Kadi Maria Vooglaid: What should be the state’s role in a digital future?

Estonia should be creating technologies that support community and the global community needs governments who understand the moral consequences of the impact of technologies on peoples’ lives, Kadi Maria Vooglaid, a PhD candidate in public administration, writes.

In September 2017, something of a minor catastrophe started to unfold in Estonia. The cornerstone of the country’s international reputation as the pioneer of electronic government – the digital identification system – was discovered to exhibit security risks, provoking PR panic in the central government as well as prompting a domestic political (and technological) crisis just in time for local elections. Suddenly, the whole future of the proud Estonian practice of e-voting was brought into question.

Why should one care about some technical issues with a microchip which is obviously just going through predictably problematic pre-teens (e-voting in Estonia is exactly 12 years old), you may wonder. You might also be compelled to ask, why should one pay any attention to a small plot of land that has always been and always will be on the margins of more important and powerful regions? The short answer is because this periphery might just turn out to be at the centre of one of the most important debates to be had about politics and public administration this century – namely the role of government in a digital society.

Which side of history?

While run-of-the-mill ludditism (opponents of industrial change or innovation – editor) might be considered part-and-parcel of even the most advanced societies, this hasn’t really been the case in Estonia, where the convergence of technology and government has always been about something more than mere service delivery. Here, e-government isn’t just a fact of (the Estonian way of) life – it is also an indispensable part of a carefully crafted narrative of national identity.

The politically motivated backlash against e-voting resulted in the first major occasion where public trust seemed to falter, ever so slightly, in what has been regarded as the foundation upon which modern Estonia has been built – e-government. This elicited a response from the Estonian MEP, Kaja Kallas, who wrote a blog post where she reminded us that in this day and age, the digitalisation of government is simply inevitable and urged her compatriots to ponder one of life’s big questions – which side of history do we really want to be on?

“The politically motivated backlash against e-voting resulted in the first major occasion where public trust seemed to falter, ever so slightly, in what has been regarded as the foundation upon which modern Estonia has been built – e-government.”

One way to interpret this question would be through the lens of technological determinism: if digitalisation of the global society continues, it is only a matter of time before someone takes over leading the way in digitalisation of the public sector and just like that, Estonia will have lost its most valuable asset – its public image as a tech-savvy nation, which has thus far been the one thing setting Estonia apart from other small countries in the international community. This is what Kallas probably had in mind with her provocation.

But there is also another way to think of this and it goes far beyond whether or not to use e-voting. The question “which side of history” implies that there’s a wrong side of history as well as a right side. Therefore, it’s not merely a technical question – it’s an ethical one. Estonians have been exemplary in the technical aspects of being not just on the right side of history, but almost ahead of its time, and as I will explain below, we don’t need to worry much about falling behind. But this doesn’t mean it’s not possible to take a wrong turn somewhere down the line.

e-Estonia: a unicorn or an iPhone?

The fact that Estonians are expressing any fears about lagging in digitalising the government might sound somewhat amusing to anyone better acquainted with the level of e-governance elsewhere in Europe and most of the rest of the world.

It’s generally agreed upon by academics that the e-Estonia success story is unscalable – the techno-legal paradigm in place in the government today depends upon a robust interplay of several unique aspects of the historical, socio-political and cultural context of Estonia, such as the lack of legacy systems in the bureaucracy or stable cross-partisanship concerning the e-government policy agenda, which has spanned several decades and survived multiple governments. In an increasingly polarised global political culture, achieving this level of cooperation between all parties in any government on any issue, be it e-governance or something else, is becoming more unlikely by the hour. This is something that has been long emphasised at the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance at Tallinn University of Technology (RND), where I currently work as a junior research fellow and PhD student – many of my comments in this essay reflect thoughts and discussions of this amazing place.

It has also been argued that the creation of “the most modern government” in the world has had really nothing to do with modernity or technology, but was instead dependent on something quite archaic, namely the tribal nature of the Estonian society – a point made by RND professor Wolfgang Drechsler in his forthcoming book, Software is eating the nation state: Estonian transformations. Most ordinary people in Estonia find the idea of “elites” simply ridiculous, and thus there’s an absence of fear of government, or more precisely, low levels of faith in the coercive capacity of government. This makes Estonians less paranoid of power, which, in turn, makes it easier for them to entrust personal, and even sensitive information, such as medical records or voting data, to state information systems.

“It has also been argued that the creation of ‘the most modern government’ in the world has had really nothing to do with modernity or technology, but was instead dependent on something quite archaic, namely the tribal nature of the Estonian society.”

One of the most challenging problems facing governments who have been trying to implement similar e-government policies, is people’s mistrust of the state information-processing apparatus. It could be (and has been) convincingly argued that this mistrust is, in some instances, more than justified. In the curious case of Estonia, that same elite-shunning, big-brother-dissing sentiment is actually mirrored in the architecture of Estonian e-government, which is designed with the rights of the user (citizen) as the guiding principle, creating a positive feedback loop between a generally trusting citizenry and the actual integrity of the system itself.

These are just a few examples of many unique prerequisites underpinning the success of e-Estonia. This may probably sound quite disheartening to anyone, who has harboured hopes of similar progress in their own country. (Or indeed, spell disaster for the EU in ensuring the free flow of data – an ambitious policy program concerning cross-border data-flows, the materialisation of which rests on a set of highly complex techno-legal frameworks, which need to be agreed upon on a national level and put in place by each member state individually. “Never going to happen”, some say, precisely because of the uniqueness of conditions necessary for implementing such policies.) Does this mean that the rest of the world is forever stuck with slow and ineffective governments? In a way it depends on how you frame this uniqueness.

For the sake of illustration, let’s imagine that e-Estonia is an iPhone. The academics think the success of the iPhone is due to its X-factor more than anything else, and is thus irreplicable. In the academics’ version, the iPhone will always stay ahead of the competition due to the uniqueness of its organisational culture, market position and other secret ingredients responsible for that coveted and unattainable “something special”. The policy people, on the other hand, believe that the iPhone, however cool, is still just a smartphone. One can figure out the set of elements that make it the tool that it is, then try and copy it, or better yet, create something even cooler. In a sense, both academics and policy people are right: e-Estonia is unique, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be many unique, yet equally successful paths to digitisation of government.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the e-Estonia/iPhone analogy is the fact that in both cases, what really has mattered most, is marketing. Therefore it would make much more sense to think of e-Estonia as a unicorn instead – it doesn’t really exist, or at least not to the extent that potential “buyers” have been led to believe. The systems don’t always work perfectly and will probably be out of date in a couple of decades anyway.

“Therefore it would make much more sense to think of e-Estonia as a unicorn instead – it doesn’t really exist, or at least not to the extent that potential ‘buyers’ have been led to believe.”

Moreover, the digitisation of the Estonian government has been unevenly distributed not just geographically, but also within the government itself. The X-road is deservedly legendary, but the government’s online consultation platform is a joke and doctors really seem to hate the e-health system. In addition, if one bothered to be more critical of the conditions for the success of e-Estonia, one would have to concede that Estonia is by no means legacy-free, as we have cultural legacies in place in the public administration that pre-date the second republic, and which make sure that many aspects of the civil service stay firmly in the 20th century.

Also, the miraculous unanimity concerning e-government policies, that has prevailed in the parliament since the restoration of independence, might not be such a good thing in the long run, as the “holy cow” effect stifles important debates to be had on some of the effects of e-government policies, such as the influence of e-voting on elections or the ethical implications of big data analytics.

“If one bothered to be more critical of the conditions for the success of e-Estonia, one would have to concede that Estonia is by no means legacy-free, as we have cultural legacies in place in the public administration that pre-date the second republic, and which make sure that many aspects of the civil service stay firmly in the 20th century.”

What is important to realise is that the success stories of the Estonian e-government are sometimes not the successes they have been made out to be, and the projects that have turned out well probably can’t be used as a simple template, but there are many lessons to be learned from our story nonetheless. The most important one being that government still matters, and very much so.

The state is dead, long live the state

The rhetoric enmeshing the e-government discourse is mostly one of eliminating government altogether. This is perhaps best exemplified by Estonian e-residency aka “the borderless state project”, which took the idea of government as platform to its logical conclusion – anyone could apply for Estonian e-residency and upon being vetted, could start using Estonian e-government services online from anywhere in the world, thus effectively eliminating the need to spend any time dealing with bureaucrats at all. The automation of service provision was complete.

What is noteworthy (and somewhat ironic), is that the creation of the borderless state was really born out of nation-building. In Estonia, the early attempts of digitalising the government were equally a matter of saving money and providing a new grand narrative for a newly liberated nation. This is the first lesson that the story of e-Estonia can provide to the world – when attempts to digitise the government are merely being presented as an NPM (New Public Management – editor) effort, it will be difficult to attract the talent that is needed to make such efforts successful.

Paradoxically, one can’t eliminate an inefficient government without an extremely effective government. In order to aspire for “a government in the cloud” or similar red-tape-reducing projects, ample capacity of government is paramount, which means the best people have to be working together to make such ambitions come to fruition. Yet, in most cases, the government is no position to provide competitive working-conditions against the wages and flexibility that the private sector can offer. The Estonian case has shown that there is another way – the allure of being able to create public value in innovative and important ways can provide the big narrative that young professionals these days are willing to trade for a hefty pay in some indistinguishable IT-company. Perhaps the biggest miracle of e-Estonia is the fact that working for the government has somehow, along the way, become cool.

“Perhaps the biggest miracle of e-Estonia is the fact that working for the government has somehow, along the way, become cool.”

The dynamic relationship between academics, politicians, civil servants and IT-professionals has resulted in an abundance of expertise and hands-on experience in building e-Estonia, which many private companies are now capitalising on. Among the clients of these companies are several countries from Central Asia and the Middle East with a questionable human rights track record. “E-government” might sound modern enough to be subconsciously associated with democratic governance, but technological progress is by no means a liberal concept, nor should attempts by countries to promote digitalisation of government taken at face-value.

Some of those attempts might be relatively benign (if cynical) such as Saudi Arabia being the first country to grant citizenship to an AI called Sophia (who automatically gained more rights than actual Saudi women). Other projects are definitely more than just PR-stunts, such as the Chinese Social Credit System, currently in pilot mode and due to launch in 2020, which gathers data about its citizens and rates them according to several variables, including obedience in the most sinister sense – not only will your score drop when you express dissatisfaction with the government, it will also drop when your relatives or friends do, and the score will rise again, if you report on your family when they commit the crime of criticism.

Similarly, Singapore has one of the most advanced e-governments in the world, but a lot of this technology is used for mass surveillance and data is being scraped from all kinds of sources to detect, for example, sedition, including racially or religiously sensitive speech, which is a serious crime (and perpetrators will be found in a matter of minutes, with some help from closed-circuit television and drones equipped with facial recognition software).

This is the second lesson to learn from e-Estonia – the use of technology is never value-neutral, and it is especially important in the context of governance. The fact that Estonian e-government was built parallel with building a newly liberal democratic nation, means that the whole process resulted in an infrastructure, both legal and technological, which places not only needs of the people, but also the rights and privacy of its citizens above all.

“The fact that Estonian e-government was built parallel with building a newly liberal democratic nation, means that the whole process resulted in an infrastructure, both legal and technological, which places not only needs of the people, but also the rights and privacy of its citizens above all.”

The Estonian experience in exporting our e-government technologies, as well as numerous examples, such as China and Singapore, shows, however, that e-government can also be used to curb rights and abolish privacy. There’s also a lesson for Estonia here: if the discourse surrounding e-government in Estonia routinely fails to take into account political and social values embedded in the use and development of technologies in government (which it is in danger of doing as per the “holy cow” effect), we might one day discover that we’ve taken that wrong turn, and it’ll be difficult to backtrack once systems are in place. Therefore, the state still matters – because it’s the central concept governing our debates about how we organise life in a society. And these debates will always matter, no matter how much the state has managed to eliminate itself via technology.

The seamless society

The third, and most important lesson, is not to forget there’s life offline as well. While China and Singapore are trying to use digital technologies to engineer “a more harmonious society”, and the number one Estonian e-government services consultancy – Nortal – has been helping build a “seamless society”, meaning virtually and universally integrated government e-services, all over the world, the Estonian president has been talking about the need to create another kind of a seamless society in the real world, meaning a close-knit community of citizens, civil servants and businesses working together to solve local problems, enhance service provision and tackle other social issues. I think our president is right to remind us that, despite the digital society, what really matters most, is community. If we can make technologies support that, we’ll be on the right side of history.

“Despite the digital society, what really matters most, is community. If we can make technologies support that, we’ll be on the right side of history.”

The next chapter for e-Estonia doesn’t need to be yet another glitzy e-something project. What the global community needs is governments who understand the moral consequences of the impact of technologies on peoples’ lives and the capacity to regulate that new reality. Estonia, as the pioneer of e-government, should take the lead in this global conversation.

I

Cover: USB flash drive with the national flag of Estonia (the image is illustrative).

Enjoyed this article?
Please consider becoming a supporter.


About the author: Kadi Vooglaid

Kadi Maria Vooglaid is a PhD candidate in public administration at the Tallinn University of Technology and a junior research fellow at the Ragnar Nurkse Institute of Innovation and Governance. She also contributes to the Estonian non-profit e-democracy start-up CitizenOS.