Imagine a world where a newborn child is registered online as a citizen from the hospital by their parents, who in turn have a digital ID to manage their interactions with the government, without queues, forms or papers.
It sounds like science-fiction, right?
Well, in Estonia, it is already happening.
In that country, 99% of all government services are provided online, 98% of medical prescriptions are issued digitally, and 99% of the population has an electronic ID. With those indicators, it is not surprising that Estonia ranks first in Digital Public Services in the European Union, according to the European Commission’s 2021 Digital Economy and Society Index.
The Estonian model
The Estonian model could be of great interest for Latin America and the Caribbean.
This became clear on May 24, when the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the e-Governance Academy (eGA) published the report “Estonia: e-Governance in Practice”, analyzing the main achievements in digital government reached by that country. The survey was produced by eGA and the IDB has translated it into Spanish with the aim of contributing to the conversation about the digital transformation in Latin America and the Caribbean, and supporting it.
During the launch of the report, Miguel Porrúa, Coordinator of Data and Digital Government of the IDB, moderated a panel with Hannes Astok, Executive Director of e-Governance Academy; Devindra Ramnarine, ICT Advisor of the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Trinidad and Tobago; and Marushka Chocobar, Secretary of Government and Digital Transformation of the Presidency and the Council of Ministers of Peru. The panel discussed the main advances in Estonian e-governance, and how the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean could take advantage of that country’s experience.
Lessons from Estonia’s digital transformation
In this blog, we will share a summary of the main topics discussed in the session, highlighting 8 lessons from Estonia’s digital transformation identified by the panelists.
1. Make data move, not people.
The first advantage of the digital public services is in terms of cost and efficiency. When well implemented, digital services facilitate a small and efficient government.
That was Estonia’s starting point when it launched the digitization of its government. As Hannes Astok explained in the panel, “in Estonia we don’t have too many natural resources. We don’t have natural gas; we don’t have gold mines.” The constraints are not only economic, but also demographic. With a population of barely 1.3 million, “we cannot afford a large public administration,” Astok said. The solution was “to make the data move instead of pushing people to move between institutions.”
2. The challenge of capturing and sharing data between Ministries.
A digital administration must unify and centralize its citizens’ information, thus solving a problem derived from the fact that, in today’s world, the citizenry has multiple IDs issued by different government agencies. Each of these IDs, in turn, has diverse characteristics and information, and has been issued by different government institutions that, in turn, keep the data separately as well. This profusion of data in different administrative bodies causes duplication, slows down government action, and ultimately harms the citizens. An effective online system of government services can solve that.
Devindra Ramnarine explained that graphically when he emphasized that “We have several IDs: driver’s license, work papers, identification, passports.” Those identities are in “several databases in different cabinet departments; each and one of them has different combinations of the IDs, and the quality of the data in those databases vary.”
When Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, where Ramnarine is an advisor, decided that the development of digital services was a strategic goal, one of the critical tasks was “to capture the data and share it”, in order to “create services that go through the different Ministries and agencies”. Although it is a logical step, “we found quite a few difficulties to achieve it”, Ramnarine acknowledged.
The solution came from Estonia. Trinidad and Tobago uses XRoad, the interoperability solution created by that country, although modified with additional elements. As Ramnarine said, “We are introducing a layered digital identity on top of the Estonian solution on the identity platform together with the interoperability. Therefore, we are working right now with Estonia to create an ecosystem that addresses all the challenges we are facing. And, again, we want to do it in an agile way.” Ramnarine believes that “the e-ID (Electronic Identity) solution that Estonia has, as well as the interoperability framework, are critically important to us”.
3. Putting technologies at the service of citizens
Estonia also provided Peru with several valuable lessons regarding governance. As Marushka Chocobar said, “We took the Estonian model and put it into a law: the Digital Government Law (September 2018).”
One of the areas Peru has focused on is the expansion of the scope of the digital government. That includes different digital services, from e-commerce to digital identity platforms and to cybersecurity. According to an IDB study, 61% of those surveyed in Peru carried out their last transaction online, and 1 in 6 purchases is made through the Internet. The digitization of the Peruvian economy has played a key role in the country’s exit from the pandemic, a process that made it the economy with the highest GDP growth in the world in 2021. The process fed itself back, as revealed by the fact that most of the country’s digital stores are barely a year old. Furthermore, e-commerce reached an aggregated income of $9 billion through during the pandemic.
4. Go big, bold and fast: In the footsteps of Moko jumbie.
Given that Trinidad and Tobago has launched a new Ministry of Digital Transformation, Devindra Ramnarine spoke about the most powerful tools that that country has gotten from Estonia. The Caribbean country, Ramnarine explained, sees the digital transformation as taking “Moko jumbie steps”. Those words are a reference to a Trinidad and Tobago’s mythological character, the “Moko” – a protector whose great height made him to see evil among people. According to legend, the “Moko” arrived in Trinidad by crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Africa’s West coast.
In digital transformation, Trinidad and Tobago wants to advance at the “Moko” pace. This is due to the fact that these processes make it possible to ‘cross the oceans’ and ‘jump’ barriers that would be insurmountable with traditional management systems. In this regard, Ramnarine emphasized that “We don’t want to do things incrementally. We want to do things fast, so we really needed to partner with an organization that would help us develop, an entity that we could learn from and grow with.“ Estonia was the partner that allowed Trinidad and Tobago to move forward.
5. Building the right digital government is not just about technology.
Technology is a human creation, and it is handed by human beings. That means that, as paradoxical as it sounds, technology is only one part of the technological transformation. Without human talent, the changes are not possible. Therefore, the required skills in this process go well beyond the purely technical ability to design and implement technological systems.
Estonia, with its massive experience and leadership in this area, is aware of that. As Astok put it, “There is no doubt that we have talented engineering professionals, but a lot of other forms talent is needed as well. If only engineers take care of eGovernment, eGovernment will probably fail, because the interfaces have to be accessible to citizens, and be simple and safe.“
6. Bet on digital inclusion to reach all corners of the country
3 million of the 32 million citizens of Peru speak Quechua, so digitization in that country must be carried out in an inclusive way. That task pertains to the National Digital Transformation Policy, whose objective is making the entire Peruvian population able to exercise its digital citizenship. Chocobar stated that Peru is “a country that must consider inclusion and equality as the central axis of its digital transformation.” The way to achieve it is through mobile phones.
Estonia’s eID is a good example of how to achieve that goal. The eID serves as a passport for that country’s “territory” in cyberspace, and also as an access card for secure e-services. Estonians have an official identification card, a Mobile-ID, and a Smart-ID application for smartphones and tablets. Those three virtual documents allow them to identify themselves online and to give legally binding digital signatures all over the world. It is a practically universal system, as shown by the fact that 70% of the population uses the eID.
7. Address cybersecurity
Digital systems are vulnerable to cyber-attacks, which pose a double challenge: identifying a cybersecurity risk is only the first step; taking action against threats is, in fact, the biggest challenge, as stated by the IDB Cybersecurity Report 2020.
It is a complex problem. As Chocobar indicated, countries must “plan from the beginning how we are going to protect ourselves from cyberattacks.” Acting preemptively is difficult, since it requires not only to provide security to the entire nation, but simultaneously accept that “every digital advancement has this risk.” This strategy also requires “a budget and digital talent”, as the Secretary of Government and Digital Transformation of the Presidency and the Council of Ministers of Peru confirmed.
Estonia is an internationally recognized model on how to handle cyber incidents and, more importantly, on how to apply the philosophy of secure design to the digital society. Peru recognizes that the Estonian model’s design in cybersecurity has been one of its major areas of learning and improvement in the collaborative process between both nations.
8. Being transparent and honest with the citizens
Although the digital transformation must be decided and implemented by governments, it cannot be perceived by the citizens as a top-down process that it is imposed on them. If that happens, one of the most critical elements of any democratic society, trust, is at risk.
Astok emphasized this. “Trust in the government is critical so, first, you have to build trust. How? Being open with the citizens,” he said. That requires pedagogy, honesty, and humility on the part of the governments. “Even when most of the people don’t understand how digital transformation works, you have to try to explain it to them. You must have open conversations, even communication failures. Try to be as transparent as possible”, insisted eGA ‘s executive director.
Astok closed the session asking himself a question: What should the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean do to create digital environments like Estonia’s in the near future?
In his response, he stressed the importance of transparency and honesty. “First of all,” he said, “democratic values must be present, and democratic governments must support this historic development. Also, it is about transparency, citizens, businesses and stakeholders.” In sum, technology is important, but being able to drive change is even more so.
eGA believes that it can do many things in Latin America and the Caribbean. “We are happy to keep our commitment to help”, said Astok. e-Governance Academy has recently opened a branch in Jamaica, in a move to strengthen its presence in Latin America and the Caribbean and to make the Estonian experience and knowledge more accessible to other countries.
“We are talking about managing change, about making citizens’ lives simpler. The best thing to do it is not only building roads, but also building highways for digital communication,” concluded Astok.
To view the full recording of the presentation, go here.
For more information, access the publication here.