National Audit Office: Estonian e-state losing its leading status

People working on computers.
People working on computers. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The National Audit Office said in its report, released on Monday, that Estonia's international image as an e-state is good, it is about to join the average players in terms of future development.

While the e-state in many ways helps Estonia to achieve more efficient and cheaper administration, it also needs to be maintained, which entails increasingly large expenses that either go unnoticed or ignored, Holm said.

The heads of IT at public bodies who were consulted with during the process said that it is easier to receive financing for new development projects than for maintaining or updating existing systems.

"The National Audit Office is guided by the principle that Estonia has to be self-sufficient. Financing by the structural funds of the European Union can be used for creating IT systems but not for the maintenance thereof - and that's where the difficulties begin," Holm said.

The auditor general noted that the share of EU funding will decline in the coming years. The IT experts consulted said that the yearly system maintenance costs should equal one fifth of the amount spent on development.

Holm said that obsolete underfunded IT systems may start hindering the implementation of political decisions as the system fails to cope with the planned changes. An ill-considered IT solution that has not been implemented with sufficient care by the contracting authority may also slow down administration.

"The e-state and all its services has for a long time been a source of national pride; however, compiling the report we discovered that determining the cost of this price is quite difficult," Holm said. "Regular IT maintenance expenses are often reported as part of the general economic expenditure."

Holm expressed hope that next years' reports on public bodies' IT costs will be as detailed as those in defense spending.

The central government's administrative and staff costs in IT have increased around 30 percent from 2016 to 2018, marking significant growth, the report by the National Audit office reads. The extremely fast development of the rest of the world also needs to be taken into account, however, and the maintenance costs of existing systems are only about to emerge.

The annual report also points out that the e-health system, which has so far been considered the showpiece of digitization in Estonia, is far from being as efficient as initially envisaged. Two-thirds of hospitals deem the health information system inconvenient and around half of them said that it does not include the health data needed. 

"Doctors are spending too much time during appointments searching for data on the e-Health Record," Holm said.

The report also underlined that in the area of social work data is being collected from people that is either not needed for carrying out operations or that could be obtained from elsewhere.

"The e-state has to make life easier," the auditor general said, adding that if a person has already submitted their data to the state, they should not be made to do so over and over again. Presently, around one-fifth of the data collected is excessive. 

"The STAR social work information system was supposed to facilitate data availability; however, it has been ten years and the problems have not eased," he said.

The main risks relating to the e-state arise from a shortage of skilled human resources and a lack of up-to-date infrastructure.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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