As I entered the e-Estonia building, I almost tripped over a pack of electric scooters charging in a corner. People were playing table tennis and there was a foosball table nearby. Everything felt very casual with a distinct startup vibe.
It made me feel like a bit of an idiot because moments before, I changed out of my Adidas sneakers and into a pair of patent black heels.
In the process of regretting my footwear decision, I noticed a Japanese delegation attending the e-Estonia briefing and their suits and ties made me feel a little better about my life choices!
We were ushered into a room for the presentation. Our hosts were incredibly hospitable and asked us what we hoped to get out of the session. Estonia is the world’s only digital society with 99% of its Government services available online. They are known globally for their work and have showcase sessions that give more information about how they offer services through digital channels.
I wandered around the interactive screens and saw some VR headsets. Before I got the chance to give them a whirl, it was time for the session to commence.
A bit of background…
When Estonia became independent in 1991 from Soviet rule, the newly formed Government was given an operating budget, the equivalent of 130 million euros for a population of about a million people. They were tasked with building a nation from scratch and with the ruin of war still fresh, there was a lot of work to do.
Anett, who led the briefing, shared that the small operating budget led to creative thinking. These constraints of serving a population on a minimal budget led to exploring digital solutions. If you think about it, a country’s embassy footprint is a massive expense. What if it could be done online? Government services- employees, paperwork, processes- they all take time and money. How could this be done more efficiently?
This led to the young Government taking a visionary approach to developing infrastructure for their nation. Remember, this thinking was happening in the mid-1990s, when Google, Apple and WiFi were only babies.
Well, fast forward to today, according to the New Yorker, digitizing processes reportedly saves the Estonian state two per cent of its G.D.P. per year in salaries and expenses. This is all underpinned by the X Road. It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but it is the underlying digital infrastructure that provides security to the data.
The New Yorker explains it well, ‘Data isn’t centrally held, thus reducing the chance of Equifax-level breaches. Instead, the government’s data platform, X-Road, links individual servers through end-to-end encrypted pathways, letting information live locally. Your dentist’s practice holds its own data; so does your high school and your bank. When a user requests a piece of information, it is delivered like a boat crossing a canal via locks.’
The digital society in action
Currently, 99% of Government services are available online. There are only three things that cannot be done online which are, getting married, getting divorced and selling a house. These are considered ‘high risk’ transactions and need to have extra checks in place.
Anett showed us her own digital portal by inserting her microchip card into a reader linked to her laptop. She then had to type in her password and another unique code that was sent to the phone.
Once she was in, she showed us the many and varied facets of the e-Estonia portal. One thing that impressed me is that everything is connected. For example, when a child is born, the hospital uploads the child’s birth records. In the future, the parents will be given a direct notification about choosing a school for the child. Currently, when the child reaches school, all their school records, attendance and results are housed on the portal. It allows parents, teachers and students to all have the one conversation and parents can access the data at any time.
This is just one example of the e-Estonia portal. You can see more of their services here.
The making of a digital leader
Hearing how a Government created the long term infrastructure that has now become part of their culture, it got me thinking about the characteristics of a strong digital leader. I am not saying that the Estonian political system is perfect by any stretch. In fact, there is no perfect system, however, there are some characteristics that can help build democracy and efficiency.
As Australia approaches another election, we need to be looking for politicians who are not just looking after their own short term interests. Instead, this election, I urge you to look for a digital leader.
When you’re looking at their policies, answer these 5 questions:
1. Visionary: Is this politician advocating for policies that are beyond their election cycle?
The early Estonian Government were visionary in their approach to investing in digital infrastructure. They could see the emerging trend of exponential growth in technology as well as how it could assist with the needs of the Estonian people. The Government invested in something that was a calculated risk. Currently, many politicians around the world are too focused on the short term. However, even if some leaders are thinking for the long term, it doesn’t equate to visionary leadership.
Visionary leadership creates long term plans that are good for people and the planet. Their vision is for a better world.
Can you confidently say that about your local politician?
Look at their policies on climate change and education. Are they thinking about how their policies can solve these issues with long term infrastructure or just trying to put in unachievable targets to sound like they are doing something?
2. Trustworthy: Is this politician using fear mongering to gain votes?
Estonians are pretty open about the fact that the digital society works because of trust. There is a level of trust between Government, people and technology that allows it to run effectively.
The foundation of any strong democracy is a level of trust in institutions. Unfortunately, this trust has been declining globally, and particularly in Australia. The Edelman Trust Barometer showed that Australia is the 13th most distrusting country in the world towards their Government. They share the top ranking with countries like Russia, South Africa, Brazil, Spain, France, the USA and Colombia.
Building trust between people and Government will require political leaders to focus on their policies and their people rather than power and competition. Check if your local politician is too focused on slamming other parties than promoting their own positive policies.
3. Transparent: Is this politician open to a robust conversation with their constituents?
A key element of the e-Estonia portal is that their data is controlled by the people. Anett showed us how she can lock her health data so only she can see it, meaning that the data cannot be accessed by health professionals unless she allows it. There is also a log of all the parties who have accessed her data so she can look for anything out of the ordinary. The rationale for this is that citizens should be empowered to control their data and be able to see how it is used. Instead of it being a black box of data, citizens can see where the data is stored and who has access to it.
If we extrapolate this out to our politicians, are they empowering local citizens or creating policies that actually stop social progress? Transparency and trust are key pillars of a healthy society and it is important that a politician embodies this. A transparent leader is open to difference of opinion, sharing their views and working collaboratively to drive better change for everyone. If your local politicians are not open to a robust conversation about their policies, I would question their authenticity and ability to lead.
4. Execution: Does this politician have a history of getting the job done?
In the late 1990s, the Estonian Government promised to have computers in every school by the year 2000. They achieved this and have also continued to adapt their curriculum so it is focused on coding and emerging technology skills. Estonia also ranks within the top 5 countries in the PISA rankings.
Let’s look at PISA scores for a minute. PISA is a test across OECD countries for reading, maths and science in year 10 students. PISA is an important indicator of how a nation is building the skills of their young people to couple strongly with technology.
Estonia has been steadily increasing their scores and is number 5 in the world for combined scores.
Australia, on the other hand, has been steadily declining. Currently, Australia sits at number 21 and if something is not done with equipping stronger maths, science and literacy, our future generations will not be able to compete on a global market.
5. Culture: Will this politician positively or negatively impact the culture of our nation?
We cannot underestimate the importance politicians have on our culture. They are decision makers and like it or not, often set the tone for the nation. Estonia used the digital infrastructure to build a culture of innovation and technology in the country. They are home to unicorns including Skype and Taxify.
The Government’s focus was beyond just transforming the public sector. They used their digital infrastructure to drive growth in the private sector as well. According to the Innovation Policy Platform, a website tracking trends on innovation stated about Estonia: “Over 2014-2020, the government has allocated $155 million for the Entrepreneurs’ Development Program and Innovation Voucher scheme, $87 million for various entrepreneurship schemes, and $12.7 million for innovation start-ups.” (from the article here).
A sign of a negative culture is if your local politician is more interested in debating semantics rather than collaborating for a common goal.
I was so impressed with the e-Estonia model as well as the passion and pride from local Estonians as I spoke about it with them on the streets. For a small nation, they are playing a big role in showing the world how it is possible to bring together technology and Governments to create sustained social change.
This election, think of these questions and vote for someone who has the future of our people and planet in mind by looking beyond the media hype and into their policies.