Digital lessons from e-Estonia and applications to global governance

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

Over the last 20 years, Estonia transformed into one of the most digital countries in the world. What could our global governance institutions learn from this experience? The three pillars of ‘e-Estonia’ have been the development of a strong digital identity, interoperability systems, and a decisive embrace of change. These could offer promising pathways for more effective global governance systems.

The government of Estonia has been employing information and communications technology to the best of our ability for more than 20 years to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our public sector. As a result, we have transformed into one of the most digital countries in the world.

Any interaction between government and residents, be they physical persons or legal entities (companies) can take place fully digitally. In the same vein, the back office of government is almost fully digital — the only exceptions being areas such as foreign correspondence and similar services. The country is sometimes even called e-Estonia, signalling the extent to which digital services and solutions permeate the lives of Estonian citizens, entrepreneurs or public servants. These days, our services are even available beyond our borders through e-Residency: anyone in the world can apply to get an Estonian digital identity and start using the digital services that government and the private sector offer from a distance — one important target group for this being cross-border entrepreneurs.

Most of the know-how in digital transformation accumulated by Estonia may not directly translate into anything useful on the global governance stage since, overall, the focus of global governance is not service delivery. However, some of the core lessons we learned on our digital journey might still have relevance for revamping governance on a global level.

First, one of the pillars of our digital government is a strong digital identity. In our case, it comes in the form of smart chip cards (ID-cards that work similarly to an average bank card, with PINs for security) and the equivalent mobile-ID (usable with any devices via your phone). Regardless of the particular form or token of identity, the idea is simple: there has to be a secure way to access and provide services to users online (in other words: to authenticate). This should be available for everyone to ensure economies-of-scale as well as inclusivity. In Estonia, everyone has to have a digital ID-card in their pocket, for example.

Without strong authentication, there cannot be trust between interacting parties. How do you know the other person or organisation is who they claim to be? Global governance needs the same sort of trust — whether for inter-organisational collaborations or, even more so, for any form of direct democracy. Moreover, digital ID can also ensure trust by enabling digital signing, which is a necessity for any bureaucracy, be it local, national or global.

With digital signatures, red tape and hassle are reduced (no more need to courier and keep paper documents) and any interaction can be handled digitally in its entirety. Digital signatures have been the most instrumental and useful service we ever started using in Estonia — as they are engrained in almost all other digital services, whether government or private sector run (e.g. banking transactions). With a secure way to digitally sign, and to do so in a legally valid manner, no physical meetings have to take place, and no paper documents are required at all. Think about the efficiencies we could reap on the global level! In Estonia, we roughly estimate that we save at least a work week of unnecessary hassle and time for each working person each year, just by using digital signatures across the whole economy.

Now, digital IDs exist in various countries around the world. But three things are necessary to ensure that they operate effectively: to make them usable across jurisdictions (by ensuring mutual recognition, unifying standards, etc); to make sure that more people have access to them (the World Bank and others have started global initiatives in this regard); and to take them into use for existing global governance mechanisms and networks.

The second pillar of e-Estonia is strong interoperability. All governments fundamentally work in silos. Yet, people want integrated and seamless services, which requires exchange and integration of data from various technical sources and agencies. Similarly, cross-referencing and reusing data can greatly boost the efficiency of the back office — for example, by allowing more powerful analytics. Interoperability is what makes it possible for various agencies, work streams, data sources, information systems, etc, to be integrated and collaborate.

Interoperability comes in many ways and at many levels. For example, standards have to be there for data structures, exchange formats, etc. On a practical level, some integration platforms are necessary. In Estonia, our solution has been called X-Road. It is the data exchange platform that connects our whole government together digitally, and integrates the government with the private sector whenever data exchanges are needed. X-Road is not a vast database or service bus, but rather, a shared or standardized protocol on how to transmit data between endpoints. Effectively, it is a lean layer on top of whatever digital solutions some agency may use. If you integrate once, you become immediately interoperable with anyone else in the network.

Any global governance set-up needs interoperability to effectively function. The more parties are involved, the more interoperability matters. Also, the more we try to use digital tools to help our governance, the more interoperability matters again. For example, the management of pandemics, climate change or nuclear arsenal can be greatly boosted by Internet of Things applications. Yet, how do we make the myriad of devices, sensors and systems work together? Interoperability. That means standards, that means platforms. Estonian X-Road-type solutions could help us move forward on this.

Our ultimate learning has been that digital transformation is actually not about tech or digital. The core of it is transformation as such — change. Thus, to be able to benefit from digital tools in global governance, we need to rethink how we do things on the global level and boldly try out new practices or methods that new digital solutions allow for.

E-Estonia has reached its current level only through strong leadership that was ready to take risks and change the way we used to do things, e.g. radically simplify services based on data exchange and move them online with digital ID. As technology continues to march ahead, the opportunities for transformation will only grow. If the Estonian experience can be useful for transforming global arrangements or those of another country, the government as well as private sector experts of Estonia are always happy to share.

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Originally published at on November 30, 2017.



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