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A pioneer in digital administration - what Germany can learn from Estonia

Marie Drabant and Carmen Raal

In the SCCON interview, Social Media Manager Marie Drabant talked to Carmen Raal about digital governance in Estonia and how people are involved in it. Photo: private

When countries want to learn about digital governance in Estonia, they usually end up with Carmen Raal. She is a digital transformation consultant at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre.

For Estonia, it was a necessity to digitize the country after independence in 1991. "There was a lot of corruption and mistrust among the public at the time, especially toward state institutions, and a lack of resources," Raal points out. The country also has a unique challenge: In terms of area alone, the country is larger than Denmark, but instead of six million people, Estonia has only 1.3 million. "Because we are not a densely populated country, providing public sector services in Estonia is more expensive than in other countries that have a higher population density." For this reason, digitization in Estonia had to be structured differently from the start than in other countries. For example, digitizing administrations was not enough, Raal says: "Here in Estonia, we say that Internet access is a kind of social right. [...] For example, when we launched 5G, our ultimate goal was that the company that takes it upon itself to cover the whole of Estonia, rather than the company that offers the most, wins the bid." After all, only when the entire country has stable Internet will people living in Estonia's forests and rural areas be able to access the administration's digital services.

"You can't become an expert in all areas"

One of the first steps in the digitization of Estonia was to recognize that there were no tech-savvy politicians: "I'm sorry for them, but we didn't have an excellent government. We had something much more important: we had politicians who were willing to listen to the tech-savvy people outside of politics, which is even more important because you can't become an expert in everything," Raal said. In this way, the public administration was able to benefit from external knowledge, which is a historically grown attitude in Estonia: "Our public sector is not hierarchical. This means that your position does not depend on how long you have worked in the public sector. It's very common to move around in our country. So you work in the public sector for a few years, then go to the private sector, return, and so on. I would say that this encourages innovation. So you don't spend decades in one organization, but it's natural that we switch often."

From idea to implementation

A major milestone in the digitization of Estonia was the introduction of "X-Road" in 2001. X-Road is an interoperability tool that helps securely share data between private and public organizations. X-Road is the backbone of e-Estonia. "When we started digitizing, we also started building our legal system. So I would say that our legal environment is well suited for a digital Estonia. But today, we are already back to a point where we need to change our regulations to make sure they don't hinder innovation, either in the public or private sector. So the laws should evolve along with society," Raal says. "Another point is that we need to constantly educate the general public, but also public sector employees, so that they understand what Big Data is, what interoperability is, what cybersecurity is, and why that is necessary, because if they don't understand it, it's quite difficult to work with digital public services in the public sector. [...] Here in Estonia, we have set up an online learning platform called Digital Academy and there anyone - not just civil servants, but anyone who is interested - can learn any topic at their own pace."

Next Step - Usability

"Right now, our biggest concern is usability. We want to make sure that the services are as easy to use as possible, so that people don't feel like they have to search for services or spend too much time trying to figure out where they can get what kind of help. And we're also working on our virtual assistant called Bürokratt. Bürokratt is an artificial intelligence for the public sector. So we'll have chat bots that can also communicate with each other so people don't have to wait until office hours to get the help they need." Cybersecurity is also a big issue in Estonia. Cybersecurity is being considered in all projects, Raal emphasizes, so that cyber resilience is maintained in the future. The third building block in Estonia's future digital development is "green information and communication technology" (ICT): "We save a lot of paper, but unfortunately computers still leave a big footprint on the environment. That's why last summer we assessed the entire footprint of the government sector - and this is the first important step in minimizing that footprint. This involves simple decisions like whether it's better to rent or buy computers for public servants."

Raal would also like to see more international cooperation on digitization. He says it should be possible, for example, to drive from Estonia to Germany without taking your driver's license with you. Or that doctors in other countries can access important health data to provide the best possible care to patients. "So it's our goal within the European Union that I can travel within the EU for a while. But are we also letting the data travel with us?"

Older people and digitization

For Raal, three points are crucial when it comes to bringing older people and digital governance together:

1. Digital solutions do not automatically require digital skills.

2. ICT skills need to be taught.

3. The digital society is also beneficial when citizens go to the office.

Raal cites the electronic prescription as an example of point one. In Estonia, people can simply call their doctor and get the medication they need prescribed over the phone. At the pharmacy, the personal ID is then scanned and the pharmacist can see what the doctor has prescribed. It eliminates the need to go to the doctor's office, allowing children and grandchildren, for example, to pick up medications for parents and grandparents who can't leave the house. "So it's a digital solution that doesn't require ICT skills, but will be used, for example, by older people who might have more difficulty with digitization."

With regard to point two, Raal points to various programs designed to teach people ICT skills: "In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were various campaigns or programs where people could learn how to use computers for free. A very big program in the early 2000s was 'Look at World,' which, by the way, was completely funded by the private sector. Under that program, about 100,000 people were able to learn how to use computers for free. And that was just the beginning. We are still investing in ICT skills training. People can take these kinds of courses easily and for free."

At point three, Raal brings X-Road back into play. In Estonia, when someone comes to the office to register for unemployment, for example, it is no longer necessary to bring various documents. Through X-Road, the case worker can access all the necessary documents, they are transmitted in encrypted form, and all the necessary data can be compiled. "So basically we just get pre-filled forms. We just have to go through the pre-filled forms to make sure the data is correct and then click 'submit' and we're registered. The advantage of e-Estonia is that you don't have to go to the office to get different papers or documents. You don't have to figure out how to fill out these documents and usually you don't have to wait in long lines because most people choose to use the services online. So it's beneficial for both sides," Raal says.

Becoming a digital pioneer as a rural state

For Raal, the main goal of digital solutions is to make life easier for everyone. No one should have to pay with their time for not living centrally, but having to drive to an office to have their concerns addressed. Services must be convenient to access, Raal believes. No matter where people live or whether they face other limitations. "I would say that the pandemic has helped us in that regard, because a lot of people have moved back to their small towns or villages, and we've found that you don't have to go to an office every day, you can work remotely. [...] I believe that digital services alone are not enough to bridge the gap between urban and rural areas. You also have to make sure that companies adapt to it."

Raal can't say for sure whether the fact that Estonia is a relatively small country has helped with digitization: "I think smaller and larger countries just have different challenges. [...] For us in Estonia, it's probably easier to get everyone on board in that we have fewer stakeholders than larger countries. But also for us, people are the most valuable resource. So we often lack different experts, while other countries have more experts working on different solutions. This is something we struggle with here in Estonia, to have all the people we need. Even though we are already so highly digitized, we still need more people than we have."

What can Germany learn from Estonia?

Raal has some tips on how digitization in Germany could get better:

  • Just take it one step at a time. "It takes time to get people on board."
  • Make it as simple as possible. "So the design should be simple, the language should be simple, and the design should also be similar so that people understand how the solutions work. So user experience is very important in technical terms to figure out the basics."
  • "Digital transformation is never about technology these days. It's about people, so getting everyone on board and trying not to polarize people on whether they want to digitize or not." Raal therefore recommends an opt-in option, where people can decide for themselves whether they want to go to the office or take care of their concerns digitally.
  • Importantly, patience is a virtue. "Unfortunately, results don't come overnight on these things. And I understand, especially from the politicians' point of view, if they invest resources and also need results, and they need them as quickly as possible. But with these things, you have to be prepared that sometimes the true benefits don't show up until five years later. Of course, there are tech-savvy agencies, people who would use the digital solutions right away, but in most cases you can see that people will accept these things or use them more broadly in a few years."
  • Understanding what people want. "They don't want to spend their time collecting these documents or proving they are entitled to services. They already have a legal right to it, so people will appreciate it much more if you make it easier for them to get it. And a lot of times that doesn't mean logging in and applying online, but it also means having an easier time in an office because data can travel and caseworkers don't have to spend their time explaining to people how they're eligible for services, but they can focus on things that really matter, like building trust with human, interpersonal relationships and so forth. And that's what the digital society allows us to do."

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