I come from Estonia. You know what? To this day, Estonia is the only society in our world you could call totally digitally transformed.
Because the Estonian government offers all its services online, almost 100%. The only thing you cannot do online is get married. But this is not a technical difficulty. We have chosen it to be this way. You have to show up to your own wedding.
Contrary to that, when you have a baby, you don’t have to go to the local municipality office to register the birth. Because, of course, when a baby is born in Estonia, the doctor creates in the e-health registry a record for a baby boy or a baby girl of 3 kilos, 50 cm, and in the background, the baby gets its digital-ID. Nobody pushes any buttons for that. And now the parents will log on and name the baby, online, all from the hospital bed or from a quiet place in their home. You don’t have to go to a crowded place and risk catching a disease. Catching a disease is a big risk for babies, and today, even grownups understand that. Estonian mothers don’t understand why elsewhere globally people have to go somewhere with their newborns to register their birth.
The same applies to all services the government offers. You realize that you passed a certain line when something goes wrong and it doesn’t function for a while. A couple of years ago, we had a hiccup in our system caused by a chip-maker. I will not name it but it was one of the biggest global chip-makers. And Estonians almost rioted. Some of our people had to go to a government office to renew their digital-IDs. Nobody knew where the government offices are in Estonia! And some people – shock and horror! – had to wait 30 minutes or even an hour (!) to get their new digital-ID up and running. And then we realized: yes, indeed, Estonia, while it is now home to seven unicorn companies, is a small economy. It doesn’t have digital behemoths in the private sector.
Each and every time somebody in the office looks at any file the government has on the citizen, there will be a digital fingerprint.
But societal change depends on what the government really does. And if for a generation the government has offered everything online, services online in the best-practice format of the private sector, this really changes the society. Why? Because it is inclusive. It is inclusive. Everybody in society – young people, grown-ups, the elderly – they are all involved. They are all together in this.
How does this happen? Well, 30 years ago, when Estonia re-gained its independence, the private sector was already becoming digitalized. And what we did, we thought that governments around the world would do very quickly. To this day, we are astonished that they didn’t. We are even more astonished that people think that it is safer to carry around papers with sensitive, private data and leave them in offices, in files for anyone to read.
Digital documents are much safer. The Estonian government has promised to our people that each and every time somebody in the office looks at any file the government has on the citizen, there will be a digital fingerprint. And we can see these fingerprints and we can make and inquiry. If we think that it was not necessary for the government official to look at my data, then the government sues these people – takes them to court – because they were nosing around in the system, in the data, which they were not supposed to do.
Of course, nobody in any government office has access to one person’s whole dataset, because this dataset does not exist. It’s in different, various databases. And only the person themselves can aggregate everything which concerns them. But yes, if you work at the tax board, for example, you have access, technically, to the tax file of, let’s say, your old boyfriend’s new girlfriend or vice versa. Some people initially felt the urge to look. But, you know, they very quickly learned that there would be a serious fine for such an action.
Why I am telling you this? Because this is the biggest, most important element of trust between Estonian society and the government. The government has promised that they will not use this data themselves or allow civil servants to use this data for a benefit other than to the citizen – be it for the government, be it just curious – it is not allowed. This is in the law.
There is another corner-point of our digital system, and that is the digital identity. Actually, it’s amazing how few people in today’s world, when we all act and transact online, probably spend 30-50% of our money online, how few people have an access to a government-guaranteed legally accepted and legally protected digital-ID. There should be one for every citizen around the world. In Europe there is. In the European Union there has been a decision – and I believe Estonia has been a catalysing element in this process to achieve it – 20 years after we had our digital-ID, the European Union took a decision that every European citizen, all 400 million of them, has a right to a digital-ID. These IDs had to inter-operate across the European borders because the European Union is a single market. But it took 20 years to achieve this.
And many people, even in the rich world, to this day have to be anonymous online, and have to act and transact using nicknames and passwords. And all these systems created by the private sector, they all lack by definition one important element. This kind of ID which is not government guaranteed, supported and developed, they do not have the legal framework which really makes them safe. Because no technology itself is safe.
There has to be legal space surrounding it which is permissive for technology development. But at the same time which also makes sure that nobody can present themselves as someone they are not. In the Estonian system, if I log on, and buy, let’s say, a pack of solar cells for my own rooftop, and I buy it from an Estonian company who sends me the contract via our e-system, it is encrypted from end to end. That means that no, I am not getting from Google or Amazon endless advertisements to buy more solar cells thereafter. It’s a fully encrypted government protected digital ecosystem.
There has to be legal space surrounding it which is permissive for technology development.
And it has changed our society. It has made our society far more equal because the government is open 24/7, 365 days a year. Women, who have a heavier burden of household work in Estonian society too, can access government services whenever their children are asleep. And this has totally changed our societal culture. When the pandemic started, we were able to see that almost half of the jobs which Estonians do could be done remotely. To be honest, I’ve been saying for more than five years that globally, everywhere, that geography and work are less and less linked. Nobody believed it. But now with the pandemic everybody saw it with their own eyes.
But again, for Estonians it was easier to do because our offices also use our safe digital-ID ecosystem. So, going online did not pose additional risk to the data safety of any enterprise, either public or private. And yes, indeed, private as well. Because, of course, our digital-ID, it’s like a passport – you use it in the private sector and in the public sector. There is no differentiation.
It has made our society far more equal because the government is open 24/7, 365 days a year.
You must not have different systems for private and public spaces if there are digital ID-systems. Why? Because you don’t have two passports for transactions with the government and transactions with the private sector. The digital-ID is simply a modern passport. It is simply something that helps you act and transact online. But it has all the necessary characteristics of a passport. Sometimes people ask, how do you then do things when a hospital has a digital-ID, a police-officer has a digital-ID, a company has a digital-ID? Well, they don’t. The role of management remains exactly as it was in the analogue world. A CEO can represent a company, but they can do it with their digital passport, not only with their analogue passport.
In Estonia, we also use technology which is environmentally friendly. Because our digital infrastructure resembles Bitcoin so much that for years people were asking whether the person who created Bitcoin and blockchain was an Estonian. They were not. KSI, our technology, also gives you a signature, encryption and timestamp, but it is far more environmentally friendly. It uses far less energy, and it is extremely important that while we are going through the green turn that we are also able to digitalize our system in an efficient way. Lots of energy can be saved if you are using the correct tools for the correct operations.
Blockchain is used in the Estonian digital ecosystem, but it is used where you really need it. It is when some service adjusts datasets in different systems and needs to do so in exactly the same second. Then we do use blockchain.
For example, we have a proactive service where Estonians do not have to apply because the government knows they are entitled to this service. It is a top-up to our retired peoples’ pension if they live alone. Well, we live in a cold country, so heating your house is expensive, and therefore we have decided to pay a top-up to the pensions of single pensioners. And they don’t have to apply. They don’t even have to know such a service exists because our datasets will show: they live alone, they are retired. And the top-up automatically arrives into their bank account. You see where you need blockchain in this one. It is an event-based service which involves datasets changing in various datasets at the same time. And this is where the Estonian e-government model is moving. Because people ask: Why do we have to apply for this service? You know I need the service.
Let’s come back to the beginning of a life. A baby is born. We have a universal child support system in Estonia. Now, why should parents go and apply for this child support? The state knows there is a baby. The state knows that the parents have bank accounts because they pay taxes. Therefore, the state can logically just start payments to the parents. The parents do not need to apply; technically, this is not a necessity. And we have now about 80 services in our government portfolio that we call event-based proactive services which will be offered to people without the citizen having to request them.
It is a high-trust element in the system because now you are moving to an area where systems do aggregate data from various parts of the government database and draw conclusions about citizens. But these services are only used to help citizens, and the government has strict regulations and rules in place. For example, if they want to conduct a criminal investigation and follow people, they still need to get a special order. It is not possible to investigate any person through the system. But to support the person, to pay a top-up to pensions, this is possible in Estonia.
The only way citizens trust a digitally transformed society is if they know that they still control their own data.
And these differentiations are extremely, extremely important. Because the only way citizens trust a digitally transformed society is if they know that they still control their own data. And they only allow it to be used to their own benefit. It has to be written in the law. In our case, in this new digital proactive government, we are right now doing work in our ministries and parliament to come to an agreement about how these proactive services can be used as well as at which points people have opt-ins and opt-outs. Because some people may not want even these positive services to be offered to them automatically. And they must therefore have an opportunity to opt out.
Many people in the world have asked me that what the best place to start digitalizing your society is. And many often think it is with digital voting because many often have big diasporas and they want these parts of their society to participate. Well, my suggestion is: never start with a high-trust service. Start with little services which people can use and see they are safe. Registering children for school or kindergarten, applying for social support – these are also good to be done online because then your neighbours do not see that you are applying, and in Estonian society you sometimes don’t want, for example, people to know that you are on social support. So, these kinds of services should always go first.
And I even have a dream. You know, I have been working as a UN global advocate for women and children for half a year now. And I’ve realized that many countries do not have digital population registries. They should have. And they should start by registering online the birth of each and every baby globally.
To end my presentation, I come back to where I started. But it is extremely important that, globally, no birth goes unnoticed. Do you know how many do nowadays? Twenty per cent. I also see in developing countries that there are governments that are interested in digitalizing their public registries. Some have done so. My dream is that every citizen in the world becomes a global digital citizen at the moment when they are born. Then we can offer them vaccinations, food support, education. Then we can be sure that nobody is lost on this planet.
This is my call to all governments globally: please, make it possible that your future generations can be true global digital citizens.
And this is my call to all governments globally: please, make it possible that your future generations can be true global digital citizens. Yes, it offers great economic opportunities. Yes, we can dream of a global services market. People working from Tunisia or from Fiji in Estonian book-keeping, for example, or well, writing code for somebody in Iceland. But we should start from really low ambitions: getting every child globally registered online. Making sure that nobody is lost on this planet.
From Estonia, we have catalysed a lot of global digital governance thinking. We have established the E-governance Academy together with UNDP. I believe we have had a huge influence on European e-governance prowess. But my dream is global. We should all be globally connected, but legally protected, digital citizens for a global society.
Thank you for listening!