How COVID-19 has pushed Estonia towards next generation citizen services

Jana Silaškova,
e-Governance project manager,
Association of Information Technology and Telecommunications,

Ingrid Pappel,
Associate Professor and Head of the NextGen Research Group,
Tallinn University of Technology,

For more than two decades, Estonia has been known for its digital government ecosystems through investigating technologies that support digital transformation. Now we are heading towards proactive and automated public services based on artificial intelligence to make our everyday lives as safe and comfortable as possible.

The most crucial enablers of Estonian e-governance have been digital data exchange based on X-road functionalities and digital identification and signing, implemented in strong partnership between the government and IT companies. These became a critical step into paperless government by achieving nearly 100% digitalization for public sector cross-organizational interaction.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital ecosystems have been largely accepted, although most of these changes have been a forced situation. COVID-19 brought into our lives new ways for working and living, transforming governments as well as businesses forever, speeding up the adoption of digital technologies. This has been a worldwide phenomenon.

In addition to state level digital transformation, digitalization has involved developments in local governments and their public services. In Estonia, almost all public services can be provided and consumed in a digital way. That has been a huge advantage in COVID times, as our government was ready to provide its services digitally with only some adaptation needed. Beside public sector services, the private sector and businesses have also experienced a tremendous push towards automation and contactless services. Of course, our huge advantage was that most of the people already knew and had skills to use these solutions – this allowed life to continue without major difficulties.

A crisis can sometimes be a catalyst for enormous growth and a facilitator for cooperation. Such example is the Estonian mobile app HOIA for tracking possible COVID-19 contacts. It was developed for free, involving months-long collaboration between a number of Estonian companies who at any other time would have been seen as competitors.

During the COVID crisis also our public private partnership has remained strong – many new solutions were created as a response to the crisis almost overnight as a result of several hackathons held in cooperation by the private and public sector players. Estonia gained a lot from this, as did several other countries: new solutions such as registering your sick leave online were created within 48 hours. Also, at the same time when a lot of major events around the world were cancelled in 2020, it was possible to hold WRC Rally Estonia thanks to the creation of a data warehouse solution, which shared critical data between different parties during the event and included checking the participants’ virus tests. In the education sector again, the public private partnership proved its efficiency: recommendations for parents and teachers were developed in cooperation and many educational startups opened their platforms for free. In terms of hardware, hands were joined through an initiative called “A Computer for Every Schoolchild”.

The worldwide pandemic was a driver for cooperation not only on local, but also on global level. One such example is the GovStack project, the focus of which is to enable countries to kickstart their digital transformation journey by adopting, deploying, and scaling digital government services through the digital building blocks approach in low-resource settings. Another example is the cooperation with the World Health Organization where Estonia proposed to develop a common open-source trust architecture allowing cross-border health data exchange.

Despite the numerous technological achievements, there are still further steps Estonia can take towards the next generation digital architecture. In light of this, a roadmap was drafted in the Digital Agenda 2030 for Estonia: success of the Estonian seamless digital society will continue, ensuring all people have the best digital experience.

Numerous integrations have been developed based on digital data exchange layer to serve private and public sector information systems, but still further level of automatization and prediction is needed by involving AI into public sector business processes. Proactive services are the next evolutionary step following the Estonian once-only principle. For example, in Estonia, from 2019 parents no longer have to apply for family benefits after the Social Insurance Board completed its automatic proactive service. In that regard, Estonia has developed a vision paper, Next Generation Government Architecture, which contains an action plan along with a new approach for facilitating a more innovative way of public sector service implementation.

Thus, our government is focused on automatization of existing digitalized services to give a good foundation of AI enabled virtual assistants to help easier access to the government services. Although the proactiveness might be lacking in government decision-making processes today, the Estonian strategy is moving towards contactless proactive services as part of the citizens’ everyday life. Here again the cooperation between the political leadership, the public sector institutions and private sector experts is of critical importance. Technology is just a tool to increase the well-being of all of us, so it is of utmost importance that the government has a realistic plan of how to use technology for the sake of its citizens


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