Maybe it’s their population. A manageable 1.3 million people – smaller than half of Nairobi’s teeming numbers. But the Republic of Estonia has its finger on the tech pulse. Siim Sikkut, their brilliant second GCIO explains how they did it. And it is exactly what you think, and yet never imagined.
Estonia started going digital in the late 90s. Then, as now, they were a smaller than average population. It made them quick on their feet, pliable, and fluid. “Being as small as we are, we have to be very efficient in how we do things and to progress as a people, nation and economy. And the public sector that delivers is the cornerstone of that. This serves to eliminate bureaucracy and the cost of a company, but also improve the wellbeing of citizens with the services on offer,” begins Sikkut.
Estonia experimented with visual technology as it was just picking up, and going mainstream. Their effort panned out, and they were able to be a better government. Said government then started making a conscious effort, making up a strategy that goes all the way to now, in the throes of a pandemic.
“It took 20 plus years. We reached a point where almost anything you do, need to do or want to do with the government as a citizen, as an entrepreneur, all these things happened digitally,” clarified Sikkut. All services, of course, except for getting married where you have to show up in person – naturally. But with tech, that could just as easily be solved from a distance. “We just have to make sure you are doing it voluntarily because that is how we handle the legal risk. Legally getting married is, after all, one of the most influential things you will have to do in your legal life.”
The only pieces of paper in circulation would probably only include foreign correspondence. “Digital solutions have become such a part of our daily lives that’s why we mockingly call ourselves e-Estonia. That is how we are known all around the world.”
How has that happened? It is not because e-Estonia is somehow good at technology. They have the talent and skills, and good partners as well. What happened was the malleability of the Estonian legal system. The legal environment created trust in the rule of law. Sikkut talks about Estonia being able to bring down the barriers in legalisation and law, and that they used the law to basically push themselves forward. For instance, digital signatures carry weight because it is legal and Estonians live like that. The rule of law also creates the foundation of technological change by earning the people’s trust.
Estonian digitalisation has been greatly accelerated by platforms. They put in place certain common needs like authentication. You cannot provide a digital service as an agency in government or as a company unless it is done in a secure way. All you have to do is authentication. An example is X-Road. This is data sharing between various departments in government. Basically, it is the shared usable components. “These are the platforms and if we adopt them, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The platform is the infrastructure that has made us grow much faster.”
With great digital transformation comes great cybersecurity. To go digital, trust has to be there. It means building up cybersecurity excellence all the while designing secure systems that are able to protect what they have.
“It doesn’t mean risks have to remain a barrier. If done properly, invested in well, taken seriously and thoroughly, then the fact that something can be hacked, that data can get lost, also means you know how to minise the risk and reap the benefits of digitalisation,” explains Sikkut.
But change, like every Kenyan knows, happens when the government, company or individual have what it takes to be successful; the right mindset and culture. With this mentality, comes the opportunity to try a few things, and to fail fast. “There has been willingness in leadership to try things out, experiment, and if it works out then scale it throughout the whole country.”
That is how e-Residency was born. “It worked because we had a government that went along with this ambitious idea and said ‘Hey! Why don’t we try to see how to make it work as opposed to finding ways not to do it. It was the mindset of seeing how to make stuff work, Looking at problems that can be solved.” And, it allows them to build solutions for other countries. In comes partnerships. e-Estonia is not built in government, but in corporates and industries working together. Estonia is not shy about taking solutions from other countries either if it means things will move along faster. It is how they circumvent the fact that they can’t necessarily get or afford the best of the best on their payroll.
The Estonian journey really shows the way digital is not hard in the sense that if you do it, put your mind, resources and partnerships together, great things will happen.