Political leaders and Estonian e-government experts discuss digital vulnerability at the e-Governance Conference

By Blessing Ife Oyetunde

Speakers at the 2023 e-Governance Conference in Tallinn, Estonia, discussed strategies to address digital inclusion challenges across vulnerable groups in societies, from greater citizen engagement to people-centred design.

Kristina Reinsalu and Federico Plantera on stage at the e-Governance conference. Image: e-Governance Conference

Digital inclusion serves as a powerful catalyst for societal progress, economic growth, and individual empowerment, but digital vulnerability, in which individuals lack the necessary digital awareness, skills, or access to digital tools,  can restrict their potential and undermine the resilience of societies.


Speakers at the recent e-Governance Conference held in Tallinn, Estonia, themed Digital Innovation as Catalyst for Social Change, shone a spotlight on this emerging issue and discussed the need for greater citizen engagement to address this issue.


Citizen engagement to drive trust

Dumitru Alaib, Vice Prime Minister of Moldova, speaking at the e-Governance Conference in Estonia. Image: e-Governance Conference

“It is imperative that we recognise the power of an engaged citizenry and the transformative impact it can have on our societies,” said Dumitru Alaiba, Vice Prime Minister of Moldova, during his keynote address, in which he expressed confidence in the will to drive reforms to better engage and include citizens. 


“Trust, trust. It’s all about the trust,” said Alaiba, emphasising the importance of collective trust in institutions, data, and official information. To build trust, he proposed a shift in the perception of government from being focused on bureaucracy to innovation, collaboration and transparency.  He noted that the fastest way to stagnation was by remaining bureaucratic and not pursuing reforms. 


For instance, Estonia implemented a data tracker tool that allows citizens to see which entities have viewed their data, with all queries about their personal information being logged to ensure that data is only accessed for justified reasons.


Alaiba also underscored the importance of digital tools to build trust, eliminate corruption and bureaucracy and improve the relationship between citizens and the government. For one, agencies can use technology to inform and engage citizens and to provide accessible and transparent public services. 


Similarly, Florian Marcus, Product Manager at Proud Engineer and former Digital Transformation Advisor at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre, raised the need for equitable access to government-provided services from the earliest stages of life. 


He underscored the importance of digital education, cyber hygiene, and inclusive design in fostering social inclusion, citizen engagement, and strengthening the resilience of nations. He emphasised that agencies need to work with users to ensure intuitive and enjoyable experiences when interacting with digital government services.


Addressing digital vulnerabilities across society


At the “Digital vulnerability cannot be fixed in a boardroom” session, speakers explored the issue of digital vulnerability and highlighted strategies to address this challenge head-on.


Digital vulnerability exposes individuals to external threats like misinformation campaigns and cybercrimes, and new forms of cyber threats, noted Kristina Reinsalu, the Programme Director of e-Democracy at the e-Governance Academy, Estonia.


To combat digital vulnerability effectively, she said that it was crucial to understand the different ways specific groups might be left vulnerable in order to enable evidence-based decision-making. Policymakers can then develop tailored and targeted interventions to address these challenges. 


“For example, digitally skilled young people can become easy targets for cyber threats and misinformation campaigns. Similarly, elderly individuals, despite having digital skills and access, can be more digitally vulnerable due to their susceptibility to cybercrime,” she explained.


Reinsalu noted that it is imperative for governments and societies to move beyond addressing existing vulnerabilities. Instead, agencies need to proactively anticipate emerging digital threats arising from rapid technological advancements and societal challenges such as war and economic crises. 


However, achieving this level of precision requires rigorous research, extensive engagement, as well as strategic public-private partnerships.


For instance, the DRIVE project (Digital Research and Impact for Vulnerable Citizens) focuses on addressing digital vulnerability in Ukraine and Georgia. Through this programme, authorities engage vulnerable groups and equip them with the awareness and skills necessary to be digitally engaged in political decision-making and services. 


Another key strategy is people-centred design, said Margus Klaar, Service Designer and Co-Founder of Brand Manual. In his presentation, he shared ten design principles for creating people-centred services, such as focusing on designing inclusively for people with specific access needs. 


“If you consider a cityscape that is perfectly accessible for somebody in a wheelchair, it means it’s also accessible for the family with the baby carriage, for the skateboarders, for the inline skaters, for the bikers, for the little kids that have a hard time stepping over the edge of the sidewalk, for the elderly. Everyone wins,” he said.


The need for political will

But it is political will that will be critical in determining whether a nation will attempt to tackle digital vulnerabilities beyond the boardroom, according to panellists at the conference. 


Konris Gregormenten Maynard, the Minister of Public Infrastructure, Saint Kitts and Nevis, highlighted that the government had prioritised the issue of digital inclusion and taken concrete steps to address digital vulnerability challenges. For one, they had initiated projects geared towards all-inclusive digital literacy as well as the provision of digital devices to citizens. 


One of these projects is the I-literacy one-to-one laptop programme, which seeks to provide a laptop to every high school student, significantly improving access to digital education and reducing the digital divide.


He stressed the importance of providing access to digital devices and promoting digital learning while also noting the need for simplicity, user-friendliness, and accessibility in government systems.