What we can learn from Estonia’s digital connectivity

Tallinn, Estonia's capital city
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Estonia’s digital identity program is one other countries may want to emulate.

For the past two decades, Estonians have been able to do everything from banking to starting a business to managing health appointments via their digital ID.

As the UK tries to recover from the pandemic, using technology to deliver better services to improve communities and society and address social, environmental and economic challenges, could be the way forward.

Florian Marcus

Florian Marcus, Digital Transformation Advisor at e-Estonia Briefing Centre spoke at the ‘tech for good’ session at Disruptors North on how the Baltic country was overcoming challenges using technology.

There are still a few things that you can’t do electronically in Estonia: marry, divorce or transfer property — and that’s only because the government has decided it was important to turn up in person for some big life events.

For everything else you need a Digital ID.

“You can create a business online and a limited liability company in 20 minutes. You can buy or sell a house online, you can pay your taxes in three minutes. In fact 98.7% of people vote online in local, national, and European elections.

“And what we’ve seen is that, as a result, society has become a lot more resilient,” he said.

When Estonian schools shut during lockdown, the transition to home schooling was seamless, Marcus pointed out.

“The country was prepared for that because we’ve had an online school system, and a school management system including entering grades, handing out homework, test results and so on all done online since the early 2000s, and as a result, switching to the online world for our students and schools was comparatively straightforward.”

The education sector wasn’t the only area which benefitted from a digital eco-system.

When people lost their jobs due to Covid, the country saw a rise in people setting up their own businesses, and Marcus believes this was because of the ease of creating a new company online.

Looking towards the future, Estonia is working on proactive government services – the next evolutionary step for Estonians.

As citizens do not wish to fill multiple complex paper or web forms, government services are becoming more “seamless, reusable and proactive.”

Once one institution inside the state has the correct information, other institutions do not need to ask this from its citizen twice.

Marcus said: “If you think about the event of childbirth, for the last 20 years a doctor would register the birth of the child and the baby gets a citizen identity number and connects that identity number with that of the parents. At that point, technically the government knows, through the various channels, number one; there is a new baby and number two; these are the parents.

“The government then has all the information it needs to sort out child benefit payments, it can identify which primary school the child can attend based on their location and so six years before a child starts formal education, the parents can choose the school.”

He continued: “This is where we see a change in the self-understanding of government. No longer do we see citizens as data providers but ourselves as service providers and I think that this is a change that many countries will hopefully make over the over the coming years, so we’re very optimistic and of course Estonia is more than happy to help both local communities and national governments with these transformation projects.”

Commenting about data misuse, Marcus said a ‘data tracker’ can trace each time a government authority looks at a person’s data and why.

He added: “If we feel that that there have been any transgressions, potentially, we can get in touch with the data protection team, and they will start an investigation. It’s the little brother approach in Estonia, and yes parts of government can see parts of my data, but I can see when they do, I can hold them to account as well.”

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