Opinion: Pandemic highlighted shortcomings in Estonian e-Government

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Dr Keegan McBride Source: Author's personal collection.

Estonia's much-vaunted e-Government systems underperformed during the COVID-19 Crisis, post-doctoral researcher into digital governance Dr. Keegan McBride writes, in an opinion piece which appeared in investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress. Combined with constant miscommunication, Estonia's 'e' response to the pandemic became inhibited, pointing to the need for improvements, and a realistic assessment of the country's approach to e-Government.

McBride argued in the Eesti Ekspress article (link in Estonian) that, while the Ministry of Education offered Estonia's e-School tools, for free, to the outside community, students inside Estonia itself were suffering.

The online school environment suffered Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks (link in Estonian), leaving the system unavailable for periods of time to users, and schools were left on their own to decide how to teach, and with what platforms, leading students to download a number of different applications, create a proliferation of accounts, and in some instances, provide personal data needlessly (link in Estonian).

Families with more than one school student struggled with obtaining laptops or tablets for all of their children, which led schools to rent out equipment and the private sector to donate to families in need.

Throughout the entire duration, students felt that their grades suffered, McBride writes, and parents and families were provided with additional stress, which is the last thing they needed during a pandemic, the likes of which we have not seen in recent generations.

Similar stories can be found in the e-Health sector, where there was no telemedicine capacity requiring doctors to call patients and cancel appointments, data was not made easily available to the appropriate authorities, data quality was poor, and the contract tracing system was reliant on excel spreadsheets and staff themselves.

A number of other systemic weaknesses were uncovered, McBride continues, such as there being no way to integrate volunteers into the pandemic response, a failure to integrate systems or use data from volunteer-led initiatives, the poor usability and lack of cross-border functionality of the HOIA track-and-trace application, and the absence of electronic forms for the monitoring of arrivals in Estonia from other countries.

While the e-State underperformed, leadership in Estonia's agencies and ministries attempted to downplay the severity of the issues, misled the public, intimidated or threatened staff, and made it clear that one must tow the government line or else (McBride points to the cases of Martin Kadai, Simmo Saar, and Merike Jürilo as the most obvious examples).

The crisis has been devastating for Estonia and it is important that Estonia learn, McBride says, from it, that: 1) the e-State is not a substitute for good governance, one must have both; 2) the pandemic exposed a number of shortcomings and weaknesses in Estonia's e-Government systems, moving forward these must be addressed; 3) Estonia should explore how systems are procured, how many specialists are employed within ministries, exploring ways to hasten development during times of crisis; 4) the crisis also highlighted that the government faces a serious challenge with communication - serious effort must be given to improving the government's capability to communicate accurately and timely information to Estonian society; and  5) governmental organizations must be willing to hear, accept, and learn from criticism or dissenting opinions, and the immediate dismissal and ostracization of employees who speak out publicly in public interest should not be tolerated.

Dr. Keegan McBride moved to Estonia in 2015, is a postdoctoral researcher in digital governance, and previously helped to build and manage the Koroonakaart coronavirus site.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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