#DigiGovSpotlight The world’s most digital society to pursue personalised services - Estonia's Information System Authority

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

GovInsider speaks to Joonas Heiter, Director-General of Estonia’s Information System Authority (RIA), to learn more about the Baltic nation’s digital government journey and the road ahead.

Estonia's digital government looks to build proactive, AI-enabled services to better support its people. Image: Canva

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Estonia’s status as the world’s most digitally advanced republic needs no introduction. Over the last two years alone, the country saw more than 50 per cent of electoral ballots casted digitally, the digitalisation of marriages, and more than 100 AI use-cases implemented in government.


But what may surprise you is that the country doesn’t have a central digitalisation office. 


Rather, the country’s Information System Authority (RIA) is a backbone that serves the digital strategies set by other ministries – “IT powerhouses,” says Joonas Heiter, Director-General of RIA.


“RIA’s role is to provide platform services for all those other IT houses… We are providing services to all customers, both public sector and private sector,” says Heiter. These include building e-ID and trust services, machine learning technology, state portal services, among others.


The other six IT agencies are housed under specific ministries, like the Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Social Affairs, and Ministry of the Environment, with the exception of the Estonian IT Centre that oversees Estonia’s government cloud.


In conversation with GovInsider, Heiter shares how Estonia aims to embrace personalised services, continue the country’s reputation as a cybersecurity juggernaut, and collaborate with the private sector.

Building a proactive digital government 


Over the coming years, Estonia aims to build proactive digital services that are more personalised for end-users.


“Now we have to make the state more transparent… Our main goal is that citizens and entrepreneurs don’t think they have to declare something or inquire about something. If they have some need, the state should be proactive,” shares Heiter.

Joonas Heiter, Director-General of RIA. Image: LinkedIn

Estonia’s Digital Agenda 2030, released in 2021, envisions a state in which “public services reach you just when you need them.” That is, the state will notify individuals and entrepreneurs if they can access specific benefits or have to fulfill certain obligations.


To make this a reality, the agenda set out a goal to develop services that cater to every significant life event for individuals and every business event for entrepreneurs. 


This will entail greater use of AI technologies within government, says Heiter. Currently, Estonia has over 100 AI initiatives within its public sector, such as Bürokratt, a network of voice-activated chatbots; AI computer vision for border processing, traffic management, and estimating the population of wild animals; and autonomous vehicle trials.


GovInsider previously interviewed Ott Velsberg, Chief Digital Officer of Estonia, who shared about Bürokratt – the country’s “Siri of digital public services” – and collecting Estonian speech data to build more services and products based on speech technology.

“One key aspect is that we’re not building services for authorities or government officials. We’re building up services for end-users… citizens and entrepreneurs,” says Heiter.


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Cybersecurity of paramount importance


But all of the nation’s digital services are built on a foundation of trust – a foundation that cannot be compromised by cyber threats. Beyond providing infrastructure services, RIA is responsible for ensuring the overall cybersecurity posture of the Estonian digital government.


“This is something that’s been at the forefront since the very beginning. Our children learn all about this in schools…even in kindergarten,” says Riho Kerge, Head of Data Exchange Department at RIA. TalTech, the country’s technical university, offers cybersecurity training for kids as young as seven years old all the way to doctoral candidates.

Riho Kerge, Head of Data Exchange Department at RIA

Another key element of maintaining trust is remaining accountable and honest when mistakes happen, he adds. 


Liisa Past, Estonia’s former Chief National Cyber Risk Officer, previously shared with GovInsider that the country builds communities of trust by being “aggressively open and transparent” and sharing lessons learnt from cybersecurity incidents.


Additionally, the country’s distributed data storage model ensures that the country lacks a single point of failure, says Kerge.


The team is also keeping an eye on the growth of quantum computing – a technology that hackers could someday use to break today’s encryptions.

Collaborating with the private sector


Critical to Estonia’s success as a digital society is the government’s approach to collaborating with the private sector, which began early on its digital transformation journey.


When Estonia regained its independence in the 1990s, the new state decided to “leapfrog” Western technology by building and procuring up-and-coming IT solutions, rather than playing catch up with the West, argued professors of public administration Rainer Kattel and Ines Mergel in a book chapter.


“Our ID card is basically copied from our northern neighbour, Finland. But one thing we did differently is how we introduced it to the market… In Estonia, the first step we took was that the e-ID solution is meant for both public and private sector services,” Heiter says.


“The most beneficial step was to actually engage the private sector in the very beginning… You have to provide some services that are actually useful. This goes a long way to get buy-in from citizens,” says Riho Kerge, Head of Data Exchange Department at RIA. 


This decision meant that Estonia’s banks soon took the lead when it came to rolling out Estonia’s e-ID programme, training citizens on the use of electronic banking, according to Kattel and Mergel’s account. Today, nearly all Estonians use the e-ID programme.


Looking ahead, the agency hopes to continue working towards the goal of a data-driven Estonia, where the government can use data to improve lives while enabling citizens to make decisions about their own data, says Heiter.