Exclusive: Estonia’s vision for an ‘invisible government’

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with National Digital Advisor Marten Kaevats.

“Basically, I’m an in-house visionary for the Estonian government.”

Marten Kaevats certainly looks the part, with his shock of bright blond hair and t-shirt-and-blazer combo. He is the National Digital Advisor of Estonia, a role that is informed by his former life as an architect: “Architecture and city planning is thinking about complexity and complex systems, so I ended up in digital policy.”

And he is passionate about building a transparent government - so transparent, in fact, that it is “invisible”.

Government services should be so seamless that they do not intrude or impose on citizens’ lives, he believes: “The best service is something that you even didn't notice you got.”

A Siri for services

Estonia has a major focus on “automated and proactive services” that will ‘push’ services to citizens at key times of their lives. This vision takes the work out of government interactions for the citizen.

For example, when babies are born, they are automatically registered, and their parents receive notifications with updates.

On top of this, Estonia is building a virtual assistant to guide citizens through any interactions they have with the government.

“We are building a personal assistant to do the all the programmatic mumbo jumbo for you,” explains Kaevats. “Don't worry about kindergarten, everything has been taken care of.”

“Don't worry about kindergarten, everything has been taken care of.”

Estonia is rolling out the automated services across five key life events, such as new births, bereavements, and unemployment, by the end of this year, Kaevats shares.

These services are a first step to “abolishing bureaucracy”, and an example of “a model for the state of the 21st century”, he believes.

These automated services will use artificial intelligence, and Estonia plans to design a legal framework that allows this technology to be “developed in an ethical and sustainable way” across any industry.

In order to actually implement a Siri for services, “we need to figure out the human-algorithm legal relationship”, Kaevats muses.

Estonia has put together a task force to figure out these legal implications of AI; lead AI strategies across government; and drive adoption of AI in the private sector through upskilling and funding, according to him.

Procuring differently

A big part of this vision lies in procurement - civil servants will buy tech in smaller, modular pieces that can be put together and operate as a single service, he says.

Procuring tech will become faster than building out large-scale projects that may be out of date by the time the deal is complete.

“If there are enough modules ready, then you can just drag and drop and build yourself a new government service,” Kaevats says. “This makes all our organisational culture much more adaptive.”

He compares this new way of working with the Estonian government’s ‘no legacy policy’ of eight years ago. The government did not want to use old technology, on the basis that they would eventually become legacy systems that were difficult to modernise.

“This ‘small, modular pieces’ government is basically kind of like the ‘no legacy policy’ on steroids.”

Besides the obvious implications for competitiveness among SMEs, “it will build adaptability” and flexibility right into public sector services, reducing the danger of government tech becoming obsolete.

And it will indeed be cheaper “because you can use the components between different public authorities, for example”, Kaevats points out.

New ways of working

The end goal for Estonia is to build a “human-centric data governance” structure that improves transparency between government and citizen, and boosts trust.

Kaevats is proposing a remake of the very architecture behind Estonia’s tech systems - a platform called X-Road - to build even more privacy control and accountability into the way government uses citizens’ data.

“Therefore, we are doing this system architecture remake, which is taking the distributed model into a deeper level of governmental structure,” Kaevats says.

X-Road is the decentralised backbone that allows the Estonian public sector to exchange data securely. Currently, 651 government, municipal and private sector institutions have their own servers and information systems, and X-Road connects them all, Kaevats explains.

“A distributed architecture or network is much more resilient and flexible and adaptable than hierarchies can ever be.”

The new version will be make it much more difficult to hack Estonia’s data systems - crucial in a time when data hacks and breaches dominate headlines on a regular basis. “A distributed architecture or network is much more resilient and flexible and adaptable than hierarchies can ever be,” he remarks.

He aims to present a proposal on this concept towards the middle of the year. The new architecture will ensure citizens have greater control over which government body or organisation can use and access their personal data. Already, citizens can monitor their data and see which data was accessed by whom.

Trust can “actually be engineered into the system”, he says. This is similar to Uber or Airbnb, where two people trust in the system enough to allow complete strangers into their cars or homes.

“In the Estonian case, it's basically like having friends to go to the sauna and have beers together,” Kaevats explains.

Kaevats has big aspirations for Estonia’s invisible government. It can have an impact that reaches far beyond its borders.

“If we can show the world that this type of model works socially, economically, and all other ways, I think this is a highly valuable contribution to the planet’s development in the future,” he concludes.

Image from e-Estonia