As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s digital transformation agenda gathers pace and renewed urgency in the wake of the botched 2016 Census and the new Digital Transformation Agency gets going, the PM would be wise to seek a meeting with government tech heads in Estonia, where 99 per cent of the country’s services are accessible online.
Anna Piperal is the Managing Director of E-Estonia Showroom, a government-funded investment agency that travels the world showcasing Estonia’s digital prowess and its achievements, marking it out as one the most successful e-societies on Earth.
Ms Piperal was recently a keynote speaker at Civica Expo in Sydney but took time out to speak to Government News about how Australia could learn from how Estonia has transformed itself into an exemplar of digital government.
How it happened
The push towards digitalisation in Estonia began in the early 1990s after Estonia regained its independence when the Soviet Union fell in 1991. The breakaway from Communism provided the impetus to create a new government architecture from the ground up, with no legacy systems to tangle with, but hampered by having few resources and a small population.
The internet had recently arrived and Estonia’s leaders made a conscious decision to use it to build a more open, e-society and attempt to secure the nation’s future. Project Tiger Leap began in 1996, prioritising computers and the internet in schools and other educational institutions and teaching the population IT skills. Legislation followed to create a national ID card and the X-Road, a system linking databases together.
The country has since gone from strength to strength and has achieved some remarkable things.
For example, a foreigner can get a digital identity and open a bank account in Estonia and then register their own company online in 18 minutes, including all background checks. Health records are all electronic; 96 per cent of the population pay their taxes online in less than three minutes; prescriptions are digital and one-third of voting is done online. In fact, Estonia was the first country to use e-voting for parliamentary elections in 2005.
One of the cornerstones of the system is the compulsory national identity card, which was introduced in 2001 for all Estonians over 15 years old, and serves as the digital access card for all of Estonia’s e-services.
Ms Piperal says the identity card has an encrypted chip and is a non-hackable system that everybody can use.
The ID card has an impressive array of functions, for example it can be used as:
- A driving licence
- A virtual ticket on public transport in some parts of Estonia
- A travel document around the European Union
- To vote electronically from anywhere in the world
- A health insurance card
- For digital signatures
- To pick up e-prescriptions
- To access government databases, e.g. health records and taxes
- To verify your identity when dealing with banks, e.g. when applying for a loan
To head off resistance, banks and the government made the idea of a national identity card more palatable to Estonians by offering incentives.
For example, local government in Tallinn – Estonia’s capital – gave people 30 per cent off public transport fares if they used their ID card as virtual tickets and banks offered attractive rates. This built public confidence in the card.
But it’s a different story in Australia, where the idea of a national identity cards has generated a storm of protest. The Australia Card was abandoned 1987 and the Access Card, ostensibly to be used to access Medicare and welfare payments, was dropped in 2007.
Ms Piperal argues that having a national identity card is no more an invasion of privacy than not having one. “It doesn’t mean they [the government] won’t have data about you,” she says. “It’s just that people don’t know the data they might have.”
Some Estonians are now choosing to have digital ID contained in their smartphone SIM cards so they have mobile ID.
At the heart of Estonia’s success as a digital nation is the X-Road: a secure highway for data traffic, which connects both public and private databases. The X-Road allows people, government and companies to exchange standardised data securely and to regulate access to that data.
The X-Road benefits from a complex security system with authentication, multi-level authorisation, a high-level log processing system and encrypted data traffic with time stamps.
Databases are decentralised, so there is no single owner or controller and X-Road can write to multiple databases, transmit large data sets and search across several databases.
Ms Piperal says it is the interoperability of the system that is critical to ensuring transparency around data. Government departments and agencies do not have to ask one another for data because it is already available.
“Local government and the private sector can exchange data based on the same rules and laws. For example, population registry, tax registry, social security, e-health and mapping services,” she says. “You can regulate who sees what type of data. The police don’t see medical data, medics don’t see education data, just what they need to do their work.”
This enthusiasm to finding a digital solution to social and adminstrative problems pervades every aspect of life in Estonia.
The Tiger Leap project revolutionised the way Estonians viewed technology and digital government, providing Wifi and computers to every school. Under Estonia’s education system, using the e-School platform, parents can access information about their children’s grades, timetables, attendance and homework and teachers can plan lessons and send notes to parents and students. Students can also create online portfolios of their best work.
You can apply for university online and exam results are instant and by SMS.
Ms Piperal says: The government’s mission is to make sure “services are running and available to people and that they are happy about them”.
Digital lessons for Australia
The e-Estonia Showroom has a useful list of do’s and don’ts to replicate Estonia’s success:
Do – Create a decentralised, distributed system so that all existing components can be linked and new ones can be added, no matter what platform they use
Don’t – Try to force everyone to use a centralised database or system, which won’t meet their needs and will be seen as a burden rather than a benefit
Do – Be a smart purchaser, buying the most appropriate systems developed by the private sector
Don’t – Waste millions contracting large, slow development projects that result in inflexible systems
Do – Find systems that are already working, allowing for faster implementation
Don’t – Rely on pie-in-the-sky solutions that take time to develop and may not work
Of course, it may not be that simple to translate Estonia’s road to digital stardom to Australia. Estonia is much smaller geographically than Australia, being roughly the size of Denmark, and it is less populous, with around 1.3 million people to Australia’s 23 million, but it is also far less resource-rich than Australia and the country faced a tough time rebuilding and striking out alone after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Whatever the differences between the two countries it is clear that Australia can learn valuable lessons from Estonia.
Ms Piperal says Australians should accept that the technological revolution is already here and understand that not keeping up could harm the economy.
“If the government isn’t transforming the way business is then business will either leave to find easier administration or tax systems or less bureaucratic places they can operate from. It’s a global economy.”
She says it is also important that Australian citizens get the benefit from digital government too, partly because this will help to build confidence in e-government and in a national identity card.
“There are so many people in Australia who desire simplicity in dealing with bureaucratic institutions.
“It means that the government is not spending so many resources on administration and processing. That’s old school already. It frees resources for education and social security.
“It can only be done when the service really do work that people are happy about.”
One of the biggest problems for Australians, says Piperal, is when people move, whether its health, education or address data. She says the key is to ensure interoperability between different databases.
She dipped into the MyGov portal during her Australian visit and says the system appears “pretty challenging” for Australians, particularly because they must link different data sets, rather than have the government do it for them, as is the case in Estonia.
“We would be really happy if the DTA had a closer connection with Estonia,” she says. “We are experienced in solutions that really do work and people are happy about.”
It may be a while before Australians declare themselves happy with MyGov but you never know.