What can e-Estonia teach us about surviving digital life under Covid-19?

What can e-Estonia teach us about surviving digital life under Covid-19?
Image: Renee Altov

With large swathes of Europe under pandemic-induced lockdown, our day-to-day lives are going almost completely online. But as some countries struggle to get to grips with e-voting and virtual cabinet meetings for the very first time, others are enjoying a digital head start.

14 April 2020

Estonian officials did not have global infections in mind when they penned the country’s digital policies at the start of the 90s. Still struggling after the collapse of the Soviet Union, bureaucrats had two main goals: to cut down manpower and to slash spending. What ensued was a national push to move government services online.

More than two decades on however, and going digital has reaped serious rewards. Almost all interactions between citizen and state — as well as many between private companies and individuals — can be done virtually. And, at a time when Estonian schools are shut, non-essential stores have closed, and gatherings outside the home have been limited to just two people, it’s the kind of digital infrastructure that social distancers dream about.

The Calvert Journal spoke to Florian Marcus, presenter-analyst at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre, on what Covid-19-hit governments can learn from Estonia’s digital drive amid a new push for online connectivity.


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There’s more to a digital economy than just working from home

Estonia has a reputation for nurturing IT-heavy start-ups, but, much like in other European states, huge swathes of the workforce have still been hit by self-isolation orders. Ultimately, not every company or employee can work remotely. But for those who can, digitisation means that workers quarantined at home can continue just as they would at the office. That efficiency is just as important to the economy as trying to boost the number of industries who can go remote in the first place

“The question isn’t ‘do you work from home’, but ‘can you work from home?”, says Marcus.

“Ninety-nine per cent of services can be done online anyway, so there isn’t loss of efficiency or capability that other workforces might be seeing.”

These systems work thanks to the unique electronic IDs given to each Estonian citizen. Digital signatures have been legally binding in Estonia since 2002 with just three exceptions: getting married, getting divorced, or buying real estate (the final category has been relaxed slightly under the current pandemic).

More importantly, these electronic services don’t require large amounts of bandwidth: so even if large numbers of people are logging on, work can still continue without the website crashing or freezing. “Internet speed isn’t a key driving force,” says Florian. “Parts of the country still run their internet on copper wires. You might need lots of bandwidth to stream video in HD, but not to submit your tax declaration.”


If youre going digital, then you need to commit

It’s no surprise that governments are rethinking their digital strategy amid the pandemic, says Marcus. But if countries want to make it work, then they need to go big.

“Many governments right now are thinking about small projects that will get people on side,” says Marcus. “But that’s not a solution. Germany is now issuing digital IDs on an opt-in basis: it decided to introduce the system by letting people apply for their passports digitally. But how often do people apply for passports? If you want to get people into the digital ecosystem, you need to involve something that people use on a regular basis. In Estonia, the first digital system was for tax returns. That’s huge. But it makes people’s lives easier, and so they use it.”

Some 96 per cent of Estonians now file their taxes online. Paper-based forms are available, but just aren’t popular even among groups who are less active online. The Estonian government pushed to educate the masses with free computer courses and circus tent roadshows in the late 90s and early 00s — but Marcus says that it’s a misconception that at-risk groups such as disabled or older people aren’t willing to engage online.

“The truth is, they’re just less interested if you provide bad services,” says Marcus.

But change won’t happen overnight

The coronavirus outbreak may have been the wake-up call that many people needed to get their digital affairs in order, but don’t expect fully-fledged virtual solutions to appear by the time the lockdown lifts. Digitalisation can’t be a snap decision: in Estonia’s case, the government drew up their plans in 1994, and didn’t implement their first e-government services until 1999.

“We can handle this situation, but that’s because we are digitally mature now,” says Marcus. “Our old user interfaces used to be ugly and unintuitive; there have been lots of learning steps.

For now, if governments want to catch up, then things need to be done centrally, at least in the beginning. If every federal state and council goes off now and starts doing its own thing, then people will soon find out that these different systems aren’t compatible.

Digitisation doesn't just help people work from home. Image: Renee Altov

You can’t build anything without trust

Covid-19 saw the rise of the everyday e-conference, but it also marked the birth of Zoombombing: where unwanted online guests gatecrash group video chats. If you’ve got software, then someone is out there trying to find a weakness, and most businesses won’t give sensitive data to systems they don’t trust.

To keep people and companies invested, then they have to know that they can count on you with their details, says Marcus. Unlike most governments, the code behind Estonia’s e-systems is available on GitHub, so that other programmers can make sure that its watertight.

But Estonia’s e-government system also uses several other guiding principles to keep data secure and to cut down on human error (because, no, it isn’t your messaging software that keeps posting your company’s private meeting passwords on public Twitter accounts.)

They include the “once only principle”, which promises that only one government department or group can hold a certain kind of data. Estonian addresses, for example, are only held on the population register — and if that address is needed by someone else, then they need to ask the registry for help. If data isn’t held on multiple servers, then hackers who might want to steal particular information can’t just choose to strike whichever has the weakest security.

Another guiding mantra is “digital by default.” Information submitted on paper will be entered into the digital system where it can be better protected. The government can’t track nosy employees who might be looking at your information on a sheet of paper, but it can and does log who has accessed digital files.

“In the state portal, I can see who has looked at my data, when and why. It re-establishes the balance of power between the state and its citizens,” says Marcus.

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