We take a look at Estonia, a country which has 100%-digital citizen files. How does Estonia differ from other countries and what, if any, are the limitations of online administration?

Does online administration leave a role for government?

Some 90% of Estonia’s population use an electronic ID card, a third of all votes in referendums and elections there are cast online and you can set up a company in Estonia in a world-record time of 18 minutes. Since the 1990s the Tallinn government has been taking a determinedly ‘everything online’ approach, progressively creating a fully computerised administrative setup. Personal medical records followed suit in 2009. So, are there any limits to running all national administrative services online?

Katrin Nyman Metcalf, Head of the Chair of Law and Technology at Tallinn Law School, part of Tallinn University of Technology, and Head of Research at the Estonian e-Governance Academy, answered our questions on the sidelines of an event in Paris, jointly organised with the French Digital Council and the Embassy of Estonia, in spring this year.

L’Atelier: Why is it that Estonia, with its system of digital identity and online medical records, is out in front on e-governance? Are there fewer taboos in the country?

Katrin Nyman-Metcalf: That’s a question we’re often asked when we go to work in other countries as consultants on governance. I think that the cultural aspect and the country’s history have played a major role here.

We started almost from scratch twenty-five years ago following the Soviet occupation. This perhaps made it easier to make the transition because we didn’t need to alter anything that was already working, as other countries in Europe would have had to do. Estonia is perhaps closer to other countries in the world, such as the emerging countries, when it comes to developing services and solutions. I’m thinking of mobile technology, for instance, which has enabled more rapid development of banking services in Africa.

But we should also mention the national culture of Estonia as well. We’re used to doing things online. It’s something that comes very naturally to us – and I’m not just talking about young people.

How do you ensure data security? In France, the authorities sometimes give you a straight choice between using digital and non-digital channels. Are there other ways of reassuring people?

I think that the technology itself can help to create public trust in data security. For example, when the authorities in Estonia look at someone’s data online, it leaves a trace, an ‘event’ which is logged on the page containing the ID number of the person concerned. It’s reassuring to know that you can see for yourself when and why the authorities have accessed your data.

However, technology is not the only thing that engenders trust. You need to communicate, explain, simplify and of course never lose sight of the fact that most people don’t understand much about these technologies. This is something that you need to do quite independently of dealing with the basic principles of computerisation, because trust is basically a social issue.

Estonia isn’t any better than other countries as regards trust in the government and the authorities. On the other hand, I think we’re perhaps more receptive to the stated desire for transparency which the government is trying to inculcate. We can see that a real effort is being made to engage in dialogue and tell people about what is being done on the digital front and I think this is very important in a modern society such as ours.

You mentioned the need for a high level of transparency. However, Siim Sikkut, the Digital Policy Adviser in the office of the Estonian Prime Minister, has spoken [during the conference] about ‘invisible’ government. Isn’t there a risk of ‘dehumanising’ these processes?

You’re right, that is a risk. However, we notice that quite a number of people continue to go in person to see their local authorities, especially in small towns where everyone knows everyone else. And I don’t think this behaviour is going to disappear. In fact, we don’t want it to disappear because we do need to retain the human side of things.

But I believe that rather than human contact disappearing, it’s more that the role of government itself is being called into question as local authority services go fully online. I think this is something we haven’t thought through sufficiently. In a world where I can vote from my bedroom, dressed in my pyjamas even, where I talk to the authorities in the same way as I talk to my friends on Facebook, what does that actually mean for our notion of government? Do I feel closer to the government? Or on the other hand does this diminish the importance of government in my eyes? I think this is something that Estonia needs to discuss today. We need to bring the technical people and the legal experts into discussion with the whole of our society on this issue.

By Aurore Geraud
Senior Editor & Analyst