e-Governance: the Estonian Case, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Ott Velsberg, Chief Data Officer for the Estonian government. Increased quality of service, the lack of bureaucracy, and the ease of interacting with the government directly benefit the business and citizens.
For which aspects in public administration is Estonia’s e-Government particularly helpful?
Ott Velsberg: The biggest differences really come from an increased quality of service, the lack of bureaucracy, and the ease of interacting with the government. These improvements directly benefit the business and citizens. Filing an annual personal tax return declaration typically takes three to five minutes; setting up a company takes a few hours; and health data is digital and shared across health care providers allowing citizens to receive the best care. Similar examples are visible across the government in different sectors. This has not strictly been left to the public sector, but has been carried over to the private sector as well. Estonia has the highest number of unicorns per capita (privately owned business valued at over $1bn).
Which challenges do the Estonian administration face in implementing the e-Government strategy? For which programmes do you still see room for improvement?
Ott Velsberg: We have come a long way, but the biggest challenge is really to change how the government operates. Much of the government is digitalised, services are more efficient and of higher quality, but there is one inherent problem – they still typically require a citizen to interact with them. Our next goal, which we are already working towards, is to make the government seamless, proactive and personalised. A citizen would receive services without asking the government for them. So the next time a child is born, the government will automatically pay child benefits, register them in the kindergarten waiting list, assign their personal ID-number, ask you to name your child and so forth. So it is really about the end goal of making the government work in the background. But here, we have a dilemma of how proactive, seamless, and personalised the government should be.
How does the Estonian government treat different data? For example, could citizens choose whether to ‘opt-in’ for the automatic administrative services? If so, would this freedom of choice differ between the services (e.g. healthcare, tax)?
Ott Velsberg: This is something that we are internally discussing. It seems that this proactiveness really depends on the service – no one is against having their car licence automatically extended or being provided a permit for each of their children to drive cars, but when we go into areas such as giving recommendations on re-education/career planning, the reception is less warm. This said, we haven’t actually faced a resistance, but it is really something we are discussing.
We are soon starting a scientific research project with Tartu University and part of the research will concentrate on how this affects citizens and public administration. Although I will say, the government has thus far close to 20 AI solutions deployed in the government and the results are significantly positive and exceeding expectations.