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As CIO of Estonia, Siim Sikkut helps set the strategy for digital policy-making and maximizing the value of technologies within government. He explains how tech has supported the national effort during the Covid-19 pandemic, how it is looking to advance its status as a leading e-state, and the way AI could transform the delivery of government services.
When emergency measures were introduced in mid-March to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the small Baltic state of Estonia, its impressive digital infrastructure and status as one of the world’s leading e-states helped to give it a huge initial advantage.
Siim Sikkut, the Estonian government’s CIO and co-founder of its e-Residency program, explains: “We moved to remote working and remote schooling almost overnight. We had to scale the operations but, fundamentally, services and the habit of using them digitally was already there, and so the shift to coping with Covid-19 was much easier.”
Estonia’s capital city Tallinn — the tech hub that has given birth to start-ups such as Skype, TransferWise and Taxify — is regularly referenced as one of the best cities for working remotely, which made the transition to working from home much easier for its residents. Similarly, the ability to order a prescription online or arrange a video consultation with a doctor meant that Estonia didn’t face some of the challenges that less digitally advanced nations had to tackle.
“Because we had the fundamentals down, we were also able to very rapidly mobilize in terms of building the quick fixes to more Covid-specific issues,” Sikkut says. The initial response was to host a three-day hackathon, on the weekend after emergency measures were introduced. It aimed to find digital solutions to some of the challenges the government now faced.
Some of the projects launched following the hackathon included a chatbot to help prevent the overloading of emergency lines, an online self-assessment questionnaire for people who were suffering from Covid-19 symptoms, and mobile data-tracking to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Participants from all over the world took part in Estonia’s virtual hackathon
Because many of the tech solutions were simple, it meant they were easy to implement quickly. The hackathon garnered a lot of global attention too and a subsequent event, held the following month and backed by the Estonia e-Residency scheme, attracted 15,000 participants from 98 different countries.
Building on decades of digital innovation
It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the state was able to leverage technology so rapidly to help support its fight against the virus. After all, Estonia has earned plaudits for many years for its innovative use of digital technologies across its government departments, and was recently ranked third in the United Nations annual E-Government survey, behind only Denmark and South Korea.
A combination of historical circumstance and a willingness from its political leaders to experiment with new technologies helped Estonia establish itself as one of the leading digital-first nations. The government-backed Tiigrihüpe, or Tiger Leap program — introduced in 1996 — aimed to accelerate the development of the country’s computer network infrastructure, with a particular focus on education. It brought computers and an internet connection to every school and formalized IT lessons in the national curriculum.
The Estonian government then set out on a radical path towards digitalization in 2001. A national digital identity scheme and capacity for data-sharing across government departments were the core elements which would come to underpin this new method of e-governance. In practical terms, it means that Estonian residents can now access almost any government service online, from voting to filing a tax return.
Sikkut describes himself as the next generation of digital leader at the helm of what is now a 20-year project. “When the government started going digital in earnest some visionary techies proposed a few fundamental pillars,” Sikkut says. “The national digital identity and the idea of having a nationwide platform for data sharing became our e-Residency and X-Road schemes. Our job is to keep iterating and building on these pillars.”
Building a truly digital society
Now, as Estonia looks to the future, it is hoping to reinforce its reputation as a destination for technology companies and talent. Sikkut claims that “prior to the corona-crisis we were getting literally five or more delegations a day coming through Estonia trying to learn from our policy lessons, speaking to technology companies here, and buying their solutions.”
A new Digital Nomad Visa, which builds on the country’s e-Residency program, is one of the ways the country is looking to promote its digital society and attract innovative people to work there. The visa will enable them to work in Estonia for a year without having to apply for a residency permit, as either a freelance or for their current employer. The only conditions are having a monthly income of over €3,504 ($4,119) and paying a small visa fee.
Estonia’s e-Residency card allows non-Estonians to access certain digital services and has been used by over 70,000 digital entrepreneurs since launching in 2014
Sikkut explains: “We are trying to give individuals and companies reasons to come and build up the next generation of digital technologies here. We’re happy to be a test bed and work with these talents because that helps us improve too. That's how we hope to get beyond our size cap.”
Indeed, overcoming the limitations of a small population — just over 1.3 million — that is both shrinking and aging has been a key factor in pushing forward Estonia’s digital ambitions. “From our point of view, the more we can rely on machines in government, the private sector and beyond, the better because that allows us to punch beyond our weight,” says Sikkut.
Artificial intelligence can be a “gamechanger” in this regard, he believes. It is already being used in unemployment offices to help match jobseekers with open positions, while the ministry of rural affairs is using AI analysis of satellite images to see whether farmers are eligible for subsidies for maintaining their grassland.
Both activities would have previously been carried out by people, but Sikkut hopes that by utilizing AI in these tasks, Estonia’s limited human resources can be better applied elsewhere. There are currently 25 AI use cases being employed across government departments, with the ambition of increasing this to 50.
Looking into the future, Sikkut also has big ambitions to make AI a fundamental part of the way citizens access state services. “We want to move interactions with the government away from websites and apps to become virtual assistant-based,” he says. “We want to make it even more seamless for citizens to get stuff done with the government. And the most seamless interaction between people and technology is using voice commands, instead of having to use a mouse or your finger on an iPad.
“That’s the dream, but it’s a dream which we’re building towards, not just dreaming.”
Leveraging the power of design
Despite his commitment to the transformative potential of advanced technology, Sikkut does not want to be overly reliant on this to improve services, and believes that important steps forward can be made by applying good design and continuous-improvement principles. He says: “I don’t think innovation always has to be the next moonshot. Innovation is largely about constant, incremental, painstaking improvement. And that matters oftentimes even more than the big breakthroughs.”
One of the best examples of this is the Estonian government’s “once only” regulation, which stipulates that users should only have to share a piece of information with the government once. This has helped to reduce barriers between departments and the administrative burden on citizens.
“Siloing information is very inefficient,” says Sikkut. “From the perspective of computing and storage capacity, you’ll have a lot of duplicated data. But also, from the user point of view, the fact that we share data means that we bother you less frequently.”
In practical terms it means that if, for example, a citizen filled in their address for the census bureau, and agreed to their data being shared between departments, they wouldn’t have to enter it again when applying for a driving license.
“We have been at the forefront in terms of advanced digital governance,” Sikkut says. “Because of this experience we are aware that bureaucracy becomes easier if data sharing happens invisibly in the background.”
The next evolution of this is the grouping of government services, which is currently being explored. It would bring together all the elements of bureaucracy associated with different life events, such as starting a new business, losing a job or having a child.
Information would be delivered in “proactive bundles” rather than the government requiring citizens to visit multiple websites to find what they need to know, Sikkut suggests. “The government could proactively email you to congratulate you on a new baby and then direct you to any necessary information and request any data.”
He adds: “With service design, we don’t need to build a fancy AI system to serve our people better, we can simply share information in the background to make it work more seamlessly. That’s innovation, too.”
Tackling the security challenge
With so much personal and sensitive data being shared, it inevitably raises questions around privacy and security. In 2007, Estonia became an early victim of a targeted state cyber-attack. The country’s dependence on digital services for banking, government services and media heightened the impact of the attack, which used botnets to execute a distributed denial of service.
This high-profile event has indelibly marked the importance of cyber-security in the minds of the Estonian government. “We learn from these occasions and try to improve our defenses,” says Sikkut. “After 2007, we built up our capacity and started investing more in cybersecurity. We brought this to international forums as well and NATO decided to base its Coordinated Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn because we now have this established background in security.”
He believes that with the right investment and approach it is possible to manage risks at an acceptable level. What’s more, he argues, a return to analog processes would not be any more secure. “Privacy wise, we don’t see the paper world as being any safer,” he says. “Paper records have famously gone missing and been leaked to the media in just the same ways. At least in the digital space, unless an attacker is really good, there will always be traces to follow. So, there’s more of a barrier or a deterrent for somebody trying to do something foul.”
Despite such risks, however, Estonia’s commitment to digital government services and its benefits is appreciated by its citizens. “Nobody in Estonia doubts that digital innovation has brought more government effectiveness,” says Sikkut. “And a government that delivers is a government that is more trusted.”
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