From Soviet-era rotary phones to public services run on artificial intelligence, Estonia has pioneered digital government. But an architect of its transformation says success depends on “analogue factors, not digital”.

As the Berlin Wall fell, Linnar Viik was a student travelling in Europe. In Dresden, he witnessed crowds gather in the central square; one crowd in one corner, in favour of a united Germany, the other opposite, in favour of remaining part of the Soviet Bloc. After 90 minutes, they would disperse, and then reconvene at the same time the following day. In Prague, he found, it was very different; intellectuals would gather in studios to debate the seismic political shift.

Culture matters, said Viik, when countries are going through change. Viik is from Estonia and in Tallinn, its capital, those involved in re-establishing their country as an independent nation came from a variety of backgrounds, including the sciences. But, fortuitously, he added – only half joking – “not so many lawyers.” When the newly installed prime minister went to his office, after giving his oath to parliament, he was confronted by a desk with a row of rotary telephones. “Why so many,” he asked, “and if the red one rings, who will it be?” “We don’t know,” came the reply, “better answer it so we can find out.”

The early days of trying to build a digital society were not easy; metaphorically and physically. Estonia’s communications network was a traditional tangle of copper wire, linking the military police to the KGB and, somewhere in between, the trade unions. At a meeting with IBM to discuss new infrastructure, they were congratulated on their new-found independence and asked: “What’s your IT budget?” It was $1.3m. “For that, you can look at our mainframe,” Viik recalls them saying. “For ten times that, you can touch it; for 100 times, we can talk business.”

So, Estonia built from scratch, using whatever technologies were easily available and affordable. “We didn’t know we were doing anything different,” said Viik, “we were so busy building basic public services.” While government services were being established online, Estonia’s government was still paper-based. Viik commandeered the remaining photo-copying budget and built an IT system for cabinet decision-making.

“The greatest achievement was not saving money,” he said, “it was creating transparency. The public could see online beforehand what was to be discussed by the cabinet, with all the background papers, and know decisions seconds after they had been taken. It was building another bridge between government and society.”

Linnar Viik will be speaking at FutureScot’s Digital Scotland Conference in Glasgow on 30 May.

The digital cabinet progressed to laptops, then to tablets, and now today it is a ‘bring-your-own-device’ cabinet. “It takes time,” said Viik, co-founder of the e-Governance Academy in Tallinn, “sometimes five or 10 years for digital innovations to become norms. Spending has remained steady, no peaks or troughs. None of the projects have been a success from day one. It can take two or three iterations.”

Next month, Estonia is hosting the fifth e-Governance Conference. Its strapline: ‘Same goals, different roadmaps’. “The conference has become a bit of a religious pilgrimage,” said Viik, “governments and countries who are converted to a belief in the power of e-government gathering on an annual basis. We have found that while their goals are similar – for IT to amplify entrepreneurship, the knowledge of their people, the efficiency of government – their roadmaps are very different.

“Nations need to find their own roadmaps and not copy what others have done. Too often we see governments blindly copy from each other. We have heard it said within the World Bank, the UN and the European Commission: ‘Let’s have a standard cloud-based e-government application for poor countries.’

Successful implementation of a digital solution depends on a lot on factors which are analogue not digital; that is, cultural, social, economic, regulatory, and institutional.

Linnar Viik

“That’s a very technocratic approach and is not focussing on the real issue; what is the benefit and how in a proper way can my community, my society, implement digital solutions? Successful implementation of a digital solution depends a lot on factors which are analogue not digital; that is, cultural, social, economic, regulatory, and institutional. We are preaching diversity.”

For Estonia, Viik and his compatriots are looking ahead; what is novel now, that will become the norm in five to 10 years? So-called zero bureaucracy is one; for example, from the moment parents register a new-born child with a swipe of their digital ID card, and receive a welcoming email from the government, they are able to record the name online, will automatically receive child support and a place at nursery, as well as parental rights for work-leave.

The platform is underpinned by software called X-Road, a decentralised data exchange system that links databases. Outgoing data is digitally signed and encrypted, and all incoming data is authenticated and logged. Citizens can monitor their data and see if any government or private institution has sought access. The aim is to replicate the ease with which a child can be registered, and parents receive entitlements, right across government services.

Another novelty now is the ‘digital agent’; whereby citizens can hand-off decision-making – should a parking ticket be paid on the due date or straight away, for example – to the agent which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to detect when a decision is required and makes the choice, based on the citizen’s preferences. “But what is going to be people’s comfort zone in allowing artificial intelligence to act on their behalf?”, asks Viik.

The Estonian Government is already using AI to oversee some services. For example, inspectors no longer check on farmers who receive government subsidies to cut their hay fields each summer. Satellite images taken are fed into a deep-learning algorithm which assesses each pixel in the images, determining if the patch of the field has been cut or not. Two weeks before the mowing deadline, the automated system notifies farmers via text or email that includes a link to the satellite image of their field. The system has saved more than $1m a year.

“The e-Estonia story is a parable of the young nation become high-tech Shangri-La,” observed Peter Ferry, Estonia’s Honorary Consul in Edinburgh, “e-government fan boys enthuse over Estonia’s digital transformation. A nation enabled by leading edge technologies – which built world-leading digital public services that pulled the state and its economy up by its bootstraps. They ask why their own home governments, with greater resources, can’t ‘digitalise’ and achieve half of the Estonians success? But Estonia isn’t hi-tech. It’s just tech savvy.”