From digital ID to the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: how to deal with crises in government

By on 07/09/2023 | Updated on 19/10/2023

The most senior civil servant in Estonia has shared his reflections on how governments can deal with crises in an exclusive interview with Global Government Forum.

In Global Government Forum’s Leading Questions podcast, Taimar Peterkop, the state secretary of Estonia, discusses how he managed a series of government crises in his public service career – and his mission to improve the readiness of government.

Listen here:

Peterkop shares his insider view of the crisis the country faced when its digital ID system was found to have vulnerabilities to hacking.

Estonia’s “digital society” – the country leads the world in providing digital services across both public and private sectors – is built on the national digital identity, Peterkop says.

“It’s mandatory to have an ID card, and the chip on the ID card is used to authenticate yourself when using digital services, or then to digitally sign documents.”

The Estonian government estimates that the digital ID saves Estonians substantial administration time. But in 2017 a vulnerability was identified that could have led to the digital identities on the cards being overwritten.

Peterkop was the head of the Estonian Information System Authority at the time, and had to lead the response to this crisis, which was particularly profound as, among its uses, the digital ID cards are used by Estonians to vote in elections.

“That was the magnitude of the risk,” he says. “We very quickly had to change the software on those chips remotely, and all the digital services – thousands of digital services that we offer in Estonia in both the private and public sector – had to renew their software to this new software. A lot of actors had to very quickly change their way of doing things.”

Core competences and communication key to responding in a crisis

Peterkop sets out the key elements of responding to the digital ID emergency – some of which were mirrored by the Estonian government in its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the takeaways is the importance of building up relationships in public sector organisations so they are ready to respond. Peterkop had grown the team working on identity projects before the digital ID emergency from two to 15, and had secured relationships with the private sector and academics that could be called upon when needed.  

“One of the main lessons for me from that crisis is [the need to] do things together with the private sector and academia, and with the civil society as well, because we lack the competency [at the start]. You need all the different players in these situations to talk the same talk, and to have the same message: ‘This is the problem, this is the solution, and don’t worry’.”

At the time of the digital ID incident, clear communication with citizens was something that was already a foundation of government’s strategy. “When we started digitalisation, we had an approach to explain to people how this works as much as possible,” Peterkop recalls.

This laid the groundwork for the communication approach when the flaw was identified.

“We came [forward to the] public about it, that we have this threat, and in the beginning, we didn’t have the solution. When we worked out the solution, we communicated that as well.

“The trouble was that we weren’t able to quickly enough renew all the certificates to fix all the chips. We had to prioritise – doctors, judges who were issuing warrants – [but] everything we did, we explained to people why we are doing it. We explained that this is like a natural disaster, we are not able to help everybody at once, but don’t worry, we will come to you as well.”

In his role as the agency head, Peterkop acted as the public face of the response, even receiving emails asking him why he had not yet resigned – “Can you not sign your resignation letter because the ID card is not working?”, one said – but remarkably, rather than undermining trust in the ID cards, their usage grew once the crisis was resolved.

“The numbers were better than they were before because the knowledge of the functionality of this card had grown,” says Peterkop. “It was so much in the news that people started to use it more than they used it before. We can say that the trust remained.”

‘I’m not the face of this crisis’: Peterkop’s role in the COVID response

These lessons stood Peterkop in good stead when, having taken over as secretary of state, he faced two further crises in quick succession – the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

“When you have actually practiced it, then you know the value of the cooperation with different actors,” he says.   

Compared to his time running the Information System Authority where he was the face of the response to the ID crisis, as state secretary, he was more of a supporting role to the prime minister.

He remembers having difficulties adjusting when the pandemic hit. “This is not the same role I had – I’m not the face of this crisis.”

The country’s crisis management system also had to adjust, says Peterkop. It went from being med by the health department to the prime minister’s office after government realised there was a need for a central focus.

“The [central] government office basically took the role of the health department by preparing the restrictions that were put in place in order to fight COVID. We created an advisory board for scientists who then suggested what should be done.”

However, over time, the government restored what Peterkop calls the “normal way”, with a greater role for the health department.

Getting ready for the permacrisis

Following the pandemic, Estonia had to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Peterkop discusses the impact of dealing with crises on public servants’ – and his own – wellbeing.

Peterkop says that COVID led to a two-speed civil service. There were those trying to keep services running while adjusting to the new remote working arrangements, and those involved directly in the COVID response, who were having to work 16 hour days.

“When the politicians were working, the civil service was working as well. Politicians were doing long hours, so we were doing long hours as well.”

Peterkop admits that he was burnt out during the ID crisis, and so he brought in mental health advisers to help staff deal with the impact of such long hours during the pandemic.

“In the beginning, I used small gifts, if I saw that somebody did exceptionally well. In the beginning, I used wine when somebody had a success with something, but at some point, it didn’t work anymore, so I used healthier gifts,” he recalls.  

“That was the lesson,” he says. “You cannot run on booze.”  

Into the second year of the pandemic, Peterkop established a separate COVID task force. The aim was to create teams that could focus on the pandemic response, while the rest of government focused on other priorities.  

Peterkop’s time as state secretary has been focused on raising Estonia’s “readiness for crisis”.

So, is the government ready for whatever may come around the corner?

“We are not ready for every scenario, but the most likely scenarios, I think we have prepared,” he says. “I think the Ukraine crisis was a good example. We started to prepare for that – what the consequences for Estonia would be – in autumn 2021. The government made decisions to allocate resources in January 2022, a month before [Russian’s invasion].

“So we were ready… that’s an example where we prepared for the worst and it happened.”

In the podcast, Peterkop also discusses his own background as a lawyer and working in technology, how to boost innovation in government, his plans for his second term in office – and why he has decided to leave the post after two years rather than the usual five.  

Listen to the podcast in full here:

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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