It's well known that Estonia is a leader in e-governance, but what it does to help other countries implement their own e-services is perhaps less well known. ERR News spoke to Hannes Astok from the e-Governance Academy (eGA), about how Estonia has helped Ukraine in the e-governance sphere over the last decade.
eGA was launched as a joint initiative between the Government of Estonia, the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the UN Development Programme, in 2002. It is mainly funded on a project-by-project basis by the European Commission, the Swedish government and Estonia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
So far, it has provided assistance and consultations to more than 130 countries around the world, including the Faroe Islands, Madagascar, India and Georgia. However, the county it has helped the most, by far, is Ukraine.
On a visit to Estonia last year, President Volodymyr Zelensky explained why Ukraine is pushing for this form of government. "Adopting e-services not only frees people from unnecessary bureaucracy, it also helps fight corruption and make the state more reliable," he said.
Estonia is well placed to help Ukraine, Zelensky said, because: "Estonia has a similar experience from the 1990s. Radical changes in Ukraine do require radical steps forward – fighting corruption, promoting e-health and digitalising the state."
Hannes Astok, eGA's development director and member of the management board, told ERR News that Ukraine is the "most important" and "biggest development" partner for Estonia. The NGO started developing services at the regional level before moving mostly to the national level in 2014 after the revolution. Astok says since then there has been "continuous work".
"We started with local governments capacity building in Western Ukraine and we have moved towards national digital infrastructure development and cybersecurity issues," he explained.
So far, eGA has worked on over 10 projects on e-governance development in Ukraine. This work includes developing national systems and the ability to exchange data securely, as well as working with local municipalities across the country to develop their capacity to provide services in a digital format.
Astok said the first priority has been to create a national data exchange system - similar to Estonia's X-road (X-tee) which functions as the backbone of the e-state - and which exchanges data securely between government agencies and authorities. It also implemented the "once-only" principle, meaning a person never needs to give the government the same information twice.
Ukraine's version is dubbed Trembita, after a traditional Ukrainian instrument which was once used to summon members of society together. Trembita was developed by Cybernetica, one of several Estonian companies also working on ICT implementation in Ukraine.
Trembita and digital services portal DIIA makes it possible for Ukrainians to use their ID-cards and biometric passports, driver's license, student cards, vehicle registration certificates and insurance policies in digital form.
As Ukraine is a bureaucracy-heavy country and various paper documents are required by government organisations, having a digital version makes it easy to prove a person's rights or affiliation.
The second priority has been to assist municipalities to digitize their administrative service centers (ASC) by creating an information system called Vulyk (Beehive).
eGA is also providing software and training courses for employees so municipalities can handle documentation digitally and provide services from the front end desk to citizens digitally. The expected result is to support up to 600 administrative service centres to live up to the expectation of the citizens of Ukraine.
Speaking about services which have been created so far, Astok highlighted a newborn registration service named e-Baby which he called a "flagship service" which is proving to be popular with parents.
It takes parents less than 20 minutes to fill in the correct documentation for 10 government services related to childbirth instead of two weeks. Previously people had to stand in queues for each of the 11 agencies and submit 37 documents. Now e-Baby allows forms to be submitted while the parents are still in the hospital.
Another service has been the creation of an app which can download your driving license making it unnecessary to carry the physical copy. Being caught by police without carrying your license when driving can result in a fine so being able to pull up a digital license on a phone has led to a decrease in the number of penalties issue.
Trembita also makes it possible for teenagers to apply for a passport and a taxpayer number at the same time. Previously, two government offices needed to be visited, and eGA estimates not having to do this could save a teenager up to a day's worth of their time.
The system also makes life easier for officialdom, as Trembita can verify lost, stolen or invalid passport documents, wanted criminals, education credentials, student and school IDs and student data.
As there are more than 20 government institutions connected to Trembita, more services are under development, and big discussions are taking place in Ukraine about what these should be. The main problem is that data accessibility is causing a problem.
However, Astok is hopeful that in the coming years there will be "huge development" in digital identity because currently there are "bottlenecks" around administrative services. Another issue is that there is low awareness of e-services.
"I think the main bottleneck is citizens' awareness of digital services and the use of the digital services and the demand for digital services is pretty low still but the government is also working on it," he said.
"Citizens do not know that it is possible to also have services in digital format and they are used to going to the government offices and standing in queues and they are used to someone asking for a bribe - which is not acceptable - it has been like this for the last 30 years. You cannot change it in one year, it takes time but people are starting to demand more digital services and especially the younger generation - they are already very much demanding it, but it is the middle aged and older people who don't care about the services so there is a need to show the benefits."
Uptake of e-services and trust in the government go hand-in-hand, and Astok said it is difficult to tell if citizens have enough trust to use the new services, or if they may have more because the old system did not work.
"It's both probably. The general trust towards the government is still pretty low but I think citizens accept more digital services because then they do not meet a government official who may ask for a bribe," he said.
"So in this sense it might be better - but the general use of digital services on their own in banking, buying tickets, online shopping is still pretty low. In cities, it is pretty good and people do a lot of online shopping but in the countryside and in rural areas it is still pretty low. And people are used to going to government offices or municipal offices and having a long talk about weather and family and then asking for the service."
Internet access is improving outside of cities and Astok said the government is putting a lot of effort to build the broadband backbone and bring broadband to the villages and cable connections.
He said the size differences in the two countries have not proved to be much of a physical issue but a "philosophical" one. While Estonia has a population of 1.3 million, Ukraine's is almost 42 million. The main issue is that Ukraine tends to centralize its services, while Estonia does not.
"If you try to centralize everything and do everything centrally you are killing local initiatives but at the same time, it should be considered, too, that moving from region to region things should not be totally different - so this is a question for a big country," Astok said.
"In Estonia, where there are 1.3 million people, it is easier to harmonize everything because it is small and do-able, but in Ukraine there are 42 million people, plus a huge diaspora abroad. So it what is the most efficient way to launch digital services, while not killing local initiative and innovation, should be discussed. This makes it a philosophical question for a large country."
Astok believes future priorities should include creating a widely used digital identity, improving databases alongside data quality and harmonizing digital government solutions with the European solutions, so data can move between them. "So, for example, if a Ukrainian is working in Poland he can use his Ukrainian digital identity and digital signature in Poland for exchanging documentation," he said.
Another priority is "massive digital services development", because "the more services you have the more people get used to using them on a daily basis", he said.
"The current government has recognised this very well, so there is no need to push them - just to assist them both financially with the competencies and knowledge," he said.
* Approximately four million people have downloaded the app for the public services portal DIIA. Ukraine has a population of 41.9 million.
* 22,004 people have used the e-Baby service.
* The digital driving license has been downloaded two million times to show police officers, meaning two million fines have been avoided.
* 32 e-services have been launched for officials.
* A total of 46,696,658 successful data requests have been made via Trembita. Which means there was no need to provide documents in paper-format.
Data provided by the e-Governance Academy.
Listen to the e-Governance Academy podcast here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte