By Viljar Veebel*
(FPRI) — In 1997, when Estonia first began building its digital society through an e-governance system to provide public services online, the general population had limited access to the internet. Twenty years later, the possibilities offered by digital technologies seem endless. With Estonia’s subsequent introduction of e-taxes, internet voting, e-healthcare, and, most recently, e-residency, 99.5% of all public services are now available online. It’s therefore unsurprising that many consider Estonia an international trailblazer in digital solutions. In 2017, the Wired magazine called the country “the most advanced digital society in the world.” E-solutions are integral to Estonia’s identity, and the country is keen to maintain its image as the world’s digital pioneer.
The European Union is following Estonia’s lead by now emphasizing e-solutions. In early 2017, the European Parliament published a report “On e-democracy in the European Union: Potential and Challenges,” which discussed methods to support traditional democratic systems through information and communications technology (ICT). By using these so-called e-democracy tools to increase the public’s participation in EU-level decision-making processes, lawmakers aim to decrease the “democratic deficit” within the bloc. Yet, while this task appears relatively simple on paper, it will be difficult to implement. As a digital pioneer, Estonia faced many challenges along the path of developing its e-society. This experience could prove valuable to the EU’s latest digital endeavor.
Estonia’s experience highlights two issues in implementing digital solutions. First, e-solutions will only work if people trust the system. Second, extensive coordination both in planning and resource allocation is necessary.
Estonia’s digital authorities have long emphasized that the success of e-solutions hinges not only on the systems’ technical operations, but also on public perception. The biggest technical “failure” of Estonia’s digital solutions occurred in the autumn of 2017 when a security risk was discovered in Estonia’s identity cards, the personalized access keys to the state’s digital services. While the vulnerability was an easily-resolvable hardware problem with the card’s chips (as opposed to a security breach or software malfunction), the episode caused public outcry and remained unresolved for over a week. Authorities blocked ID cards with outdated security certificates, yet thousands of professionals—doctors, notaries, policemen, administrators, etc.—still had to use the cards daily to register their services. This impeded 750,000 card holders from accessing public services. Stories of the crisis catalyzed by the failure of a single, yet central, component of Estonia’s digital system circulated across Europe.
While many understand that no complex systems are perfect, the event damaged the reputation of Estonia’s digital program. It reminds policymakers that the larger and the more complex digital systems become, the higher the risk of a technical failure. As Estonia’s experience shows, the breach of a super database is not the only digital vulnerability lawmakers should be concerned about. Rather, the malfunction of a single hardware component vital to the system can have serious effects. This lesson thus underscores the importance of operationally robust technical solutions—resistant to overloading, cyber-attacks, and other digital threats—in efforts to bring the EU’s democratic processes closer to its citizens.
Yet, as Estonia’s experience also shows, there exists a threat outside of technical errors. Even if no significant glitches occur, many still find digital solutions uncomfortably opaque. Discussion surrounding Estonia’s internet voting system offers an example. Despite the system being used extensively (in the October 2017 municipal elections, more than 180,000 people—about 15% of the electorate—cast their vote electronically) and demonstrating no reason for concern, e-government is criticized from time to time for not being sufficiently credible. There are two common arguments from opponents of e-voting: validity and credibility. First, in electronic voting, there is no possibility to confirm who is voting. Second, there is no way to confirm after the fact if the vote has been manipulated. Additional doubts about the credibility of e-solutions could partly be related to technical issues. For example, in Estonia’s 2011 national parliamentary elections, the electronic vote-counting system froze for several hours. This spurred concerns that the system had been hacked, thus rendering the results untenable.
More recently, the United States presidential elections demonstrated how easily individuals’ preferences can be influenced using the internet and information tools. Thus, a second lesson is that it is not only important to minimize technical errors when introducing digital solutions, but to build public confidence that these systems are safe and credible. Particularly as the EU faces internal tensions between national governments and the bloc’s institutions, policymakers should think carefully about how to supplement the introduction of extensive e-solutions with strategic communication. Most importantly, this communication should focus on increasing the public’s feeling of ownership over the online platforms.
Lastly, to make these digital solutions a reality, the EU must enhance its logistic and budgetary coordination. Estonia’s experience introducing digital health services—that is, digital receipts, registration, and medical data, including medical imaging—was rather negative in early years. Authorities later recognized that the system suffered from an overly broad focus, a lack of overall coordination, and the unnecessary duplication of activities and resources. The road to a fully functional system took several years, and it included temporary returns to paper-based solutions, consuming more than twice the resources than initially expected. Success came not primarily through revolutionary solutions but because the national government was prepared for painful corrections and open to redesigning the system. These same issues could easily occur at the European level. Thus, to successfully implement EU-wide digital solutions, officials will need to address the delicate issue of coordination mechanisms and the division of both power and responsibilities within the bloc.
Bearing in mind these potential downsides, there is much to be gained by increasing the accessibility of bureaucratic services through digitalization. The EU should focus on two main priorities: opening legislative processes with e-tools and implementing the once-only principle. This principle has already been investigated by a pan-European consortium under the leadership of the Tallinn University of Technology which advocates its implementation at the EU level. This principle assumes that collecting the same data multiple times is more expensive than sharing and reusing data already gathered. The once-only principle project aims to reduce the administrative burden. According to the European Commission, the project will ensure that information is supplied to public administrations only once regardless of country of origin.
Twenty years ago, Estonia decided to take a “tiger leap” forward. Today, it is the shining example of bureaucratic efficiency. Filing a tax return takes five minutes, national voting occurs online, and no one has to track down medical records. Officials report that Estonia saves over 800 years of working time and 2 percent of GDP annually through its digitized public services. Of course, the journey to this point was far from perfect, and in fact, this imperfection is advantageous today. By drawing on Estonia’s experience, the EU can more effectively implement e-solutions. The EU’s path of digital development will still encounter challenges. Yet, the Baltic e-Tiger has demonstrated the benefits of moving towards e-governance that citizens and enterprises will receive should the EU prioritize reducing its bureaucratic burden via digital solutions
About the author:
*Viljar Veebel is a researcher and consultant who has been researching in the University of Tartu, The Estonian School of Diplomacy and The Tallinn Technological University.
This article was published by FPRI.