I visited Estonia in the mid-1990s. Back then, I said it would be fascinating to return in 20 years and see what changed. I recently checked in on Estonia through this PBS video and found the place transformed. They are leading the world in providing social goods through digital government.
Estonia’s Digital Government Transformation
If people know anything about Estonia, it’s maybe that Skype was founded there. Back in 1994 when I visited, the country was only three years into independence from the Soviet Union. The landscape was beautiful, the people genuine and friendly. Much of the Soviet infrastructure, though, was outdated long before it was run down.
Today, Estonia leads the world in digital government.
According to the video, they are the first country to consider the internet a social right. I assert that many of the things people call rights are actually social goods. Internet access is definitely a social good, even a foundational social good. Other social goods depend and build on it.
High-speed internet is available in 88 percent of the country. Ninety-four percent of Estonians have a smart card to access the digital government portal. Ninety-nine percent of government services are readily available online.
With a single online account in Estonia, you can
- Vote in all local, regional, and national elections
- Pay income taxes in minutes
- Conduct personal and business banking
- View your health records
- Interact with your energy and telecommunications providers
The Driving Forces Behind Estonia’s Digital Government
Why did they do this? At the time of independence, they could see that they had inadequate infrastructure to run a national government. More importantly, they didn’t have enough people to conduct all the government’s business with analog, paper-based processes. They needed to be digital to exist.
They had the opportunity to do this for a couple of other reasons.
- Scale: Estonia is a relatively small country. They didn’t have the sheer volume of banks, utilities, telcos, cities, counties, states, and other organizations to bring into the single system.
- Blank slate: Because they were restarting independence after 70 years of Soviet control, they didn’t have a mass of legacy systems, processes, and technologies to consider.
Lessons Learned From Estonia
Providing universal digital government takes vision and commitment. What lessons can we take from this as public and social sector marketers?
- Digital government needs systems thinking. Estonia considered the issue fully and made meaningful connections within and between systems.
- Distribution counts. Digital government isn’t serious if it’s only for those who have technology and access. Estonia prioritized distribution to reach 94 percent of the population to date. For something as fundamental as access to social goods, distribution equates to fairness.
- Estonia shows that consistent policy and investment related to infrastructure pays off.
(Image courtesy of Flickr)