In conversation with the head of Estonia’s e-Government Movement

GovTech Europe speaks Ave Lauringson, managing director of e-Estonia – a national movement to ensure more innovative solutions for citizens through digitalisation.

Regarded for decades as a shining light for digitalisation in Europe, Lauringson says Estonia is a nation of “pioneers” when it comes to GovTech. “And we are unlikely to lose this title any time soon.” 

GOVTECH EUROPE: Estonia has been a shining example of digitalisation since independence. What do you think was at the heart of this race towards digitalisation from the 90s till now?  

AVE LAURINGSON: Many delegates visiting Estonia wish to find an answer to this question. In the early 90s, the race for digitalisation didn’t exist in anyone’s mind, but rather there were many random yet conscious choices that have brought us to today. In the so-called ’e-Estonia formula’, we usually identify three components. Firstly, the size of our country and the limited resources we had after restoring our independence. Our government budget and the number of people working in the civil service were too small to build a state system from scratch. Considering the population density of Estonia, it was too expensive to reach every corner of the country with high-quality public services. We had to put technology into use and provide services independently of the human factor. 

Secondly, the position of Estonia and our capital city of Tallinn. Since 1960, an institute of cybernetics was leading all the major technological developments in the Soviet Union, which allowed IT talents to emerge and work here. I dare say those good ideas matured in Estonia already in the deepest of Soviet times. The third factor is culture and can-do attitude. Estonia’s politicians at the time formed a vision for a young country that has been preserved till today. The lack of legacy played an important role – everything had to be created from scratch, in which policymakers once again saw a good opportunity.  

GE: Can you describe some recent examples of notable initiatives that have been a success in Estonia, and which have served as an inspiration to European neighbours? 

AL: Looking at the years-long activities of the e-Estonia Briefing Centre, we can feel the constant pressure in which Estonia conducts digitalisation for its own country. We are pioneers, and we are unlikely to lose this title anytime soon. However, it is very important to not lose focus – we are still building the best e-state for the people of Estonia. I am pleased to see that citizens are also at the heart of the new Estonian Digital Agenda 2030. 

The initiatives based on the strategy are linked to the widespread use of AI in the public sector. Estonia has over 20 years of experience in the development of e-services, but today we have reached an understanding of what role AI could play in the development of public services.

There are two great examples of this. First, life events from birth through retirement. By cleverly bringing data together, we have enough register-based information to save citizens from unnecessary communication with the state in this context. One very happy life event is the birth of a child, and that brings a lot of work to young parents. From their perspective, we want this to be largely limited to caring for their child, not organising child benefit, applying for a kindergarten place, or other bureaucratic tasks.

It is possible to step even further in the development of public services using AI. Bürokratt is an Estonian version of Alexa, a virtual assistant, that will guide citizens whenever they reach out to government agencies or use public services.

And as it turns out, AI is not just useful for citizens – it could create very valuable analytical tools for officials too. An example is the decision support of the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund called OTT. It is a data-based tool that predicts the likelihood of the unemployed moving to work, highlights the factors that influence it, and thereby helps to in assisting the unemployed, based on their individual needs. This increases the efficiency of the Unemployment Insurance Fund.

About 70,000 people register as unemployed each year, all of whom have different backgrounds, strengths, and obstacles. The 350 advisers of the Unemployment Insurance Fund must analyse a large amount of information to develop a suitable plan for any given person, helping them return to work.

This process takes time, but it is important to understand the situation of a person as soon as possible and start acting in the right direction. Using a machine learning model trained on the data from the previous five years, OTT provides a summary for a given person, predicting the likelihood of them returning to work within a year, the likelihood of being unemployed again, and highlighting the circumstances that affect it. In this way, the advisor receives a quick summary of their client’s situation, as well as an overview of all clients based on the OTT assessment. This allows them to set priorities according to the extent of the clients’ need for help.

We are also seeing that innovation in AI provides is very strongly embedded in Estonian technology companies. For example, AuveTech’s self-driving buses and Starship parcel robots, which operate in different city blocks of Tallinn. 

The COVID-19 crisis has boosted digitalisation globally. In some areas, it has had to be particularly fast (health, education), but in Estonia, it was as if we had been preparing for these kinds of crises for many years.

However, the restrictions did bring changes for us, and one of the most successful examples was the launch of the e-Notary service at the beginning of last year. In an e-Notary, it is possible to carry out all notarial acts through virtual identification, which made the service one of the most popular public programmes. I sold my apartment using the service, with the participation of a bank, notary, and buyer during an online meeting that lasted for about 20 minutes. 

GE: That’s a good number of success stories you have given. What has fuelled them? Are there any underlying themes/benefits to good digitalisation initiatives?

AL: We pursued the above examples to create a better user experience, and to save time and money. If we can continue to adhere to these principles, then Estonia has created a very good framework for the development of its e-services, with valuable advice to share with other countries. 

But for us, success lies not only in saved time and money; it is also in security and trust. In terms of cybersecurity, Estonia has learned valuable lessons (the 2007 cyberattacks for example, in which several organisations like the Estonian parliament, banks, ministries and media outlets saw their servers overloaded). It has forced us to follow principles like secure by design service architecture, secure data operability and risk mitigation.

By creating secure systems, we create trust among users, and this is how our e-state remains strong. Cybersecurity has national importance to us, and we will make sure that both public and private players provide sufficient resources to ensure this.

In addition to domestic importance, we have also brought cybersecurity issues into international diplomacy by establishing the NATO CCDCOE [the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence] in Estonia, sharing our competences with other countries. The focus of our interim UN Presidency was also on cybersecurity.

The issue of trust is a bottleneck for many countries, behind which digitalisation efforts are bogged down. In Estonia, we have kept an open approach and given citizens the role of data owner and, more importantly, the possibility of control. In the state information portal, which has the functionality of the data tracker, it is possible to see who has viewed the information related to a person and when. The latest update, for example, concerns real-estate, with the portal displaying those who are interested in purchasing a property based on the name and personal identification code.

One of the enablers of innovation is the regulation that accompanies the testing opportunities for new technologies. As I mentioned earlier, self-driving cars and parcel robots are a common sight on the streets of Estonia. Why? Because Estonia is a good test bed. We are small, flexible, have a varied climate with four seasons, and it is also easier to make changes to legislation. 

GE: How has the pandemic shaped Estonia’s digitalisation activity? What hindrances has it produced, what avenues has it opened? 

AL: Estonia has been “preparing” for the pandemic for a long time, and there was no particular complexity in continuing our daily life online. The e-School solution was introduced 20 years ago, and online learning opportunities have been in use in Estonia for at least a decade. Currently, there are two life events in Estonia that require a physical visit to a public authority’s office – marriage, and divorce. But there are also discussions about taking them online as well. 

By now, it should be clear: there is an urgent need for cross-border e-services, because this is the only way to deal with the next crisis.        

GE: Looking into the 2020s, what’s coming next for digitalisation in Estonia? Are there any big projects or urgent challenges that will need tech solutions? 

AL: The next challenges are strongly driven by our new digital agenda and vision, how AI could change the game of designing public services. Our constant focus will remain on cybersecurity, and we need to speed up the implementation of 5G. 

We will keep innovating, that is for sure. Just last autumn, e-Estonia launched The Digital Testbed Framework, a new and innovative collaboration model to attract partners globally.

It gave start-ups, scale-ups, and all GovTech innovators, access to the government tech stack, as well as the relevant know-how (and in some cases, data) to help develop their own emerging commercial solutions. It also allowed them to partner with one of the most digitally developed countries in the world to “rubber stamp” their ideas and obtain proof of concept.

The interest in this succeeded our expectations and there, and also something to watch in future.


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