0%), you get a top score in this category. Let that sink in.

Is it all a big misunderstanding?

In a word, yes. The more you read of this beautiful, 364-pages strong document, the more you understand that the UN e-Government Survey is not about how digitally developed a country is. Instead, it’s a box-ticking exercise with every box making it a bit more likely that digitalisation may take place in your country. I don’t mean this in a cynical way at all. The moment you start treating the document as such, you realise that – as the creators of the document also point out – “the EGDI is a benchmarking tool for e-government development to be used as a proxy performance indicator” and that “analysts and policymakers should be cautioned against misinterpreting slight changes in rankings among countries within the same rating class.” So, it’s a bigger-picture kind of ranking.

Another question is how to fairly weigh the different factors in digitalisation. Is it equally important for a country to have an AI strategy as it is to have a functioning electronic identity in place? Is the number of online services at all relevant if no one uses them? I don’t have a definitive answer to these questions but it appears to me that some points are fundamental to digital transformation while others are nice-to-haves reserved for more digitally mature societies.

With that out of the way, what does it all mean?

Put simply, things are looking up! The report notes that e-government initiatives are on the rise around the world. It also supports my long-held belief that poor countries are often better digitalisers than rich ones – the number of least developed countries with high or very high EGDI values has increased by 29% since the previous UN Survey. Beyond this, the number of lower-middle income countries with high levels of e-development has increased by 57% since the last survey. That’s fantastic news!

In his foreword, UN Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs Liu Zhenmin also makes a pointed reference to Covid-19: “when face-to-face interaction is impossible or discouraged, digital government solutions become vitally important.” This is neither an over- nor an understatement. Thankfully, the UN E-Government Survey 2020 proves that most countries have not just understood the advantages that go hand in hand with a truly digital society but are also building up the groundwork to actually getting there one day. Digitalisation is no longer seen as an option.

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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: business.e-estonia@eas.ee

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