Enabling e-government: Estonia’s National Digital Advisor Marten Kaevats

By on 06/01/2019
Marten Kaevats: civil service cultures must change to favour the "enablers" (Image courtesy: Tõnu Tunnel).

Widely recognised as one of the world’s digital leaders, Estonia has built a public IT infrastructure offering unparalleled convenience, security and data-exchange. The country’s lead digital adviser Marten Kaevats tells David Whitehouse about the country’s journey towards ‘invisible government’

Three and a half years ago, Marten Kaevats couldn’t have imagined that he would now be working in the civil service – still less enjoying it. Today, he is the Estonian state’s National Digital Advisor. And it doesn’t sound like he regrets his unexpected career turn: the country’s public sector is even more open to new ideas than its businesses, he says, and he’s developed a “sense of mission” as he seeks to push the envelope of what is possible.

An expert in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Kaevats is a key figure within one of the world’s most advanced digital governments. And he has a clear picture of Estonia’s direction of travel: it is heading, he says, for “invisible” government.

If you are entitled to something from the state, he argues, you should receive it automatically – without having to seek out the correct arm of government or submit an application. And he believes that Estonia can get to this position within five to eight years.

Then, for example, within minutes of a baby being born, the parents will receive an email that sets out their benefits entitlement and offers them a choice of kindergartens. Similar automated emails will arrive following other major life events such as job loss, retirement or bereavement. Algorithms will pull together all the necessary information to achieve this, he says, with agencies automatically contacting citizens to say: “Here’s your money”.

The building blocks

The country has already started putting some of the essential building blocks in place, including the “once only principle” – which bars government bodies from asking citizens for data that’s already held by a national public body. Instead, they must acquire it from their colleagues across government, if necessary requesting permission from the citizen.

These capabilities, in turn, are based on two key Estonian digital systems: the universal digital ID – through which people can digitally sign contracts, access public services, order prescriptions, file taxes and vote at elections – and the X-road, a set of security and communications protocols that permits safe, rapid transmission of data between a highly distributed set of databases and digital systems.

Estonia’s distributed digital infrastructure, Kaevets explains, doesn’t just save the 1.3m-strong country around 2% of GDP in reduced administrative and service delivery costs; it also provides a very high level of cyber security.

Sharing safely

Distributed mechanisms are more robust than centralised ones, he argues: a hacker would need to break into 300 servers within a split second to be able to compromise the system. And Estonia needs the security: in 2007, it faced ‘denial of service’ attacks from Russia – but they only damaged the surface of e-governance services. The Russians couldn’t penetrate the core system, Kaevats adds: “They didn’t even try”.

Ever-mindful of the threat posed by Russia, Estonia has developed the world’s first “data embassy” in Luxembourg: an overseas data store benefiting from the protections and immunities afforded to embassies under international law. Digital copies of critical information systems – notably ten priority databases including the treasury information system; the pensions insurance, business, land and population registers; and the identity documents database – are securely preserved there, ensuring that Estonia could keep its systems operational under almost any circumstances.

Starting from scratch

Kaevats is a key figure within one of the world’s most advanced digital governments.

Estonia’s history as part of the Soviet Union helped it build rich technological and engineering skills in the 1960s. While the Soviets left Estonia with an outdated industrial structure, they also bequeathed it a wealth of R&D talent through academies such as the Institute of Cybernetics, first established in 1960.

These paid off when Cybernetica, a private company which emerged from the institute in 1997, developed the X-road and electronic ID systems. And the population is almost as tech-savvy as its government: the country’s digital ID penetration is close to 100%, about 30% of votes are cast digitally in both local and national elections, and the goal is for 60% of households to be using ultrafast internet on a daily basis by 2020.

The country become independent in 1991 – giving its leaders, as former civil service chief Heiki Loot told Global Government Forum in November – the opportunity to rebuild its systems and structures from scratch. Digital reforms began, Kaevats says, under a top-down culture; then Estonia swung to a highly devolved approach in the 2000s, winning widespread public acceptance of the state’s rapid shift online. And since about 2012, he explains, the country’s operated a hybrid model – with the centre setting out national standards, protocols and expectations, whilst each agency builds systems around them to suit its needs.

Building an innovative civil service

But Kaevats argues that success in digital services is not, fundamentally, about the technology: much more important are “mindset, and building a culture of trust”. And this can’t be achieved overnight, he says: civil servants must change their “male, grey-suited images”, and start to see themselves as “enablers”. Many nations’ officials have been doing the same thing in the same way for too long, he says; but that way lies obsolescence.

So civil servants must take a different approach to providing services. For example, he says, they should change the way they buy technology: too often, they procure large-scale IT systems piecemeal to fit within tight annual budgets – meaning that by the time their monumental system is in place, it’s already going out of date. And he argues that officials should look to the private sector’s experience in ‘user-centred design’, rebuilding services from scratch rather than grafting bits of IT onto a legacy system: “Using PDF files”, Kaevats points out, “does not constitute e-governance”.

Attracting the skilled professionals to adopt these new approaches isn’t straightforward, he acknowledges. Even Estonia’s government struggles to compete for staff against higher-paying private businesses. And “there is no silver bullet” to solve this problem – though developing a reputation for innovation can help: his own civil service sells itself to potential recruits on the chance to work in a highly-developed knowledge base.

“Using PDF files does not constitute e-governance”.

The next wave of tech

Now Estonia is looking to the next set of technologies – most obviously Kaevats’ specialist subject of AI. To ensure AI’s development wins public acceptance and assures public safety, whilst giving businesses and public bodies the confidence to experiment, Estonia is working on an AI law to define the place of algorithms in legal disputes. Who, for example, is legally responsible when a self-driving car causes an accident? Algorithms, Kaevats suggests, could be given a legal status as separate entities – enabling the judicial system to rule on their liabilities and responsibilities, as it does with companies.

Trying to regulate AI, Kaevats says, is extremely difficult; after all, its capabilities are constantly changing. But these are very powerful technologies, and the state will ultimately have to create a legal framework: as an example of what can happen without a clear set of rules, Kaevats points to the Chinese state’s use of facial recognition technologies to police people’s behaviour.

Meanwhile, other countries – many of them much bigger than Estonia – are beginning to adopt some of the country’s technologies and approaches. Neighbouring Finland has started to use X-Road, enabling the safe transfer of personal data between the countries. And in 2017, Finland and Estonia created the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS), with a mission to develop e-governance solutions. Iceland joined the institute last September, and NIIS has made the X-Road source code publicly available on hosting service GitHub.

Spreading the word

Other seeds planted by Estonia have borne fruit much further afield. In 2016 Japan launched MyNumber, an Estonian-inspired digital identification programme providing access to online services. And Japanese start-up Planetway has built a development centre in Estonia, using local tech to create a secure data-exchange platform for businesses. French officials have also been talking to their Estonian counterparts – though Kaevats acknowledges that France’s governance model presents a very set of delivery challenges.

So Estonia’s innovations are being picked up abroad; given the right cultural changes, Kaevats believes, many countries could make rapid progress on digital tech. But that culture change is essential. The central question, he says, is one of engineering rather than politics – something that many politicians seem unable to grasp. It will, he concludes, be a long-term job to educate both politicians, and their electorates, in the potential of e-governance.

For more on Estonia’s journey to e-government, read our interview with the long-standing former State Secretary Heiki Loot.

About David Whitehouse

David Whitehouse, a freelance writer in Paris, is the author of a book on France's role in the Rwandan genocide and the French trials of Rwandan suspects which began in Paris in 2014. He also co-authored the autobiography of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy published in 2013.

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