If you have read at least one article about e-government in Estonia within the last decade, odds are that you know about the fact that in Estonia, 99% of government services are accessible online. The third-to-last offline service, sale/purchase of the real estate, was made available online last year.
Now Estonians are left with two administrative procedures that have to be completed at a government authority: getting married and – if that turned out to be the wrong decision – getting divorced. So, you may ask, how bureaucratic are those two procedures in Estonia? Entirely for the purpose of this article, I undertook an experiment and tried out the former of the two aforementioned services myself!
The game plan
Before we dive into the details, here’s the context for the experiment: I am a German citizen with an Estonian personal code and ID card (as is mandatory for anyone who plans on living here for more than three months), whereas my partner is an Estonian citizen. Our plan was to get our marriage registered with Tallinn’s Vital Statistics Department, although simultaneously I wanted to reach out to the German authorities to find out whether we should and, if so, how we can register our marriage there as well.
The German experience
I should say the following right off the bat: Every single German government official that I’ve been in touch with as part of my experiment was friendly and did their best to help. With that in mind, here’s a brief summary of how it went:
I had a total of ten calls with the German Embassy in Tallinn, the Municipal Office, and the County Office back home in Germany. The Municipal Office’s opening hours drove me crazy: the office was open four days a week but only between 8:30 am and 1 pm. I spent several hours researching and getting sent back and forth between the Municipal and County Offices, receiving conflicting information – not just about who is ultimately responsible for giving me the required documents to get my marriage registered in Germany as well as in Tallinn, but also about which documents I even needed in the first place. Effectively, I had to apply for proof from one German authority, bring that proof to another authority, which then prints (!) another document and sends it via mail (!!) so I can submit it to Tallinn’s Vital Statistics Department. Oof.
Key takeaway: Lack of digitalisation does not just mean plenty of time and money wasted, it can also mean bad information quality or, in my opinion even worse, conflicting information.
The Estonian experience
There’s no getting around it, my partner and I had to show up in person to submit our wedding application. Apart from that, the experience couldn’t have been much more different from that with the German authorities:
We were able to book an appointment with the Vital Statistics Department online, arrived at the office where there were no queues at all, showed our digital identity cards, submitted all required documents, agreed on the actual wedding date… and that was it. The same day that we got married, the state portal already showed my updated marital status. Additionally, my brand-new wife had, for reasons that are entirely beyond me, agreed to take my surname. As a result, she had to apply for a new ID card that would bear her new signature and surname.
Key takeaway: Even if a government authority does not offer all of its services online, the existence of online services still decreases the workload for government officials and allows them to shift their attention to those special cases that truly require human interaction.
But… can’t we digitalise the whole thing away? Get married online in 3 minutes? For the time being, the answer is no. Within the existing legal frameworks, couples need to be present physically to get married in Estonia and there seems to be little appetite from the ministries and the population to change that. But there is a silver lining: Currently, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications is cooperating with Estonian IT companies to build a so-called life event service around the subject of marriage.
While the details are still very much being discussed, the general direction is quite clear already. One part of the service would enable the digital submission of a marriage request, and another trigger might automatically launch an application for a new ID card with the new personal details on it.
The erosion of one of the last non-digital holdouts in the Estonian e-government sphere will be absolutely fascinating to watch.