Estonia plots the end of bureaucracy

  • Digitally enhanced
- Associated Press, TALLINN (Estonia)
The Baltic nation of 1.3 million people is engaged in an ambitious project to make government administration completely digital to reduce bureaucracy, increase transparency and boost economic growth

Dec 27, 2018-

In the Estonian capital of Tallinn, three-day-old Oskar Lunde sleeps soundly in his hospital cot, snuggled into a lime green blanket decorated with red butterflies. Across the room, his father turns on a laptop.

“Now we will register our child,” Andrejs Lunde says with gravity as he inserts his ID card into the card reader. His wife, Olga, looks on proudly.

And just like that, Oskar is Estonia’s newest citizen. No paper. No fuss.

This Baltic nation of 1.3 million people is engaged in an ambitious project to make government administration completely digital to reduce bureaucracy, increase transparency and boost economic growth. As more countries shift their services online, Estonia’s experiment offers a glimpse of how interacting with the state might be for future generations.

Need a prescription? It’s online. Need someone at City Hall? No lines there — or even at the Department of Motor Vehicles! On the school front, parents can see whether their children’s homework was done on time.

Estonia has created one platform that supports electronic authentication and digital signatures to enable paperless communications across both the private and public sectors.

There are still a few things that you can’t do electronically in Estonia: marry, divorce or transfer property — and that’s only because the government has decided it was important to turn up in person for some big life events.

This spring, government aims to go even further. If Oskar had been born a few months later, he would have been registered automatically, with his parents receiving an email welcoming him into the nation.

Marten Kaevats, Estonia’s national digital adviser, says the goal is a government that supports its citizens while staying out of the way.

“In an ideal world, in the case of an invisible government, when a new child is born neither of the parents would ever have to apply for anything: to get maternity leave, to get child support from the municipality, to get a kindergarten place, to put the name to the child,” he said. “All of those different services would be delivered automatically.”

Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Centre for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, says other countries have a lot to learn. Estonia took time to build security and privacy into its model, in contrast with failed efforts by private companies to provide secure online voting systems in the United States, for example.

“It made sure that state accountability is part of the process,” he said.

Estonians largely seem to have embraced the system despite global concerns about data hacks.

At a demonstration showcasing the digital system, project manager Indrek Onnik stood beside a huge screen illustrating his profile. He showed off his high school grades from a decade ago and his diving license records. If he had a dog, its vaccination record would appear there, too.

Citizens can monitor their data and see if any government or private institution accesses it.

“To generate trust, you really have to have transparency,” he said. “And that’s why people have access to their own data. And that’s why they can actually see if the government has used their own data.”

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.

Making life simpler for citizens has economic benefits in a country otherwise known for unforgiving winters and old growth forests.

The project, which began in 1997, laid the groundwork for Estonia’s booming tech sector. 

Published: 27-12-2018 08:52

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