E-Governance Conference explores the possibilities of AI-driven government

By Blessing Ife Oyetunde

At the recent e-Governance Conference, speakers from Estonia, Uganda, and the European Union discussed the significance of intentional approaches in addressing challenges and seizing opportunities, thereby enabling the realisation of effective AI-driven government.

Amos Mpungu, Principal ICT Officer at the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance, Uganda, speaking at the conference. Image: e-Governance Conference

Data has become a valuable resource in today's digital age, and its effective management and utilisation is crucial for governments worldwide. The recent e-Governance Conference held in Tallinn, Estonia, shed light on the challenges and opportunities of data governance, specifically focusing on the role of AI and interoperability. 


Esteemed speakers and panellists shared insights into how AI shapes governance practices in Estonia, Uganda, and the European Union (EU) and the innovative approaches these countries have adopted in enhancing data governance and building a foundation for AI-driven public administration.


The conference brought together 580 participants, comprising top government officials, policymakers, public sector administrators, IT experts, and more from over 90 countries.


Estonia harnesses AI to drive better decision-making


Ott Velsberg, the Government Chief Data Officer of Estonia, emphasised the country's commitment to harnessing the power of data to deliver impactful governance. Estonia envisions a future where AI can drive decision-making and transform government operations. Velsberg outlined the government's digital agenda, which aims to make Estonia AI-powered by 2030, among other goals. 


Beyond using AI for data-driven decision-making, the government aims to tap on AI virtual assistant through AI virtual assistants, such as through Bürokratt. They also plan to use AI to ensure transparency and trustworthiness in government operations.

Ott Velsberg, Government Chief Data Officer of Estonia, on the Estonia's digital agenda. Image: e-Governance Conference

But AI systems are only as reliable as the data fed into these algorithms. Heiko Vainsalu, the Programme Director of Technology at the e-Governance Academy, stressed the need for common guidelines and rules to regulate data processing and collection responsibilities. Without strong data governance principles, data flow, security, and privacy could be put at risk. 


He also highlighted the need to develop an AI-specific approach and strategy within data governance and interoperability frameworks. This approach would take into account the specific challenges and opportunities that arise when working with AI. This could mean developing ethical guidelines for the development and deployment of AI-based services and systems or establishing protocols for testing and validating AI systems to ensure that they are safe, reliable, and effective.


Finally, strategic partnerships with universities and the private sector will be essential for driving innovation. For instance, Estonia's leading banks, Hansapank and Ühispank (now Swedbank and SEB), played a pivotal role in developing and implementing the country's first electronic solutions and e-banking services. By encouraging their customers to adopt the national e-ID card for securing transactions, the banks helped to promote the wider adoption and more frequent use of this essential digital tool. 


Interoperable Europe Act to advance regional AI innovation


The Interoperable Europe Act, currently under negotiation, aims to facilitate better public services, achieve digital targets for 2030, and foster data interoperability, said Claudia Oliveira, Programme Manager at the European Commission. 


Stronger cross-border interoperability will facilitate the secure exchange of data across the EU, in turn allowing for the development of better AI tools and enable stronger data-driven decision-making in public administration. 


Speaking on the value of AI for the public sector, she said, "AI can be a game changer for public administrations... to better handle large data volumes, automate routine tasks, accelerate decision making, and help governments to do more with less."


Oliveira outlined the European Commission's efforts to establish a policy framework for trustworthy AI, guided by democratic principles such as non-discrimination, transparency, and accountability. She noted that the goal is to ensure that AI benefits citizens and upholds their trust in government operations. 


Notably, on June 14, 2023, the European Parliament passed a draft law called the EU AI Act, which aims to serve as the region’s guiding regulatory framework for the development of trustworthy AI. 


She also drew attention to the European Interoperability Framework, which currently sets standards for data exchange, reusability, and AI systems to enhance collaboration among member states. 


Strong data foundation the key to AI-driven government


For countries that are considering AI-driven government projects, it is critical that a strong data foundation is laid first. Limited data infrastructure, inadequate data collection mechanisms, and the digital divide contribute to disparities between African countries and the likes of Estonia, said Amos Mpungu, the Principal ICT Officer at the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance, Uganda. 


The conversation happening in Uganda is less about utilising AI for data governance but actually putting systems in place to enable quality data availability and utilisation, he explained.


Mpungu stressed the need to bridge the digital divide and improve access to technology in Uganda and across Africa. He also pointed out that without adequate connectivity, capacity-building, and technological infrastructure, the full potential of AI, which includes AI-driven data governance, cannot be harnessed. 


Like his fellow panellists, Mpungu emphasised the importance of fostering partnerships between the government, educational institutions, and private sector stakeholders to help overcome these challenges.


While it is important to draw inspiration from success stories in Estonia and the European Union, strategies and solutions need to be tailored to the African context, he said. This can involve developing customised approaches that consider local needs, infrastructure limitations, and cultural factors.


Earlier this year, Uganda's Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority, with the support of the African Union-European Union (AU-EU) D4D Hub, undertook an official visit to Estonia to learn from Estonia's digital transformation journey, part of the country’s strategic efforts to "catch up."


The road ahead


The e-Governance Conference provided valuable insights into the integration of AI and data governance in the public sector. Estonia's vision of an AI-powered government, the European Union's focus on trustworthiness and interoperability, and Uganda's catch-up strategy showcased diverse perspectives and approaches to harnessing the potential of AI in governance. 


Data quality, data accuracy, transparency and trust, infrastructure development, capacity building, and a holistic as well as human-centric approach to data governance emerged as key themes. As governments worldwide continue to explore AI's possibilities, these insights serve as a roadmap for effective data governance and responsible AI adoption in the public sector.

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