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Estonia is a leader in digital governance.
Tuomas A. Lehtinen/Getty

Estonia's Embrace of Digital Citizenship Is a Model for Us All

Estonia's move to digital citizenship and government systems eliminated a lot of bureaucracy. Could that happen elsewhere?

Cowering from the wind on the upper platform of the Sõrve Lighthouse at the westernmost point of Estonia, journalist Ronald Liive directs the camera out to sea with one hand and fiddles with his laptop with the other.

"Latvia is over there, I can see it with my eyes," he says, while logging into Estonia's online government services portal. In the video, published to YouTube, Liive proceeds to show himself casting his vote in his local elections though he's miles from a polling station.

Liive's point was to show how easy it is in Estonia to cast your vote from anywhere, even from a remote peninsula jutting into the Baltic Sea. And when he recasts it the following day (until polls close, Estonians can vote again to override their previous choice) where he lives, he says will likely do so without bothering to leave his house.

Citizen Now
CNET

Most democracies around the world, the US included, are still debating whether online voting is viable, or even a good idea at all. But Estonian residents have been able to vote online since 2005. They can still line up in the rain to check the box in person if they so desire, but almost half of the population chooses to vote online instead. And voting is just one example of how taking time to visit a government office in person is a fool's errand in Estonia. Thanks to an online system built around every resident having a digital identification – which uses a single login to access every government service and gives them a legally binding digital signature – everything from filing taxes to registering the birth of a child can be done in mere minutes from the comfort of their own home.

Siim Sikkut, former CIO of the Estonian government, says Estonians are comfortable in this digital world. He once voted online while on vacation in Fiji. "We are annoyed or surprised if something still happens on paper, or I have to show up somewhere," he said.

Estonia's ability to free its people from the burden of having to physically show up serves as a potential model for what you stand to gain from going entirely digital. While there were some unique traits that enabled Estonia to make a successful transition, there are plenty of lessons other countries could take as they ponder a bigger digital presence. 

The benefits of Estonia's digital public services are many, starting with the amount of money it saves the country – an estimated 2% of its GDP. That enables it to afford an army, said former digital government adviser Marten Kaevats, which is an essential in a NATO member country that borders Russia. The Baltic state, which has a population of just 1.3 million, regained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 and has a large Russian minority. Or, as Kaevats puts it: "We are a small country at the gates of Mordor."

Estonian residents also save time and energy on dreaded life admin tasks using digital services they trust. Whereas services created by the private sector – Facebook and TikTok, for example – are built to maximize the time and attention we give them, Estonia's are built to do the opposite, said Kaevats. Instead, the less time you spend within these systems, the better.

"We actually have much more time to do more meaningful stuff than just push papers around, which means that we can spend it with our family or do some creative work or do whatever people want to do," he said.

Post-Soviet digitalization

Given its small size (about twice the area of New Jersey), location and the relatively short time it's had to rebuild itself from scratch since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it might be surprising that a country with a population smaller than that of San Diego is proving itself such a formidable leader in tech. But its lack of resources, people, legacy systems and money are key reasons Estonia embraced the digital. "The main incentive for this digitalization was that we actually couldn't afford to build the regular paper-based bureaucracy," said Kaevats.

Not that tech was so cheap to come by back when Estonia set out on its digitalization journey in the early days of independence. A legendary chapter in this story is that in the early '90s, Estonia's then President Lennart Meri was laughed out of the room by IBM executives when he told them of his plan to put citizenship online and his budget (roughly equating to $2,000). Humiliated, he announced to his staff: "Fuck it, let's do it ourselves."

And so, with a politically inexperienced government at the helm, no existing infrastructure and meager funds, Estonia set about building a system of digital governance for which there was no blueprint.

Having no legacy systems in many ways benefitted Estonia, said David Eaves, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. On top of that, there weren't many business processes in place, so the Estonians were able to design everything from the ground up. "This is kind of a weird thing to describe as an advantage, but when the Soviets left, they just took a lot of the actual infrastructure." 

Fortunately, the country had skills and timing on its side. It was the beginning of the PC era, and there was, Kaevats said, "a community of nerds" – computer scientists who were left jobless after the Soviet Cybernetics Institute, which had been based in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, became obsolete. 

Over the ensuing three decades, the country has fulfilled Meri's vision. It also invested heavily in education. Starting in 1997, Estonia's Tiigrihüpe, or "Tiger Leap," project put the internet in schools across the country, alongside a widespread computer literacy campaign that targeted everyone from the very young to the elderly. By 2000, Estonia had declared internet access a human right.

International appeal

Other than getting married or divorced, there's now almost no limit to what you can do online in Estonia. You can file your taxes, apply for a new passport or driving license, decide where to deposit your pension, register for parental leave and manage prescriptions. If you call an ambulance, the paramedic will know by the time they reach you any medical history they need to be aware of and your blood type.

All of this data is tied to a unique identification number and an ID card. To log in to any government portal, Estonians can scan their ID card or enter their number and a PIN to verify their identity. A second PIN is for signing electronic documents. Interacting with public services in this way is entrenched in the public psyche, and for newcomers it's usually a well-appreciated upgrade to the systems they're used to at home.

The InterNations Digital Life Abroad survey from 2019, which solicits the opinions of expats on connectivity in the places they live, ranked Estonia as the best country in the world for digital life. Not only was it one of the countries that "excel at offering the environment to live a connected life," but 94% of expats in the country said they were impressed with the availability of administrative or government services online (compared with 55% globally).

Arnaud Castaignet is French, but has lived in Estonia for five years and works for an Estonian tech startup. In both countries he can pay his taxes online, he said, but in France he must register for the tax platform with a separate username and password from what he uses for any other government services. He praised the simplicity of the Estonian system, which uses one login for all government services, and is designed so that you only need to input a piece of information once (updating your address, for example) for it to be updated everywhere. 

But Estonia's transformation has made life simpler for more than just residents. With the country's pioneering e-Residency initiative, citizens of other countries can sign up to benefit from the country's frictionless bureaucracy, too.

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Estonia's e-Residency kit.

e-Residency

Introduced in 2014, e-Residency allows citizens of any country in the world to register for an Estonian ID, buying them access to its entire digital ecosystem and the European single market (allowing them to do business within the EU). Initially it was dreamed up as a way to "get rid of the silly parallel worlds," as Sikkut described it, where foreign owners and investors in Estonian companies were forced to do everything on paper and digitally. 

Estonia thought it would mainly attract countries outside of the EU, and it did draw many Ukrainians (and Brits in the wake of Brexit). But it also appealed to people from countries such as Germany, Italy and France, who found the red tape in their home countries too cumbersome and time-consuming when setting up their companies. "It enriches the whole entrepreneurial landscape," said Andres Sutt, Estonia's minister for entrepreneurship and IT.

Praise for the initiative isn't universal among participants, some of whom claim it doesn't save them the burdens they still have to deal with at home. But the program has now attracted well over 90,000 members, including US tech entrepreneur Luke Seelenbinder, who has found e-Residency to have "far exceeded" his expectations. He's been part of three Estonian companies while still based in the US and met "dozens of friends."

"People who find e-Residency useful typically are entrepreneurial, well-grounded, and globally-minded," he said via email. "Many think of themselves as primarily world citizens, and e-Residency is a gateway to enabling that."

Trusting the system

No matter how good Estonia's tech is, none of it would work without one key component: trust. The tech itself is "actually totally irrelevant," said Kaevats. "The question is the culture you build around it."

Online voting is the crown jewel in Estonia's digital governance, said Kaevats. But, he warned, governments should never start with voting if they want to digitize public services. Instead, start with a less critical system that allows people to build trust in digital IDs. "In order to have internet voting, you need to have all of these other key aspects of digital society already in place where you can build the voting system on top," he said.

Castaignet, who recently voted online in Estonia for the first time, said that he was reassured by the trust he had in the rest of the digital administration. "If you trust the system to protect your data, bank accounts, medical records, taxation, etc., then it's easier to make people trustful about opening the voting system too using the exact same technology," he said.

From its inception, Estonia's system was built on the idea that every resident is the owner of and in control of their data. Rather than there being a centralized database acting as a registry of all Estonian residents and their details, it has used blockchain technology – a secure, accountable, distributed method of storing and exchanging data – since before the word blockchain existed.

"Government is more like a small brother than a big brother, because every resident has very strong legal rights over their data," said Kaevats. "As the owner of your own data, you can beat up the smaller brother easier."

Over Zoom, Liive shared his screen showing the government portal. There's a list that resembles a bank statement, which notes every time any individual or government agency looks at any of their data, as well as specifically what they've looked at. If he wanted to, he could challenge any of the interactions.

"Big tech like Meta and Twitter have more information about me than my state does," he said. "Being an avid Twitter fan they know my location 24/7. For my state to know that they need to be granted access to my phone's location through the court. That process takes time, and without a legal case against me, they will not be granted access to it."

Liive lives on Estonia's largest island, Saaremaa, and as a resident receives a discount anytime he gets the ferry to the mainland. He pointed to the times in his data record where the system verified where he lives. When he comes to pay, the discount is applied automatically.

Residents also have granular control over who can see their more sensitive data. Castaignet explained how it was possible to lock down different elements of his data, giving permission only to his personal physician to view certain aspects of his medical records, for example. "It really empowers you and gives you much more control over your personal data," he said.

So transparent is the system that if a government official or medical professional decides to go snooping, they can't do so without leaving a trace. Anyone using the system improperly can lose their job or be slapped with a fine – something that does happen from time to time.

Still, stories of wider misuse or other problems are uncommon, the Estonian residents, officials and journalists I spoke with told me, bolstering people's trust in the system. "People need to see that these systems are credible, that the government is actually using it for the benefit of citizens and not for any other purpose," said Sutt.

It's not that levels of trust in the government are unusually high in Estonia, said Kaevats. Instead it's trust in governance – the digital systems used to access public services – that sets it apart. "Trust is the key component in the entire ecosystem, and that's why we also pay very strong attention to cybersecurity," said Sutt.

Like other large databases of personal information, Estonia is fielding increasingly more complex cyberattacks. In spite of this, the number of breaches of its ID system have been low. In 2007, Estonia was subject to a landmark cyberattack by Russia that wasn't aimed at stealing residents' data (instead it was a coordinated DDoS attack defacing many Estonian websites). Last year, an Estonian hacker was arrested after scraping almost 300,000 ID photographs from the system. It was only the second such incident to occur, and in both cases the perpetrator was the same man.

Reinventing the bicycle

Many countries have, in their own ways, emulated elements of Estonia's digital systems. Tying Estonia's digital public service offering together behind the scenes is a system known as X Road. Estonia built it from a legal framework borrowed from Germany and a tech framework borrowed from Finland. 

X Road is open source and used in more than 20 countries around the world. Just as Estonia borrowed from its friends to build it in the first place, it wants more countries to borrow from everything it's learned. "One of the problems there is that every government wants to invent their own bicycle," said Kaevats.

Whether other countries invent their own bicycles, or borrow Estonia's, the past few years have shown just how necessary it is for them to get a wriggle on. Estonia's digital governance came into its own during the COVID-19 pandemic. "We've been kind of not knowingly preparing for this type of event for the last 20 years," said Kaevats. 

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A sign from the e-Estonia pavilion at Dubai Expo.

Foundation of Estonian Section at Expo 2020 Dubai / Foto Ismail Noo

But enjoying efficient digital governance at home doesn't mean Estonians don't want to improve them. High standards have bred high expectations. Sutt wants to ensure Estonia doesn't allow legacy systems to hamper innovation. His focus, he said, is to improve user experience and satisfaction rather than the technology itself. He also wants more bilateral interoperability with other countries – so people could pick up their prescriptions in other countries, for example.

"Increasingly, it will be hard to run a 21st century economy without a digital identity," said Eaves. The decision will come down to whether that identity is provided by the government or the private sector, and it's something that countries including the US and the UK will have to wrestle with imminently, he added. Whether the private sector in the US could engender the level of trust and offer the accountability and gravitas necessary remains a question.

April Rinne, a US citizen living in Portland, Oregon, signed up for Estonia's e-Residency system simply to find out more about it. Along with the tax system, she'd like to see the US replicate the way Estonia handles voting and health records. "Estonia has the benefit of small size, but I think there is a lot that the individual states, cities, etc., could also learn and build upon," she said.

Estonia believes it's created a scalable model, but bigger countries are often dismissive of its digital governance efforts because of its size. "It's deeply unfair," said Eaves. "[But] at the same time, there are all sorts of hurdles that become easier to overcome when you have a population that is relatively homogenous, where the scale not just for the country is smaller, but of the public services is smaller."

Still, he believes there are a lot of lessons that can be taken from Estonia's success if other governments are willing to listen. "They are a leader," he said. "There's no doubt about that, and there's a lot people can learn. There are some unfair advantages they have that probably make replicating them difficult in other places, but not impossible, and probably worthy of more exploration."