A Trip to Estonia

In May 2014 I spent a week in Estonia meeting the people involved in the vision, strategy and delivery of their Digital Society, eGovernment and Tech Startup EcoSystem.

It is always good to start with the ‘why’, why did I go to Estonia?

There are a couple of main reasons behind why I went, which are:

  • I am passionate about Guernsey using technology to benefit the community.
  • I am interested in how technology can improve public services
  • I am frustrated with the lack of progress and action in Guernsey in the technology and digital space (despite lots of talk about it).

First of all, I was very impressed and surprised by how keen people were to meet up and chat about the journey Estonia have been on to get to where they are. They clearly understand the value of collaboration in todays global economy.

My first meeting was with the CEO of Cybernetica, one of Estonia’s leading ICT companies that played a key role in developing much of the technology used within the eGovernment environment in Estonia. Oliver, their CEO gave me a great summary on the history of Estonia in the context of where it is now as a digital society. The population of Estonia is 1.3 million people, after gaining independence in 1991 the country moved very swiftly into the technology space and by 1995 had the first online banking platform. Today 99.6% of banking transactions are completed online.

From a connectivity perspective, by 1997 97% of schools in Estonia had internet access, today they view internet access as a social right like drinking from a birch tree.

A critical foundation to their journey was vision, and vision coming from passionate leaders.

Key people such as Taavi Kotka (Government CIO) worked tirelessly on creating the vision for where Estonia could be and engaging with the right people and organisations to achieve the vision of a digital society. Oliver, Cybernetica CEO, outlined that the Estonian government was not a rich government, it was not in the position to spend millions on complex BIG IT solutions.

The focus started on building an environment and culture where the public and private sector could work together for the benefit of the nation, a radical approach!

Oliver stated that a huge benefit to Estonia was the lack of legacy applications, hardware and infrastructure. They were able to develop from the ground up, essentially a greenfield site where they could focus on requirements that would bring benefits to the Estonian citizens and improve collaboration across government departments. They didn’t have the distraction of how to handle ageing applications, hardware or ineffective and inefficient manual processes.

Estonia take benefits and benefits realisation seriously. I was impressed by the ‘Why’ behind their digital society and eGovernment approach. When they looked at each component or deliverable of their eGovernment strategy they asked two simple key questions.

  1. Will this benefit the citizen?
  2. Will this improve services across internal government departments?

Their focus on ‘citizen benefit’ was refreshing, and I think revolutionary in their journey and success.

  • How did they get to 99.6% of banking transactions being made online?
  • How did they get to 100% of schools being ICT equipped?
  • How did they get to 95% of income tax submissions being submitted online?

By prioritising the citizen and focusing on benefits.

Oliver and his company Cybernetica played a key role (and continue to play a key role) in all things eGovernment and digital society in Estonia. The development and implementation of the XRoad platform is the backbone to the architecture behind the Estonian eGovernment. XRoad enables organisations to connect information securely in order to deliver services in a unified and centralised manner. In Estonia they have used it to connect multiple databases (Government departments) in order to deliver effective public services through the digital channel.

What was Oliver’s view on Guernsey?

“Wow, you guys have everything you need to be successful in the ICT space.You can change quickly, legislation doesn’t need to hold you back, you can learn from and work with those that have gone before you in the digital space. One question Philip, do you have the vision, leadership and passion in Guernsey?”.

Good question Oliver.

One key take away from my first afternoon in Estonia:

Adoption of change came through real benefits and keeping things simple.

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