IAN BIRRELL visits pioneer country where 99% of government services are available online

Around the world, there is deep disenchantment with governments, whether they are democracies stalled by political incompetence or corrupt dictatorships that abuse their power. But in Estonia, a Baltic nation of 1.3 million people, you tend to have a different view of their system of government.

Georgi Abolymov, 33, a personal trainer I met while walking his dog in the capital Tallinn, is typical. “I absolutely trust my government – it’s very hard to be a bad guy here these days, so we all trust the system.”

The reason for such faith is simple. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia reemerged as a free nation but was left in ruins and broken. So its politicians have made a big bet on technology – and now this country is leading the world in digital government.

It may sound boring. But the system works much more efficiently – and not just for bureaucrats and politicians. This means a lot less stress for citizens, with a study finding that it saves them the equivalent of one day’s work per month by simplifying their lives.

Estonia’s digital revolution has seen a bonfire of bureaucracy, with a drive to eliminate red tape and simplify the state system. Their system offers a stark contrast to Britain’s creaky public services, long waiting times and often impossible bureaucracy

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia reemerged as a free nation but was left in ruins and broken.  Its politicians have therefore made a big bet on technology ¿ and now this country is the world leader in digital government

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia reemerged as a free nation but was left in ruins and broken. So its politicians made a big bet on technology – and now this country leads the world in digital government.

Such efficiency saves the entire nation two percent of its gross domestic product, roughly the same as it spends on security. “You could say that our defense spending is funded by our digitized government,” former Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said.

Yet, having escaped communist dictatorship, the system couldn’t be further from Big Brother-type control. All personal data is “owned” by the citizen, its use is tracked and – wary of its closeness to Vladimir Putin – everything is backed up abroad.

The country’s banks, media and ministries were thrown into chaos in 2007 following a furious row with Russia over the relocation of a Soviet-era war memorial. “People come from all over the world to study a place that used to be a non-existent country but is now a model,” said law professor Katrin Nyman-Metcalf.

The Estonian system offers a stark contrast to Britain’s creaky public services, long waiting times and often impossible bureaucracy – something Professor Nyman-Metcalf has seen first-hand while trying to sort through her estate. British mother-in-law. “It took a year to do some simple administrative work after his death,” she said.

Estonia’s digital revolution has seen a bonfire of bureaucracy, with a drive to eliminate red tape and simplify the state system.

“It leaves more time for human interactions,” Carmen Raal told the e-Estonia information center as she showed me the system.

She boasted that 99% of government services are accessible online, except for marriage and divorce – and these will be online by the end of 2024.

So, from birth to death in Estonia, life is tracked and data – from schools to hospitals, from police to planning, from taxes to travel – is linked for more effective use.

Estonia's new government poses for a group photo on July 18, with Prime Minister Kaja Kallas in the center in light blue

Estonia’s new government poses for a group photo on July 18, with Prime Minister Kaja Kallas in the center in light blue

At the heart is a policy

At its heart is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy that insists the government only has the right to ask for data such as your address, date of birth, marital status, exam results only once. , your driver’s license number, even your blood group or prescribed medications

At its core is a “one time only” policy which insists that the government has the right to request any data such as your address, date of birth, marital status, test results, number driver’s license, even your blood group or prescribed medications.

It is the responsibility of officials to retrieve the information. This ensures that there is no need for time to fill in the same details on forms, no infuriating waits to talk to bored bureaucrats, and that it is in their interest to make sure the system is running smoothly. . This transformation of government is taken further by harnessing artificial intelligence – when computers “learn” from previous actions – and voice recognition technology to create digital “civil servants”. The aim is to provide more personalized and proactive services to remind citizens if they need to renew a passport, pay taxes, apply for a benefit or undergo a medical examination.

Ott Velsberg, the government’s chief data officer, said: “It’s about empowering citizens and providing access through voice, text or even sign language to improve customer satisfaction and ensure a better experience. government for the people.” As a Brit it is strange to visit a place where government bureaucrats speak with such passion about ‘customer satisfaction’, a concept alien to our civil servants as they trap people in bureaucracy and hide behind emails .

Every Estonian newborn is given an 11-digit digital identity code that includes their date of birth and gender, and later a digital signature. This code can be used for a multitude of transactions from buying tickets to signing deals and voting in elections from anywhere on the planet.

Citizens can access services around the clock. And even private companies – such as banks, bus companies or insurers – are allowed to use a system that disseminates state data instead of keeping it in central silos that can be hacked or leaked. If a driver receives a speeding fine, the authorities obtain their address from the postal register and are then obliged to destroy the information after the fine is paid.

After any transaction, there is a “digital” fingerprint that can be seen by regulators or citizens auditing the use of their data, ensuring that everyone can monitor potential abuse of their private information and allaying fears of interference” Big Brother”.

At the heart of this revolution in state services is the digitization of health services using a system based on that adopted by Britain during Tony’s disastrous £12billion bid Blair to modernize the NHS. “Perhaps we were more pragmatic,” smiles Peeter Ross, radiologist and e-health professor.

At the heart of this revolution in state services is the digitization of health services using a system based on that adopted by Britain during Tony's disastrous £12billion bid Blair to modernize the NHS.

At the heart of this revolution in state services is the digitization of health services using a system based on that adopted by Britain during Tony’s disastrous £12billion bid Blair to modernize the NHS.

As he showed me around his hospital in Tallinn, Professor Ross proclaimed the benefits for any doctor, nurse or paramedic of having instant access to medical histories, tests shared quickly and the technology used to automatically check the prescription safety.

Curiously, in a healthcare system similar to the NHS, people like to see their treatment costs, which experts say reinforces the true cost of their healthcare.

All state information is stored in a “data” embassy in Luxembourg. This ensures that the state can function in a crisis once officials log back in with their digital signatures. According to a recent study, Estonia ranks first in Europe for promoting democracy, but this digital transformation was driven by necessity and luck when Estonia was reborn with such a dismal legacy from Moscow.

The emerging nation was led by a younger generation – the first prime minister was 32 when he took office – in a place with a strong engineering and math heritage in an age when the internet was coming.

“The new government had to do something drastic given the scarcity of resources,” said Linnar Viik, one of the system’s architects. “So we made a blind bet on the future. We have done many things without knowing where they would lead.

Viik went to the United States to buy IBM computers for a country in which less than half the population had phone lines, but the tech giant told him to come back when he had 100 times more money.

Estonia therefore built – or tinkered with – its own systems while connecting almost all schools to the Internet within six years of independence and introducing coding courses at primary level. This technological metamorphosis was firmly rooted in post-Soviet ideals of human rights, distrust of power and the importance of capitalism which led to flat taxes, low labor force participation and to the empowerment of citizens. There are inevitably grudges against politicians, but could Estonia be a role model for Britain? “The beauty of the technology is that it can scale to any size,” Prof Nyman-Metcalf said. “You may have more people, but it would contribute to a more efficient government.”

Ashley C. Reynolds