Taavi Rőivas: New Momentum for e-Estonia

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How could we continue to develop the Estonian digital state, most often dubbed as e-Estonia? The country’s former prime minister, MP Taavi Rőivas (Reform Party) talks about the routes open for Estonia as he sees them.

If we were to choose one key word to describe Estonia’s claim to fame and as the source of admiration worldwide, it would undoubtedly be e-Estonia. This reputation, which rests, on the one hand, on objective facts and, on the other, on the tireless promotion work done by our entrepreneurs, civil society, officials, and politicians, is something that cannot be designed in a competition or bought for money.

Not many countries of just one million residents are known as the world’s best in something. It is a sad fact that if you mention almost any country of that size just a few thousand kilometres away, you will only draw blank stares. I am very proud that despite the change in the government, the success story of e-Estonia continues to be told. I am particularly glad by the fact that this promotion work is also eagerly done by those who have less contacts with the digital world and continued by those who are no longer obligated by their office (the best example of course being the former Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves). Big thanks to you for that!

In big issues of national importance, we will be the most successful if we all make an effort. Therefore, I am not giving in to the temptation to criticise the current government; instead, I am hoping to launch a discussion about my vision of how the success story of e-Estonia could continue five, ten, or twenty years from now. E-Estonia, which sparked from innovative ideas (that seemed crazy to many at the time) and was often built on pure enthusiasm, needs an increasingly comprehensive perspective as well as the courage to keep on setting new and seemingly impossible challenges. The list below is definitely not conclusive, but hopefully sufficient to inspire us to put our heads together.

When building up public services, it is worth keeping in mind that the citizens have better things to do than to engage in a back and forth with the public authorities. We have taken a long step forward in developing e-services (eliminating the need to queue in offices) as well as on the movement of data between authorities (eg. instead of requesting the citizen to provide a proof of income, a request is made directly to the e-Tax Board).

However, one positive shift still needs to be made: public services must become event driven instead of authority driven. One of the first attempts and the most cited examples of this regards the communication with the state on the occasion of the birth of a child: the new parents are not required to submit applications to different registers and benefit agencies – all they need to provide is the name of the child and the account number of one of the parents for all the allowances and benefits.

The global community is completely in awe when I say the Tax Board does not ask me every year whether I have children, and that the e-Health patient portal gave me automatic rights to access the information concerning my children. That is a great start. I rave about these solutions at every opportunity at the dozens of international conferences that I attend. At the same time, I am still far from satisfied because we are only just beginning to use the full potential of the e-state. How about each one of us offering an example from their own lives on how the digital world could make our lives easier or better organised? We often use the best e-services without a second thought.

What if:

  • Estonia became the first country in the world where a citizen does not have to submit any applications to the government;

  • making a doctor’s appointment would be as easy as booking a hotel room on booking.com;

  • all providers of public services would be obliged to adopt the user perspective instead of trying to make life easier for themselves?

Estonia’s chance: to design public sector services from the point of view of the citizen and the event, instead of the authority. This requires a new service-centred mindset.

E-Estonia in Mobile Phones

It has been a year since the mobile phone became the most used computer around the world. In 2017, the share of smartphones in internet usage crossed the 50-percentage mark. As opposed to desktop or laptop computers, mobile phones go with us everywhere, and I am sure that every one of us has noticed how accessing the news, social media, as well as a variety of e-services is gradually shifting from the browser to apps. A large part of the novelty of Uber and Taxify (the US and Estonian rideshare technology companies, respectively – editor) comes from replacing dispatchers with a much more precise and complete mobile applications. We are using our phones in the capacity of a sommelier as well as a travel agent, a bank teller and a store.

Last spring, the World Government Summit voted for the best public sector app. The winner was the app of the Estonian power corporation, Eesti Energia, which allows the user to monitor their energy consumption in real time. What an achievement!

But can anyone name at least one other e-Estonia mobile app that has been embraced by the users? It would be honest to say that some cool and informative applications have been created, like the Estonian grammar, the Official Journal, or the State Forest Management Centre apps, but for the most part, the users still have to turn to the good old www. For example, Dubai (which started much later than Estonia) made a very different choice, making apps the default solution instead of the web.

Estonia’s chance: to be the first country in the world who offers most e-services through a user-friendly mobile application. All the preconditions for this exist in the form of mobile-ID.

Blockchain

Next to privacy (actually even more importantly), a crucial factor in information management is data completeness and integrity. We do not print our account balance on a piece of paper every night: we trust the display of the internet bank information system. In the Land Register, Population Register, and the many other systems that are crucial for the functioning of the society, the information in the electronic system has superiority over the information on paper. It is literally vital that no one’s blood type could be changed from A- to A+ in e-Health.

The word blockchain was invented a decade ago and has since been one of the most hyped terms in the IT field, being much more than just the backbone of cryptocurrencies. Just like currencies, blockchain can verify the correctness of any transactions or identities or ownerships without a central certification centre. In Estonia, for example, we are using blockchain technology to ensure the security of the e-Health data, but also on the Funderbeam electronic startup marketplace to designate property shares. Many public sector authorities view blockchain rather more cautiously. Yet, caution is often the opposite of innovation.

Estonia’s chance: to be the global blockchain pioneer both from the point of view of practical applications as well as the legislation.

Feedback to the State

When I went to collect my skipper’s licence, I felt moved to compliment the Road Administration customer service agent. My experience was lightyears away from the gruff service I had received in the same office ten years earlier, when the authority was still called the Motor Vehicle Registration Centre. I sent an e-mail to the director of the Administration, despite being conscious of how extreme a way this was to give feedback. What if we could rate all our e-service user experiences with one to five stars, just like after a hotel stay or a taxi ride?

The arrival of Taxify and Uber brought along a sudden change in the service quality of taxi drivers, largely thanks to the direct feedback. One star from a disappointed client earns the driver a call from the company and the need to explain. A row of fives assures the client that this particular driver is an excellent choice. Anonymous client experience has suddenly turned into a direct and personal form of communication, quick and efficient.

Estonia’s chance: in some countries, public services receive feedback in three, four or five stars, just like hotels. We could start by trying out the same thing the private sector is doing, and provide the opportunity to say thank you, or talk about what is troubling the client. E-services make it very easy to provide a platform for feedback in Estonia.

Data in the Service of the Society

Correctly designed e-services generate huge quantities of data that can benefit individuals as well as the society as a whole. For this purpose, e-services must be built up as data based (instead of just copying documents into the digital world), and rules must be in place for the use of impersonal data.

Six years ago, the impersonal data gathered from digital prescriptions was used to conclude that retired patients rarely bought generic drugs. A closer look revealed that the brand-name drugs were looked on as more reliable and this made the (supposedly price-sensitive elderly) consumers buy pricier products. The Health Insurance Fund responded with a campaign that explained how the generic and the brand-name drugs have the exact same effective ingredients, and this, of course, led to significant savings in a number of households.

With this in mind, it seems odd that today, years later, most medical histories in e-Health are still created as the electronic version of paper documents, which does not allow such impersonal collection of data (eg concerning the health behaviour of 35-40 year old males).

In addition, the state agency of Statistics Estonia (which employs a staff of 400!) asks businesses to fill in a long form every year, although data requests to the databases of other state agencies would result in much more precise results (that would not be based on a sample, but the whole population).

I am not naming specific authorities to criticise them. On the contrary, Estonia has been rather innovative both in the health and the statistics sectors. Instead, I was trying to show that even our best solutions are still only the tip of the iceberg.

Estonia’s chance: to agree on the way to allow the state to use the data for the good of the society without violating the privacy of the people. This would create the premises for a higher quality decision making in the entire public sector.

Separate Services for e-Residents

Creating the e-residency programme was the biggest e-state innovation of the recent years. By showing to the world that national digital identity is possible, we simultaneously attract tens of thousands of e-Estonians and also make Estonia larger in the direct meaning of the word.

I have spoken to hundreds of e-residents who see practical benefits in their e-residency. Some have established companies in Estonia and are enjoying the best company income tax system in the world; some are digitally signing documents as board members of Estonian companies etc. We have put together one of Estonia’s best sales teams for the e-residency and have turned this mad idea by two men into a full-fledged national startup.

What if the next step would be a list of the services that we should create specifically with e-residents in mind? Although electronic personal identification when opening a bank account has been caught up in the conservative rules of international banking, it was a valiant try. What is the next big thing we will be offering to our e-residents?

It is obvious that e-Estonia will never be ready. The rapid development of technology continues to create new opportunities for changing as a society. Yet, at the beginning of 2018, we are without a doubt the best e-state in the world. Our success is based on daring choices that have turned out to be wise, and on the unbearable slowness of other countries.

I invite all the fans of e-Estonia to think about it actively. One way to do this is by criticizing this article to death and offering up much better ideas instead. I think about e-Estonia a lot, but I do not feel clever enough to put together the magic formula. However, I am sure we’ll be able to do that together. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!

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Academy of Liberalism