Siim Sikkut: e-Estonia – building a digital society

What if it took you less than five minutes and no accountants to get your taxes done? Or how about voting in general elections online, while on a trip to Fiji? Would you like to set up a new company and have it legal and running within 20 minutes? What about signing business contracts or official documents digitally, without leaving your office – or living room? What if you never had any cheque books from your bank or parking metres on the streets?

This is not Narnia or some other wonderland. All of this (and more) is actually everyday reality in Estonia, a small northern European country where people and companies get almost everything done digitally. Use of smart technology has penetrated the lifestyle so deeply that the country has become known as e-Estonia.

Since restoring independence in 1991, Estonia has been on the path of fast economic, social and governance change – fuelled to a great extent by use of information and communication technology (ICT) in public sector, businesses and daily life. It has been one of key governmental policies and priorities to advance the development of digital society by ensuring smart uptake of ICT.

Each Estonian resident has a government-issued secure digital identity (ID-card and mobile-ID), to get access to online services and sign things digitally. The entire government and even parts of the private sector are connected together via X-Road, a nation-wide data exchange layer that allows secure data exchange between any agencies. The result – seamless public (digital) services for the users.

At the same time, strong privacy protection safeguards are in place and rigorous efforts are made on the cybersecurity front. Estonia indeed has become one of the global cybersecurity powerhouses despite the small size of the country. This has been the outcome of practical need to preserve and protect our digital way of life.

The building of the digital society is anything but finished. Estonian national digital agenda 2020 spells out a package of next policy initiatives, from leading the development of cross-border digital (public) services and infrastructure to thorough redesign of many digital services towards greater user focus. The digital agenda is complemented by the national Open Government Partnership (OGP) action plan, where technology is put to work for increasing openness and efficiency of governance via concrete steps.

One of the most exciting and promising new initiatives for e-Estonia is the launch of e-residency. It is also one of Estonian government’s Open Government Partnership (OGP) commitments for 2014-2016.

It means that from 1 December 2014, Estonia is the first country in the world to offer government-issued digital identity to non-residents – so that they can use the digital services and signatures wherever they are in the world, regardless of whether they already have a business or other relation with Estonia or not.

The idea is to make Estonia bigger, at least in the digital sphere. Estonian companies would have more users for digital services and we hope to receive a new wave of foreign investment (including start-ups) into the country. Same time, we are building a great digital network of international friends – the e-Estonians.

E-residency has just been launched. The Estonian government takes a start-up-company-like approach in developing the initiative. It means that we have started with the beta phase, with constant improvements and new service development continuing together with the (first) users. Edward Lucas, the energy editor at The Economist, has become the very first e-resident of Estonia.

We are exploring ways how to make e-residency also a tool for diplomacy. For example, we hope to collaborate with e-residents to have them be “ambassadors” for e-Estonia and e-residency in the wider world – thereby pursuing our public and economic diplomacy objectives. At the same time, e-residency itself opens up novel channels and ways for public (digital) diplomacy itself.

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This article was originally published by Digital Diplomacy Coalition. Cover: VisitEstonia.

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About the author: Siim Sikkut

Siim Sikkut is the ICT Policy Advisor at the Government Office of Estonia.