“Move over please,” somebody shouts. I take a step back and the President of Benin strides down the narrow corridor, flanked by a security entourage and a seemingly-endless line of journalists.
It’s clearly a busy day in the Estonian Parliament, a pretty pink castle in the medieval heart of Tallinn. Visiting dignitaries often visit this place – not to see the ancient buildings – but to hear about the cutting-edge of digital government.
I’m meeting Taavi Rõivas, the decidedly modern ex- Prime Minister, who served from 2014 to the end of 2016. He met with GovInsider to discuss his vision of global public services, his thoughts on President-elect Trump, and what he thinks will really happen during Brexit.
First, we look at Estonia’s story of digital transformation. When the country won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it had vast challenges to contend with: a low standard of living, limited infrastructure, and a weak economy.
But 25 years on, the nation has thrived. It’s seen the birth of billion dollar companies like Skype and TransferWise. Its primary education system is ranked in the top 3 in the world. And its government is revered for its use of technology.
The country’s secret? With very little, it has relentlessly innovated and invested in tech. From teaching primary school coding classes to digitising health records, the country “feels the need to be on the frontline of developments”, Rõivas says.
What have been the benefits of prioritising government technology?
“We have gained a lot of efficiency – that’s the first thing. We don’t need lots of officials sitting in their offices all around the country, which is not very densely populated.
Secondly, when we don’t need people taking information on paper – from one state authority to another – we can be sure that the data is accurate. Nobody can, either willingly or unwillingly, make a mistake in any numbers.
And third, of course, there is a huge gain in time. You can do things so much faster if you don’t need to physically do the procedures….It’s so much more logical to run it digitally.
How important has digital government been to Estonia?
“Very. I think it’s a big part of government being moral and efficient. It’s also, undoubtedly, a big part of the Estonian image worldwide.
We have managed to achieve the most effective tax collection system in the world – according to the OECD – which means that we spend the smallest percentage per every Euro we collect as taxes and a big part of it is digital [around €1.8m per year]. These kinds of things allow you to invest in other sectors where there is need for public money.
The main difference in many countries is that there isn’t a decision to introduce a digital identity – equal to your paper or passport. If you log into your booking.com account or your social media account, you can only enter your ID and password. But if you want to get a public service – let’s say that you have had a baby – you need to make very sure that the other side knows exactly who you are.
Password and username is not secure enough, so that’s where the state-issued digital identity comes in.
The e-residency programme lets anyone in the world register as an Estonian national and use the country’s digital identity to start a business or sign documents. Why did you decide to launch that programme?
“My ICT advisor, Siim Sikkut, and the CIO of the Estonian Government, Taavi Kotka, came to me and introduced it a couple of years back. It first sounded extremely interesting to enlarge the use of electronic ID.
It was also an issue where we needed to think of the risks if we start issuing it everywhere. We did analysis and it sounded promising, and has already proved to be very attractive for many people around the world – even though there aren’t yet many services that are specifically designed for non-Estonians or foreigners using the Estonian platforms.
There’s a huge potential. It doesn’t only include Estonian public services, it might also be large multinationals using the Estonian state authorised ID platform, which is valid everywhere in the world, inside their company management. Let’s say signing documents that are in use in the company, or entering their information systems with the two-factor identification of an Estonian ID.
The business case for Estonia is to attract investors to establish a company in Estonia. It’s extremely easy, setting up a company with this e-residency card can be done remotely from any country in the world.
And now we have introduced legislation that you can also start a bank account, so you log in with your e-residency card and show your physical documents over video bridge. You don’t need to go to the bank office, which used to be a very big inconvenience.
What do world leaders ask when they visit to discuss digital government?
“Most of the interest comes from EU leaders. Angela Merkel [Germany’s Chancellor] stayed two days in Estonia and invited me to speak in front of all the German Cabinet Ministers on how to make the government more digital.
I have met Japanese Prime Minister Abe on those issues and Japan is the biggest country that has a digital identity – they call it the MyNumber. There are not many people using it, but they have taken the first steps.
Finland is building very similar solutions to the Estonian ones, and from the beginning, they will work cross-border. Let me just give you one example: if an Estonian lives here in the capital and goes to his summer house 300 kilometres away, then if you need a prescription drug you can call your doctor, they write the prescription and you go to your nearest pharmacy. You don’t need anything on paper, everything moves digitally between the doctor and the pharmacy.
Now imagine if that could also work for the Finns who live here. They could call their doctor in Helsinki and get their medication in an Estonian pharmacy.
My ultimate dream is to have services functioning first everywhere in the EU, and then at some point also globally, which shouldn’t be anything impossible. We have so many private sector services that work globally just fine, including the Estonian-founded Skye, many social media apps and so on.
One of the big obstacles to your vision for global services is privacy. How can you win citizens over to these services?
“First of all, Estonia doesn’t ask you for more than any other government would in terms of information. I would argue that we ask less of it, because we have a policy that if you have told the population register your address, you shouldn’t be asked from any other agency. The same applies for other information: the tax office knows how much money you make.
In most countries, people submit their information on paper and they assume this is in some ways safe. But I would argue that digital information can be protected much better. For example, there was a case where Michael Schumacher’s medical information was stolen – it was quite hard to understand who stole it, but the diagnostic was published and lots of harm was done.
In Estonia, you can close any sensitive information to prevent doctors from seeing it just with one click. If you don’t do that and somebody has looked at your data without any legal reason, you can see who has looked and press charges.
CYBER ATTACKS AND FAKE NEWS
In 2007, Estonia came under attack. No troops invaded, but nevertheless, the country was under siege. Massive distributed denial of service attacks targeted government websites, banks, and newspapers. Europe’s most connected nation was brought to a standstill.
Much has been learned since then, but it shows the risks of being a digital pioneer. And there are other pressures on the Baltic nation. A large Russian minority is less wealthy than the Estonian majority, and drawn to Russian propaganda channels such as RT. The country’s elite worries that the Kremlin will destablise western societies with cyberattacks and information warfare, as it is said to have done in the Ukraine.
Why didn’t the 2007 attacks put Estonia off from developing so quickly?
“On the contrary, we got this certainty that our cybersecurity is battle tested and we can defend ourselves. That gave us the self-confidence that, okay, we can do it even better.
Second, we learned a lot from this experience, and we learned to take our guards to the next level. Just like in the physical space, there are criminal activity and this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go on to the street, being afraid that something will happen to you.
It should give you the push to make sure you do everything to protect your data, starting from data integrity to the big attacks. If you do take care of it, you can diminish the risk to a tolerable level.
A digital society also is at risk from information warfare or misinformation spread online. What do you think governments can do to combat this problem?
“In social media, there is openly given space for basically anyone to say almost anything. And this is something that you need different tools to deal with. My honest opinion is that the best answer to propaganda or misinformation is not to use counter propaganda or something like that. It’s a really well-functioning free media.
For example, in the Russian language there are so many channels – TV channels, other globally available news channels, but the content is to a great extent coming directly from the Kremlin. And of course, they show the picture that is their version of the truth, or even clear disinformation.
The best answer is having a free media channel that does as a good journalist does – proves what is right, what is wrong, what are the facts. I wouldn’t imagine a western propaganda channel to be our style, but I think cherishing media freedom is our best answer.
You say that free media is very important, but the United States has a free media and have faced this problem extensively. Are there other methods that governments can use to prevent against malicious fake news that’s designed to spread distrust?
“I still think that if you have a well-functioning free media, those false facts don’t fly too far. Of course, the media itself has to be critical on its sources. It has happened in Estonia that false news and satire has been used in the serious mainstream media. That has happened when the journalist is not critical enough on the source. But none of those cases have influenced Estonia so much that it would be worth mentioning.
ALLIANCES IN JEOPARDY? NATO AND THE EU
Estonia has relied upon two international partnerships above all else: the European Union and NATO. Membership of the former has allowed it massive economic growth, but Brexit and ongoing financial stability are causing tensions at the heart of Brussels.
NATO, meanwhile, is crucial for ensuring the stability of the nation. No part of the country could be annexed in the same way that Russia took Crimea from Ukraine. But with President Trump questioning the value of this military alliance, Baltic states are growing nervous.
You have a US President-elect who has expressed doubts on the value of NATO. What’s your take on what that does for Estonia’s position?
“The positions on NATO remain unchanged by all member states. I think this is very very important for the security, not only of our area, but of all the transatlantic community. NATO has a very important role in providing security to the world, and the concept of one for all and all for one is the one that keeps wars away.
What value does the United States get from being a part of NATO, and in particular, having defence commitments to Estonia?
“Well Estonia is not only a consumer but also a contributor towards security. Even though we are very small, we invest more than 2 percent on defence and we participate in missions where needed. Right now, we are in Lebanon under the flag of the United Nations, we are in the Maldives, under the flag of both the UN and the EU. And I could mention many more examples where we worked together with the US, with the UK, with Germany and with other allies side by side.
Now, what the US gets from the world they save, I think is quite clear. America is a very successful country that has provided hundreds of millions of people freedom, [and] very good living standards. And I think the American people are very much interested in keeping the world a safe place.
NATO is the single biggest and most important organisation in this respect to make sure that the world is as safe as possible. Nobody would want to go back that time hundreds of years ago, or in the last century, where we had world wars in Europe. But of course, that has happened for many many centuries, so all of us who want this to be over for good, in the NATO countries, are supporters of NATO and the idea of transatlantic security and unity.
Another big issue for Estonia has been Brexit. Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard a great deal of marketing from the Estonian Government for e-residency – trying to win British businesses over to Estonia. Do you think Brexit could be beneficial to Estonia’s economic position?
“No. There might be some Brits coming to Estonia and doing business as a consequence of Brexit. But fundamentally, I think Brexit is bad for both British and European economics.
Of course it depends on how close the UK will stay, and what will be the final outcome, but the UK is a very very important player economically, politically, defence-wise in Europe. And if there is even the smallest barrier between the EU and the UK in terms of economic activity, there will be a negative impact for both of us.
Any obstacle, any major change in the regulation, any administrative burden over the economic areas will definitely be harmful for business.
There’s been talk of punishing any country that leaves the EU.
“Well I don’t believe in that. I think that would be wrong. I think we should do our best to keep Britain as close as possible. Even the thought of trying to punish anyone is negative for both parties.
Do you think it’s likely to happen?
“I hope not. I know that the consensus that we had around the EU consultation table a couple of months ago will remain that there is a fundamental belief in keeping Britain as an important player.
Do you think the rhetoric from both sides reflects what will be discussed?
“The positive thing is that, inside the rooms, hopefully the climate is much more practical than outside, and the reason for that is also honest. Everybody has to send messages for the domestic public. I hope this very sensible and practical agreement-oriented approach will remain in the rooms and corridors where the negotiations are kept. I think this is very much needed, and the architecture of relations between the UK and the EU will be an essential part of our future for decades to come.
There is talk of the freedom of movement being potentially restricted within the EU. What is your take on that?
“I hope it will not happen. I think that all the freedoms the EU has, including the free movement of people, are absolutely necessary, and they are really quite efficient for the people of Europe, but also for the economy of Europe.
Trying to build walls is not the 21st century politics that we would benefit from. I really hope there is possibility to keep the EU as an open space, one common area.”