Who in Estonia decides how to digitalise the country?

Florian Marcus of e-Estonia

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Arguably the most important driving factors for digital transformation in the government sector are political support, a sufficient budget, and the technological know-how to make this transformation happen (shhh, we know a few companies that can help with that!). 

Let’s say you are the Prime Minister of your country, and you have all of the factors mentioned above at your disposal. Congratulations! You’ve got money, your ministers and population support your digital transformation project, and you’ve got experts who would programme and set up these systems! Now, here’s the catch: How will you delegate and implement your digital dreams? It’s not as straightforward a question as it may seem.

Which step of your digital journey are you on right now?

Let’s start with a simple factor that is often overlooked: Digitalisation in the 1990s was a very different undertaking compared to countries taking their first steps right now. Internet penetration is still an issue in some countries but certainly not as much as 30 years ago. Digital skills, again, have come a long way since then – so yes, educating your population with regards to IT skills will still be necessary, but not to the same extent as was the case pre-2000.

By now, some of your ministries and authorities may have already started implementing siloed IT solutions, creating a fragmented service landscape forcing citizens to create separate user accounts and passwords because there is no unified government authentication method. Effectively, you are already on Digitalisation Avenue – do you walk back to the start and tear up the asphalt to build something new, or will you try to build on the foundations already built, risky as that may be? Those foundations can take different kinds of shapes, for example, small “digitalisation teams” that have quite a bit of authority and a decent budget to test things out… but when we look around the world, we see that these teams are usually regular government workers who were additionally tasked, nay, burdened with thinking up exceptional new services on the side. Do you take their powers away?

How about creating a Ministry of Digitalisation? One massive, well-funded entity that has the right to implement innovative digital services within the respective areas of expertise of all the other ministries? You could do that, but then again, shouldn’t the services be created by those that actually know what their stakeholders want? As an example, are we sure that a software engineer from the Ministry of Digitalisation knows best how to design a service for the Ministry of Agriculture? That’s unlikely.

Top-down vs. bottom-up

Having looked at countries around the world and how they are implementing digital services, I can tell you that there is no fool-proof way to success. Still, there is one finding that stood out to me: Countries that are at the start of their digital journey have a greater chance at success if they digitalise top-down. Why is that? I’d say it’s because if a government creates a clear regulatory framework for data exchange and provides a free, compulsory, and universal digital identity to its citizens, different stakeholders can’t stray away from that common path.

Once the different players are led in the same direction, the useability of the electronic identity will grow exponentially – and quite organically so. The more services are provided by different authorities, the higher will be the usage rate of the electronic ID itself, and the more time and money will be saved in both the public and private sector. With this unified, top-down approach, the government has the chance to create a level playing field and shared rules of the game for service providers, both in the public and private sector, to compete.

Conversely, the opposite appears to be true for countries that are already further down the path of digitalisation: If you already have the key factors such as the electronic ID and data exchange in place, the responsibility of innovation will almost automatically shift more toward the lower strata of government. Budget responsibility may still lie with a higher-level authority in some countries, but the people who know best what service the clients of particular government authority might need in the future…usually are connected to the government authority in question. Put bluntly, the Prime Minister won’t be an expert (and shouldn’t have to be!) in why the latest batch of EU regulations means that a subsidy service protocol in the Ministry of Agriculture has to be adjusted.

So…how did Estonia manage its digital transformation?

What an outstanding question! I’m glad you asked! When we look at the Estonian model of (e-)governance, we see very clearly how it has organically grown over the years, and how competencies and responsibilities have shifted around. Here are some of the key players in the chronological order of when they were created:

  • E-Estonia Council: Put simply, the e-Estonia Council directs the overall direction and development of Estonia’s digital society. The Council is chaired by the Prime Minister and its membership is very limited: Four Ministers (Economic Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Education, Public Administration), the President of the Estonian Association of IT and Telecommunications, and a handful of seasoned IT experts constitute this organ. It gives opinions on proposals, approves action plans, and ties Estonia’s development into the digital developments around the world. The Council had different names and focuses throughout the decades and was actually created as the Estonian Informatics Council in 1989 when the country was still occupied by the Soviet Union.
  • SMIT: The IT and Development Centre at the Estonian Ministry of the Interior got started in 2008 and was tasked with the service provision for ICT solutions within the realm of the Ministry of the Interior. As such, SMIT oversees a wide range of services and security systems ranging from the Police and Border Guard Board to the Population Register.
  • Office of the Government Chief Information Officer: The Government CIO is responsible for setting strategies and policies for the implementation of digital services. Part of the CIO’s Office includes Estonia’s Chief Technology Officer and the National Cyber Security Policy Director. Together, this team has to consider how the nature of digital services could be shaped over the next few years while maintaining Estonia’s prowess in the area of cybersecurity. The position of Government CIO was created in 2013.

There is no universally right or wrong way

What I wanted to show you with these three examples is that also in Estonia, not everything went according to plan. Suppose you take the transition from top-down to bottom-up innovation and responsibility at face-value. In that case, the CIO position should’ve been created before the setup of institutions responsible for just one ministry each, such as SMIT. On the other hand, one could argue that this was the correct order for Estonia because the CIO spends quite a significant part of his time thinking about the future of digital society. So the coordination of current service implementation (as done by SMIT and others) should come before some of the tasks that the CIO focuses on.

Put simply, examples around the world prove that setting top-down ground rules is wise but that there is always wiggle-room for your transition from foundation-building to creating a landscape filled with user-friendly digital services. I hope this small excursion into Estonia’s digital governance architecture proves helpful to you. Now, let’s get back to work! 😊

If you want to stay ahead of the curve in your digitalisation plans, secure your spot at our Digital Discussion on electronic identity on March 10th at 11 AM (+2GMT) where three leading Estonian ICT companies – SK ID, B.Est.Solutions and Proud Engineers present their solutions for building digital identity platforms 👉

Written by
Florian Marcus

digital transformation adviser at the e-estonia briefing centre


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