The banner scrawled across the e-Estonia website reads: “We have built a digital society and we can show you how”.
Estonians are rightly proud of their country’s position as the world’s most advanced digital society, where 99% of government services are now online. But the transition hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing…
What is e-Estonia?
e-Estonia is an Estonian government initiative that facilitates citizen interaction with governmental e-services, such as e-Tax, i-Voting, e-Health, e-Prescription, e-Business and e-School.
A brief history of e-Estonia and the Tiger Leap
The Tiigrihüpe (Tiger Leap) project was launched in 1997, with the rapid expansion of internet access and heavy investment in computer literacy. By 2000, Estonia was the world’s first country to declare internet access to be a human right and covered populated areas with free Wi-Fi hotspots from 2001. Since 2002, all Estonian citizens have owned a mandatory digital ID card to prove their identity online.
The transformation is unlikely to ever be “finished”, as new capabilities are added and existing services are improved. For example, since 2019 Estonia has been working on a framework for implementing AI solutions for governmental services.
Today, 99% of Estonians have a Digital ID Card, and 70% use these regularly to access 2,600-plus state services online.
e-Estonia’s standout successes
- Efficiency: e-Estonia is estimated to save over 844 years of working time for Estonians every year and 2% of its GDP annually. More digital signatures are used in Estonia than in the rest of the EU put together.
- i-Voting: At the time of writing, Americans are queuing for up to four hours to vote in the presidential election. Estonia’s voting system offers a stark contrast: nearly half the population use internet voting and can vote from anywhere in the world. Estonians can vote as many times as they want in the lead-up to the election, with each i-Vote cancelling out the last.
- e-Health: Estonia’s electronic health record is a nation-wide system that integrates data from Estonia’s healthcare providers. 99% of prescriptions and medical data are managed online, and with the patient’s consent, doctors can access a citizen’s health records in time-critical situations. E-Health has placed Estonia in a stronger position than many of its European neighbours for managing COVID-19.
- e-Tax: One of the first services offered by e-Estonia (implemented in 2000), e-Tax has been embraced by 98% of citizens, with the average tax declaration taking only three minutes. By contrast, a recent article revealed non-business-owning Americans spend eight to 13 hours filling out tax forms.
- Ease of doing business: A company can be established in Estonia in just three hours. e-Business, e-Residency, and other online services helped Estonia achieve number one ranking in the World Economic Forum Entrepreneurial Activity index (2017), number one in terms of Startup Friendliness (Index Venture, 2018), and have attracted 70,000 e-Residents and 13,000 e-Resident companies to Estonia.
Challenges experienced along the way
Cybersecurity: In 2007, Estonia’s X-Road was hit by the largest organised cyberattack against a single country, most likely originating in Russia. In response, Estonia shifted to KIS Blockchain governance in 2012 and now locates its servers in Luxembourg, well away from the threat of the east.
Digital ID card flaw: In 2017 a Czech research team discovered a vulnerability in the physical chips used in Estonia’s e-Residency identity cards that could lead to identity theft. The Estonian government responded by freezing the cards for two months until new security certificates were arranged.
How other countries are following Estonia’s example
Estonia is now in a unique position to offer advice on best practices to other countries. The country is a founding member of Digital Nations, an international forum of leading digital governments. At present, the D10 consists of Estonia, Israel, Korea, New Zealand, the UK, Canada, Uruguay, Mexico, Portugal, and Denmark.
New Zealand’s flagship digital identity program, RealMe, shares many of the attributes of Estonia’s program but is not mandatory and hasn’t yet been adopted by New Zealand citizens at the same rate of e-Estonia (although RealMe is a new program and the sign ups in NZ are increasing at a rapid rate).
The lessons we can learn from Estonia
Estonia has been refreshingly open about the lessons it’s learnt. Other countries embarking on similar journeys can take the following learnings into account:
Estonia’s inspirational story has shown the vast potential and impressive ROI of digital transformation. It has enabled an entire nation to live an easier life – from swiftly filing a tax return to the instantaneous posting of an electoral ballot (from anywhere in the world).