A small, European country you've likely never heard of is leading the world in establishing an "e-government" system for its citizens. The fully online system has been revolutionary for Estonia, with its streamlined digital interface that makes tasks like filing taxes and voting quick and convenient.
In operation since 2001, "e-Estonia" as it's called is now a well-oiled, digital machine. Estonia was the first country to hold a nationwide election online. Ministers dictate decisions via an e-Cabinet. It was also the first country to declare internet access a human right. 99% of Estonian households have broadband internet connections, and the education system has utilized online learning systems in tandem with physical classrooms for years.
Perhaps one of the best benefits is that e-Estonia touts a "once only" policy, which demands that no single piece of information should be entered twice, such as income and medical history. All of your information is already in the system, whether you apply for a new loan or go to the doctor. While this concept might seem terrifying, the country has also adopted some of the most innovative digital privacy laws on the planet.
How Estonia's e-Government Model Works
Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president responsible for pioneering e-government in Estonia, now works as a consultant in cyber security and digital governance in Silicon Valley. Here in the U.S., Ilves has observed what he describes as an unnecessarily complex system.
Subscribe to Freethink for more stories like this.
For Estonians, the overly time-consuming processes of going to the DMV to renew a driver's license or reporting to a polling station to vote seem archaic. That's because they've been voting online since 2005. Even filing taxes can be done in a few minutes with a handful of clicks.
In Estonia, each citizen is given a national ID card which gives them access to all of the digital government services. 99% of public services are available digitally 24/7, excluding only marriage, divorce, and real-estate transactions.
Many countries stand opposed to the adoption of such e-governance models, with concerns of security and corruption. But the reason e-Estonia is so successful, is because its citizens have faith that the system is protecting their personal information, and that the government isn't abusing access to that information.
For e-Estonia, blockchain technology provides that sense of trust. Blockchain, the same technology that runs bitcoin, was created in 2008. While blockchain technology is gaining widespread traction in the financial sector, Estonia has found additional uses for it.
Blockchain is essentially a database made up of a decentralized network of "blocks." Each block contains a list of transactions and represents a snapshot of time. These blocks can be created and stored globally across thousands of servers. Because of this, the system offers increased security and privacy – it makes it extremely difficult for one entity to control the data.
Estonia has also adopted some of the most innovative digital privacy laws on the planet.
While it was certainly an adjustment for citizens to trust a digital system like e-Estonia, time has proven that the system is reliable. It also helps that e-Estonia provides every citizen with a detailed log of the times their data has been accessed by a government agency. As Ilves states, "If you want to be dystopian and worry about Big Brother, don't worry about the government doing it directly, worry about the government doing it indirectly."
Ilves recognizes concerns of security and privacy but feels that they're misguided and misappropriated. After all, most of us already share so much of our most personal information digitally via online shopping and bill paying without much thought.
Will Other Countries Follow Suit?
Ilves' roles as a Hoover fellow, co-chair of the World Economic Forum's blockchain council, and an adviser for foreign governments make him uniquely positioned to provide insight on Estonia's digital transformation and the potential to expand such efforts to the rest of the world.
Before COVID-19 entered the scene, Estonia's accomplishments were widely seen as progressive and aspirational. Now, though, their advanced e-government system has become a lifeline for many that has continued to operate as normal throughout the pandemic.
In Estonia, 99% of public services are available digitally 24/7, excluding only marriage, divorce, and real-estate transactions.
More than ever, e-Estonia has become an example to the rest of the world of how to use modern technology to improve citizens' lives. It's also presented a more efficient way for government services to operate.
With an upcoming election in the midst of a global pandemic, should the U.S. be looking to Estonia's forward-thinking e-government model for guidance? While we look online for ways to do the things we can't safely do in person, Estonia's path to digitization certainly holds some valuable answers.