GovTech Spotlight: Estonia

Estonia has managed to reinvent itself to become, in just two decades, the most advanced digital e-administration in the world. Since the restoration of its independence on 20 August 1991 with the fall of the USSR, Estonia, a small country located at the edge of the Baltic Sea, has focused its public policy model on an almost total dematerialisation of administrative procedures for citizens.

After the years of the Singing Revolution (a peaceful protest movement in the Baltic States), Estonia – a newly parliamentary republic – regained control over all of its institutions. The years of occupation, which had great repercussions on its economy, prompted it to adopt an aggressive digital strategy in the 1990s: The Tiigrihüpe, or ‘Tiger Leap’.

This strategy threw the government’s weight behind the development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and especially the Internet. As a result, we saw the emergence of a set of computer infrastructures and an encouragement to the use of digital technology by a massive education of the population since 1997.

“Rapid and decisive reforms, implementation of modern technology, and, during the last decade, the powerful rise of a civil society that is impacting social development.”

“Toomas Hendrik Ilves served as the fourth president of Estonia from 2006 to 2016. Throughout his career, he has been involved in several e-Government initiatives.”

Gradually, the ‘e-Estonia’ movement began to take shape, opening the doors for technology to help in the rollout of business transactions, banking, schooling, ticketing, tax return – even things as strictly regulated as public elections.

The journey to a digital society

This gamble on the “digital revolution” has been motivated by factors specific to Estonia, such as its history, finances and geography, but they alone don’t give the full picture of such an extensive transformation. The keys to it also lie in mutual cooperation between the private sector, academic institutions, public authorities and citizens.

Since the 1990s, a large part of the population has been introduced to the use of the internet. Schoolchildren have also been trained – equipment adapted for those who haven’t been able to afford it (which has made it possible to minimise the “digital divide”, which remains well present among many of its European counterparts). Moreover, since the 2000s, access to the Internet has been considered almost a basic right, with 85% of the national population equipped with broadband. Now, 99% of the population uses the Internet regularly, according to the Digital Development Index.

“This was a time when people with seemingly-crazy ideas were nonetheless listened to – it was a unique combination of political will and leadership. People were willing to take risks and see if things worked.” –Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

This digital transformation in the country has been supported by political continuity, as successive governments have backed the principles of e-Estonia since its launch, always placing the citizen at the heart of public action. This has made it possible to win the public around to the large amount of data processing required – and earn citizens’ trust that their information will be handled safely and securely.  Reciprocally, citizens are just as entitled to monitor the use of their private data by tracing those who consult them. This logic makes users more responsible by making the system more transparent.

“The key to doing things successfully digitally is that you need a legal framework that allows you to do it in the first place.” –Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

Estonian e-Government is based on the Principles of the Estonian Information Policy, adopted by the national Parliament in 1998. From that time onwards, the government has been able to set the scene for digital transformation to increase the efficiency of its processes and the effectiveness with which it delivers its public services.

Commentatorshave said it’s important to note that “Estonia’s case is a success of a national strategy rather than of a single policy or even a bundle of programmes […] It can therefore be argued that the Estonian digital transformation is characterised by ‘development-driven strategies’ rather than by ‘strategy-driven development.”

Estonia has been a trend-setter in a number of areas. It created the world’s first e-banking and e-cabinet facilities in the mid-1990s. It has also embraced the X-Road functionality, as well as the concept of a ‘digital identity’, providing citizens with an online presence and enabling them to conduct important business, such as signing documents or voting, in the digital space.

The politics behind the digital doctrine

A 2019 study from experts attached to University College London has attributed the speed of digital transformation to self-reflection within successive Estonian governments. They have repeatedly analysed their responsibilities to their citizens, their place in Europe, and their goals for the future.

Since regaining independence, Estonia has sought to immerse itself fully in the process of European integration, fuelling a greater desire for the most innovative GovTech solutions.

Furthermore, from the outset, political actors have been committed to the development and promotion of ICTs, viewing them “as delivering competitive advantage, as a symbol for leaving the Soviet past behind, and as an indicator for opening the Estonian society and economy towards the West,” the study said.

Frequently highlighted in literary analysis is the impromptu, informal nature of these digital reforms: “Much of this process has been ad hoc and informal,” the experts said.

“For example, many strategic policy documents for digital transformation have followed the rhythms of European (structural) funding periods rather than responding to domestic challenges and planning processes.”

The same applies to the resources emanating from different structures, public or private, and which have not been formalised. Both decision-making and operational, they reflect a certain “political spontaneity” that contrasts the “protocol rigidity” of neighbouring governments.

This desire for transformation is accompanied by a desire to be an influential player on the European stage, it was also suggested. Membership of the European Union, of NATO and even the desire to host to the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence – all have helped develop a tech-centric image of Estonia, and given credibility to future national projects, inspiring European partners in the process.

The Future

Estonia’s image in terms of e-Government has stood out for several years, fuelling a transition to everything from day-to-day efficiency to democratic renewal. The all-digital nature of public services, and the fact that they are much less costly to operate than their physical counterparts, has made an impact. 

What’s next for Estonia? The answer to this question is most likely rooted in collaboration.

For example, former President Ilves has previously said that there is more potential in the e-Residency project – the programme that allows non-citizens to obtain permission to do business in Estonia, without having to ever go there.

“I like e-residency,” he said. “And the idea of a borderless world.”


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© Univmedia Ltd

t/a Universal Media
360 North Circular Road, Phibsborough, Dublin 7