Heiki Loot, Secretary of State, Estonian Government: Exclusive Interview

By on 21/11/2018 | Updated on 04/02/2022

Estonia’s Secretary of State, Heiki Loot, is leaving government after 15 years at the top of the civil service. As he prepares to return to his legal roots, Matt Ross learns how he helped build not just the country’s world-leading digital services, but the state itself

“You learn by doing,” says Heiki Loot. So what you learn depends on what you do – and it would be hard to imagine a better senior leadership training course than the Estonian civil service chief’s early career.

Loot left high school in 1989, as the Soviet Union was collapsing – and his tiny Baltic nation was reclaiming its independence after 50 years of foreign occupation. Joining the civil service straight after law school, he played a key role in writing the new state’s laws, in founding its institutions, and in staffing its civil service.

Becoming secretary of state – the prime minister’s key policy adviser and the country’s most senior civil servant  – he then spent 15 years developing the laws, overseeing the institutions and managing the civil service that he’d helped to create. And at the end of the year, he’s moving on to a new role: Loot is to become a Supreme Court judge, ruling on constitutional and administrative cases.

Laws, institutions and people

The civil service chief’s new role neatly brings his career full circle – for in his first job after qualifying as a lawyer, Loot served as an assistant to the Supreme Court’s chief justice. By 1995 he was head of the Ministry of Justice’s Department of Public Law, learning by doing – as he puts it – “not how to apply law, but how to design law.”

“That was an important period for Estonia, as we restored our independence,” he recalls. “We had to rebuild; to reform all of the state as well as society. As a democracy, we needed laws to protect human rights and create a market economy.”

Working to help shape the new nation’s institutional, administrative and criminal laws, Loot says, “I started to understand that it’s not only the laws that are important: the building of institutions is also important, and so is the training of people.” Civil servants, he realised, need the skills and knowledge “to apply the laws in the manner that they’ve been drafted and designed. You may have very good laws, but if you have a bad civil service then you have obstacles to running your country well.”

So Loot moved onto his next challenge: as rector of the Estonian Public Service Academy, he managed basic training and continual professional development across the civil service. There, he was “responsible for training the people to apply the laws which were drafted when I was in the Ministry of Justice”: Loot shifted away from a “university-style” training system built around disciplines such as law and economics, and focused civil servants on “how you apply all these fields of science in real-life situations.”

Heiki Loot speaking to delegates at the Global Government Summit

The foundations of digital government

Becoming secretary of state in 2003, Loot then oversaw the programme of work for which Estonia’s government has since become internationally known: its development of a digital services portfolio now widely recognised as the world’s most advanced. The government’s digital operations, he explains, are founded on two essential building blocks: citizens’ ID cards, and the ‘X-road’ data transfer system.

The ID card system dates back to the late ‘90s – and launching it, Loot recalls, was a brave move on the part of the then prime minister. “At the beginning, nobody knew what you could do with ID cards,” he says. “There were no digital services, and many said that it was a waste of money. But it created the infrastructure for the development of e-services.”

There’s a lesson here for politicians and civil servants, he adds: “It’s important to have a government with the courage to make those kind of decisions. When taking a risk, you don’t know if it will have a positive effect or fail. And not all governments or civil servants are willing to take risks, because failures aren’t appraised: they’re sanctioned quite harshly. We were lucky that the government, 20 years ago, made these courageous decisions.”

To facilitate data transfer across government – and between public bodies and non-governmental bodies – Loot’s digital teams created the X-road: a set of data and encryption protocols that enable different databases to exchange information securely. And via a digital portal linked to the ID card system, every Estonian can today see what information each arm of government holds on them; they can even see exactly who’s viewed their data, providing a powerful safeguard against misuse by officials.

e-Citizens in control

“The main lesson is that deep reform takes time.” Speaking on the 2014 budgeting reforms

Citizens may choose to allow public services and businesses access to sections of the data held in their digital portfolio, and to create links to external databases. So they can, for example, allow the tax authorities to pull in personal data held by other government bodies and their bank – automatically populating parts of their income tax declarations. “Or if your doctor prescribes you medicine, you can go to the pharmacy and show your ID card: they’ll see your e-prescription and sell you the medicine,” explains Loot. “Then you can see [via the digital platform] who’s checked your medical data – the doctor and the pharmacy.”

The government has, famously, offered some of its public services to foreign citizens – permitting them to become Estonian e-residents, and even to set up Estonian businesses. The goal here, explains Loot, is to “increase the number of people who participate and contribute to the small Estonian economy.” And the international interest attracted by the scheme doesn’t hurt, strengthening the country’s global “brand”.

Governments around the world admire Estonia’s joined-up digital services, but many have struggled to achieve the level of seamless inter-departmental data sharing required – encountering public concerns around privacy and security. How did the government win public support for its digital ambitions? “When we built up our state from scratch, that included not only the state institutions but also the banking system,” Loot explains – so whilst other European financial systems were still built around cash and cheques, Estonia’s emerging banks moved straight to online banking. “And when people learned to trust that money transactions could be done electronically, why not also trust electronic data transactions?”

Individuals’ control over access to their data also boosts public confidence, Loot says; and the government worked hard to ensure that new digital services were faster and better than traditional alternatives. “Estonians are fond of convenience,” he comments. “It’s much more convenient to make applications, submit tax declarations, establish companies, see how your children are progressing in school, and get prescriptions electronically. People understand that to provide quick services efficiently, there’s a need to use the data the state has.”

Estonians, Loot adds, are relaxed about the government’s ever-growing digital infrastructure: “Despite coming from a Soviet state where there was antagonism between the state and the citizen, we do not have any fear that having electronic ID cards is a violation of our human rights.”

Defending democracy

Across Europe, though, a new form of antagonism to state institutions and actors is emerging – with populist and nationalist politicians on the rise. How should public servants respond? “To some extent, strengthening the values of the society is a part of government’s responsibilities,” he replies. “To continue as a democracy, you need to take care of the values that favour democracy.”

This involves “explaining the gains that come with having an open society”: Estonia is strengthening the teaching of “democratic values in our school system, so that the next generation know better how the democracy functions.”

It is also important, he says – in an apparent reference to British politicians’ errors over the EU – that the government doesn’t “blame Brussels for regulations. In government communications we cannot say that we didn’t decide something; that it was decided by Brussels. We are also a part of Brussels: we need to explain to citizens why these regulations serve the public good at the end of the day.” On this, the government’s approach seems to be working – with 69% of Estonians supporting EU membership: the 8th highest figure in the bloc.

When it comes to personal privacy in Estonia, each citizen controls their own data in an online platform says Heiki Loot

Works in progress

Of course, not all of the government’s innovative policies and programmes have proved as successful as its drive for digital. In 2014, Estonia introduced radical reforms of its budgeting process – allocating funds to the government’s strategic priorities and goals, rather than departmental structures. With money gravitating towards programmes and outcomes rather than organisations, the aim was to replace inter-departmental competition for cash with a general rush to get involved in cross-cutting programmes.

How has that system bedded in? “The main lesson is that deep reform takes time,” he replies. “We know how to split money between the policy fields, and we have some experience in designing the objectives. The issue that needs to be solved is how to prioritise, allocate and monitor when you have different departments responsible for a policy field: how to make them work together? This is really a challenge; but we are constantly going in the same direction, and sooner or later we’ll get there.”

Loot is equally candid on the government’s ‘no legacy’ policy: the principle that all IT systems should be renewed every 12 years, avoiding the development of ‘spaghetti architecture’ that makes replacement or upgrading increasingly difficult. “The policy is important – but there must be enough resources for it,” he comments. “In a situation of limited resources, it’s not easy; this is something that still needs to be achieved.”

But whilst not everything in Estonia’s digital garden is perfect, the country continues to lead the way in adapting to new technologies. The government is, for example, consulting with lawyers and technologists on how to create a legal framework governing liabilities around the use of AI, robots and self-driving vehicles: who is responsible if, for example, an automated drone is involved in an accident? “We have a policy paper, now we’re having a public discussion – and after that the lawyers will probably start drafting the law,” he says.

Interpreting the laws

As the government’s legislative teams get to work on developing this new field of Estonia’s legal system they will, of course, be using the same skills that Loot learned during his first years in the civil service: “not how to apply law, but how to design law.” By the time they begin drafting, though, Loot himself will have returned to his legal roots ­– taking up his new role as a Supreme Court justice.

There, he’ll play a key role in interpreting how the laws that he helped to write should guide the behaviour of the civil servants that he helped to train, within the organisations that he helped to create. “I hope that my experience in the executive will help me a lot,” he comments. “By deciding cases, you direct or amend policies. And I know how the government works. I understand the policies behind the legal rules – the broader picture.”

Heiki Loot would, however, be the first to acknowledge that he doesn’t yet have all the answers. Joining a Supreme Court mainly comprising legal and academic professionals, he’ll have a lot to learn – and he will, as ever, learn by doing. It seems to have worked pretty well so far.

Global Government Forum: Five Thoughts for Better Government 

Heiki Loot on learning from overseas 

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. This is an edited version of Loot’s answers.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

“A dozen years ago we established a statutory unit to handle the long-term perspective of the government, and made it responsible also for the handling of the four-year government programme. So they’re not only strategists, but they are also hands-on with policy.

“The primary source of inspiration was the British Cabinet Office. The UK government makes a lot of information available on the web, and it has helped us in many cases: it is a very good source of inspiration. We have learned from many other countries, but this statutory unit was inspired by the UK version.”

Are there any projects or innovations from Estonia that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

“For 18 years, we have used an IT system to prepare for government sessions and consultation before Cabinet meetings. And this system has functioned very, very well; it’s something which I would recommend to my peers.

“The other thing is that we’ve developed here in Estonia, for many years, a special system for the development and recruitment of very senior civil servants. We have 100 people identified and we recruit, select and – importantly – develop them, assessing them centrally here in the Government Office. This has obtained a lot of attention from other countries.”

How can we improve the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

“The main thing is to make communication happen. There are plenty of ways to do bilateral cooperation, and there’s the OECD framework to exchange information – including its Network of Senior Officials from Centres of Government. Global Government Forum is also important to exchange information: it’s very beneficial and helpful, a very good initiative.

“But also you can do projects unilaterally or bilaterally. For example, in Estonia we have initiated an innovation programme for senior civil servants, and we do international programmes. We invite people from our neighbours – from the Netherlands, the UK – to take part, and it’s focused on innovation. These people spend many days together, and I think this is also a very good way for senior civil servants to exchange information.”

What are the biggest global challenges facing public sector leaders over the next few years?

“From my perspective here in Estonia, what we see as important for our country is that the present world order, the international order, may change – and for us it’s very important that international structures like NATO will keep on going. It’s vital for national security, so it’s something which we work on very much. Seen from here, it’s a real global challenge.”

And finally, what’s your favourite book?

“As a member of the civil service, maybe I would name one of the books that has been very popular among Estonian Civil Servants. It’s from many years ago, but still a very good book for the civil service: Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, by Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay. Also, the BBC series has been very popular in Estonia, and very much watched. And this book is much cited in communications of civil servants.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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