How Estonia built the world’s ‘most advanced digital society’

From monitoring the economy in real time to mapping the genome of a population, Estonia’s government continues to push the limits of digital delivery in public services.

There are just three interactions with government that Estonians must do in person – getting married, getting a divorce and buying a property.

Since it introduced its first digital service – e-tax declarations – in 2000, the small north-east European nation has advanced an ambitious digital agenda to the extent that today, 99 per cent of its public services are available online.

After gaining independence in 1991 the new Estonian Government decided to “do something differently” and work with the private sector “in building the former Soviet Union country into a digital nation,” says Sandra Sarav, global affairs director with the Estonian Government CIO Office.

The government started with tax because it believed that citizens would use digital services if they were an easier alternative to burdensome and time consuming processes, Ms Sarav told the Technology in Government conference last week.

A citizen’s “key” to using the government’s extensive range of digital services is an electronic ID, which Estonia has been issuing since 2002; today when a person is born in Estonia they’re automatically assigned a personal ID code.

“We copied this from Finland, but in Finland the ID card still doesn’t work because it’s not mandatory,” Ms Sarav said.

Many countries fail when introducing new ID systems because they don’t make them mandatory, she argued.

“Of course you can’t push this on citizens; you have to make it appealing. When we digitised our first service, e-tax declarations, people could use their ID cards to declare their taxes. Obviously they wanted to do this because otherwise it would have taken them days.”

Last year, technology magazine Wired named Estonia “the most advanced digital society in the world,” citing one of its latest major innovations – e-residency.

In 2014, Estonia became the first country in the world to open its digital services to foreign nationals. For a one-time state fee, non-nationals can become “e-residents”, allowing them to establish and manage a company fully online, for example, and thereby gain access to the full European Union market.

It’s one way that the country of 1.3 million is seeking to leverage technology for greater scale in the use of its services.

“Currently we have 40,000 e-residents from 155 countries who have established 6,600 countries in Estonia… We’re aiming to have 10 million e-Estonians by 2025,” Ms Sarav said.

Digital health, education

While Australia continues to debate the My Health Record, Estonia has now digitised 97 per cent of its health data and 99 per cent of prescriptions.

E-Estonia outlines the country’s current and future digital initiatives.

The same ID card provides access to a person’s medical history and digital prescriptions, Ms Sarav said.

The next frontier is “personalised medicine,” she said.

Estonia has launched a program to recruit and genotype 100,000 participants, climbing to 400,000 participants, or almost a third of its population, in a couple of years.

“That means an individual can see potential threats to their health, but the state can map the entire genome data of the country,” Ms Sarav said.

As the country moves to deploy artificial intelligence in the public sector it will be looking at the use of AI to assist doctors in determining personalised medicine, she added.

Another goal is the “full automatization” of tax declarations by 2020 which could, with a company’s consent, see data exchanged in real time between the Statistics Office of Estonia, the Tax and Customs Board and Estonian banks.

“That means for government you can predict the economy in real time.”

In education, Estonia offers classes in robotics and programming to children, while its schools are on track to adopting “digital only” study materials by 2020.

“We have a program called Learn IT, under our lifelong learning program, where if you have a university degree you can apply and take intensive IT courses. It ends in an internship with a major IT company. In 80 per cent of cases, people in the program have been hired by the firm they did an internship in,” she said.

Core principles

Estonia has made ‘once only’ and ‘digital by default’ core principles.

Discussing the core principles underpinning the government’s approach, Ms Sarav said that digital services need to be accessible, convenient and fast.

The government works off the “once-only principle” in that when a citizen submits any type of data to the government they shouldn’t be asked for it again.

“Another principle is digital by default; whenever we come up with new services or there’s an interaction with the state it should be able to be done digitally. And digital means end-to-end fully digital – there’s no in-person visit required.”

Recognising the fundamental importance of public trust, Estonia has also adopted the principle of data ownership, Ms Sarav said.

“I own my own data. Companies own their data. It also means I can check who has accessed my data.”

‘Innovation with a purpose’

Ms Sarav says a lot of Estonia’s success is down to “digital leadership.”

“Most countries realise they need to digitise and they ask us how we did it. But you shouldn’t digitise for the sake of it. You need to work on user centricity, do things that make life easier for citizens. It has to be innovation with a purpose.”

Having the right mindset in government was also crucial, she said.

“It’s about how you explain to people and get them on board. Citizens need to trust you.”

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