In Estonia, we pride ourselves on being one of the world’s most advanced digital nations. But in our 30 years of independence and decades-long commitment to digital transformation, we have never faced a challenge like the pandemic. When Covid-19 struck, our technologically driven society was put to an extreme test and its strengths would soon become clear.
We were at an advantage when it came to adapting to the spread of the virus for a few reasons. First, we are not densely populated — with fewer than 1.5 million people, keeping your distance would not be as hard for us as for Beijing, New York or Tokyo. This geographical element should not be discounted.
But there was more: All our government services were already online with very few exceptions (you can’t get married or divorced online — yet!), and digitization had already reached every sector. Online portals for healthcare and education had been common practice in Estonia for years before Covid, and our digital dexterity has been growing for over two decades. However, many challenges remained.
Adapting To Stay-At-Home Orders: Government, Healthcare And Education
When Covid-19 struck, digital public services continued to operate mostly uninterrupted, with 99% of government services remaining available online to citizens. We launched our e-Cabinet initiative in 2000, which enabled ministers to conduct remote work and create an electronic environment for legislative drafting. In the autumn of 2020, we enhanced this initiative by bringing in speech recognition technology to create verbatim records.
The education system was working well before the pandemic. Children and parents were already accustomed to online learning portals since eKool launched in 2002 and launched a mobile application format in 2014. As of 2018 (the most recent survey), Estonian pupils were ranked No. 1 in the OECD’s PISA ratings. All it took to move to online education was links to video-conferencing platforms being added to the existing portals.
However, of course challenges did come with sustaining social distancing for such an extended period. Lagging pupil motivation and the strain placed on parents who were also working from home brought to the fore the human element of the pandemic.
The health records of all our citizens have been fully digitized since 2008, and an “e-hub” system already operated for GPs across the country as part of our e-health services. Though of course staff shortages occurred in every country battling the health crisis, the effects were mitigated somewhat by the continual running of e-prescription and e-booking services, which freed up Estonian doctors and nurses.
Other human challenges put our digital “utopia” into question, such as parliamentary disagreements on what actions should be taken. We quickly became acutely aware that e-governance cannot substitute for good governance, and we don’t always get communication right, despite digital channels being there to support it. The geographical advantages of being a sparsely populated or island country with the ability to shut its borders have perhaps played a larger role than any technology — take the internationally heralded response from New Zealand, for example.
Track And Trace: The Privacy Issue
There has been no stand-out solution for tracking and tracing the virus to slow its spread, which has perplexed even those at the forefront of innovation. Many countries, including the U.K., Iceland and Singapore, have done trial runs of this technology, but privacy challenges have proven a bureaucratic nightmare, while the accuracy of the apps has caused serious debate.
The question of data privacy has been a big one throughout the pandemic, not only in relation to contact tracing apps but more widely, given the broader range of services now operating fully online. This is another area that Estonia has already figured out. For us, it’s always been important that citizens own their own data, yet we still fight preconceived notions about the security risks of being so digitally focused.
The Estonian government holds every citizen’s records across a number of smaller databases. But only you have access to all of your information, and you are able to see when anyone accesses your data. It’s a criminal offense to view records without permission, and you can file a case against anyone who does so, which the government will pursue for you. Additionally, the government cannot use your data against you, so in our experience, this builds trust in government rather than eroding it.
The pandemic has taught our neighbors that privacy matters to people. Once other countries grasp the importance of this (and build their e-government models to incorporate it), a world of possibilities will open up that will improve the global response to future crises.
The future of e-government is bright, with proactive services (like automatically calculating and issuing you benefits when you become a parent) starting to crop up in Estonia and other digitally advanced nations. E-government is a really valuable tool, and the pandemic has taught us that investing in it is worth it.