“I don’t really remember when I had to go into some kind of physical service desk somewhere in government,” notes Mehis Sihvart, director of Estonia’s Centre of Registers and Information Systems (or RIK, as it is known locally).

In Estonia, digital is a way of life. Over a third of the population votes in e-elections and government is essentially paperless. This is thanks to a hidden but vital part of the digital revolution: registers of data.

The country set up RIK to centralise and oversee these registers across the government. This enforcement body ensures that data is held in the same format, isn’t duplicated, and can easily be shared amongst agencies. Everything digital in Estonia is underpinnned by these basic principles.

Connecting the dots

“This is quite strong trust from citizens and today, they love to use digital services,” Sihvart says. As one example, annual tax declarations now take about two to five minutes to fill, and about 75% of Estonians simply hand in tax declarations on the day it is announced.

But this trust is hard-earned. Data security is taken seriously in Estonia, once home to the world’s first state-sponsored cyber attack. Since then, Estonia has built several data embassies outside the country. Crucial data is stored under Estonian jurisdiction, and can only be sent, but not modified or deleted. “It is only possible if you go physically there, and there are special proceedings and procedures, how to get there,” he adds.

Today, RIK maintains over 200 digital registries that facilitate public services online. The ‘Immovables’ real estate registry is one such example: it combines a real estate registry and a digital population registry. Citizens can carry out real estate transactions simply with an e-ID card and a digital signature; the necessary documents are all linked to their e-ID cards.

This way, document and signature forgeries are next to impossible, and digital signatures save 2% of the country’s GDP, claimed former Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas. “Today, we can say that there are no real estate crimes in Estonia,” Sihvart declares.

Now, the agency is putting machine learning to use, automating more physical jobs under the Ministry of Justice. This means that the government can periodically profile ex-offenders to check in on their rehabilitation process. This task is now being automated with the use of data analytics and machine learning to predict how offenders might behave today.

Sihvart is looking to digitise courts and court cases next, which will involve automating the role of court secretaries. This will involve improving the acoustics of courtrooms, changing legislation to enable digitised courts, and creating digital tools for lawyers to go paperless. “Everything that is said in court hearings will be automatically transcribed into documents,” he says.

Managing change

The digitisation of the 90s led to government offices being moved online. Public sector workers have flexibility in where, when or how they work. “We don’t care if they are home, or in Spain, or somewhere as long as they have an internet connection,” he explains.

Citizens are also given the same flexibility, with the ability to access online registers or conduct business as and when they need to, without the need to come down to a government office, Sihvart adds.

But the road to digitisation wasn’t all smooth sailing. Registries were digitised, but so were many jobs previously held by humans. “If you reorganise the process, then you have to deal with the persons who lose during the reorganisation,” explains Sihvart.

As one example, notaries were once in charge of verifying company registrations. When these processes were digitised, the government had to negotiate to offer them other roles. Here, Sihvart advises that “the most difficult and most important part is not to forget to manage that change with those people who are losing during that change”.

Estonia’s small population and the desire to reduce physical services drove the country’s race to digital. But even in populous Asia, as ageing societies and ICT technology usage grow, the small European country has important lessons to share for this inevitable shift.