Urve Palo, Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology, Estonia

By Joshua Chambers

Women in GovTech Special Report 2017.

How do you use technology to improve citizens' lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

As the Estonian Minister for Entrepreneurship and Information Technology, utilising innovation and technology for the benefit of our citizens is at the core of my work. Estonia is lucky to have one of the most cutting-edge e-governance solutions in the world. You can do almost everything online. There are only three actions that are not yet available online: buying property, getting married and getting divorced.

Governmental e-services allow us to declare taxes online, and on average, the process takes only about 2-5 minutes. You can check your health data from the government information portal, benefit from our e-prescription system and see your children’s grades from the e-school website. They say that thanks to e-governance, the Estonian government saves an amount of paper equal to the height of the Eiffel tower every month.

In Estonia, we wish to move towards invisible e-services and take an active role in this under my lead. We are proud that services have successfully moved online, but they are still not using the full potential of technology. In other words, the question is not how many e-services we have (close to 5,000) but how they are interlinked and connected.

For example, we want to build services around life events and combine services - for example, in the case of the birth of a child, there is a linked service for applying for government and local birth benefits, naming the child, checking how many people carry the same name, etc. - or even make them invisible, for example, people automatically get a return on overpaid taxes.

But Estonian e-governance is not a local project. You can become a virtual resident of Estonia, too. The aim of the e-Residency programme is to offer a fully digital environment where companies can operate their business location-independently. In other words, we have thousands of companies already established in Estonia by people that are e-residents of Estonia.

E-Residency provides a gateway to do global business without even needing to visit Estonia - although you’re most welcome to visit for leisure. I am sure that location-independent business will increase significantly in the future, and Estonia has a chance to act as a lighthouse in this matter.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2017?

The Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU is probably the thing we’ll remember this year by. It has been a great honour to us and naturally, also brought with it hard work and more than a few sleepless nights. I truly hope we have been able to make a difference. Adding the word 'digital' in front of the EU’s Single Market has been a horizontal priority that inspired all fields of our Presidency.

I am therefore exceptionally glad that we were able to sign two influential declarations. First, the 5G network declaration in July, which was now followed up by the 5G implementation roadmap. Second, the e-Governance declaration in October, which stated common principles for e-governance on EU and state level. Both declarations were signed by all EU member states.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2018?

Estonia can boast its wonderfully advanced e-governance, but we still have room for growth in digitising industrial processes, automating manufacturing, and employing robotics. We need to help our industry and SMEs make the most of future technologies. Hence, we will be focusing even more attention towards digitising our industry and maximising the potential of scaling up across the Single Market.

We have a significant economic growth potential measured in billions of euros in manufacturing here in Estonia. This is one very important challenge I would like to contribute to with the use of technology. We would like to prove, already in 2018, that the automation and digitalisation of Industry really do contribute to economic growth. For this reason, the government is supporting hundreds of companies under my lead to first analyse how to move towards more digitalisation and automation, and only then will the best ones be developed into lighthouse projects.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2017, what would it be?

The support of my family has been invaluable. I personally chaired ten meetings of European ministers during the Estonian Presidency of the EU. Throughout this intense and interesting process, I have gained experience on how to set a digital agenda and steer decisions for a population of 500 million people, next to 1.3 million Estonian citizens.

What was the greatest challenge that you overcame in 2017?

During the Estonian Presidency, the concept of free movement of data as a fifth freedom of the EU has taken root. The Digital Single Market cannot be built without a special emphasis on the free movement of data among the Member States.
The free movement of data provides a visionary framework for accessing, sharing and (re)using data, not only between public authorities and private companies but across borders, between all Member States.

What book did you read in 2017 that most interested or inspired you?

The year has been very fast-paced, which means my time has been spent on reading work materials. We have been joking with our team that we have read and also written a decent amount of books regarding the Council of the EU.

Who inspired you in 2017, and why?

I am grateful to my 4-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter for their cleverness and ability to think out of the box. And my husband keeps amazing me with his support and composure in every situation.