Sikkut: Politicians reminded of e-state importance when something breaks
Siim Sikkut was the deputy secretary general in charge of digital development for five years during which he saw seven ministers come and go. He believes that the digital proficiency of both officials and politicians needs to be boosted for the Estonian state IT system to endure and be improved. The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications should have a bigger say and the entire field more money, Sikkut finds.
Seventeen years of public service of which five years on top in your field. And people still see you walking through the ministry's doors almost every day. I gather it takes a long time to clear out one's desk after such lengthy service.
Because it was possible for me to stick around for the handover and my successor was interested in a more thorough introduction, I am still there for them.
I will give the traditional answer of wanting some time to breathe in and out, take a break.
However, does the private sector beckon? I'm sure your know-how can be converted into quite a lot of money.
Money is not the most important thing. Rather, it is that there is demand for Estonian know-how, digital state experience everywhere in the world, and it is the private sector that is exporting it.
We will see where the road takes me, I'm not closing any doors at this time. However, I think it would do me good to smell the private sector air, and I'm sure I will be able to return to state employ should the opportunity present itself.
Last spring, Estonia sent half a million people looking to get vaccinated to the digital registration system that promptly crashed making it impossible for others to book a simple doctor's appointment. This winter, we created a system where hundreds of thousands of people can apply for price of energy benefits, while it requires people to enter their personal code after logging in with their ID-card. Is there a common denominator for these things?
There is. Everyone owns their own service. What this means is that the quality of the digital state or the service people get depends on the level of the contracting agency. The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications (MKM) can offer tools, help and motivation. But everyone is in charge of building their own things.
And that is where both the joy and the pain start. We have excellent agencies creating fantastic services, but the general level is uneven. The examples you gave represent the other end of the spectrum. And it all starts with the question of whether services are being managed. Whether anyone is responsible. Taking, for example, vaccination organization, there was no one in charge. There cannot be an effective digital solution if the process of its creation is misaligned.
Is it the same with the benefits system?
I would refrain from pointing fingers. Hindsight is always 20/20. But I do believe there are a couple of highly systemic things that have not been universally implemented.
Invite a tech expert, talk to the private sector and consult the MKM. The simple question of whether the decision-maker, be it a politician or official, takes a moment to think about their information system, how to deliver it digitally? We expect everyone to consider these aspects in a digital country, while it is just not the case today.
We probably need to invest more in the know-how and skills of people who work for the state. It is something we haven't done for years and that needs to be restarted. That is also why we recently launched a digital state academy online course where people can learn the basics.
To what extent do our politicians understand that IT is everywhere?
It varies would be the honest answer. We cannot expect politicians to be tech experts, few are.
Ministers usually discover the extent to which they depend on technology only after they start work because IT systems going down means people missing out on services or benefits and that hits home. Or when there is a data leak because something hasn't been patched in time. However, they usually do not realize it until something happens.
The honest answer is also that a lot more needs to be done here. Having a rhetorical understanding of IT being important in Estonia and something we should pursue is one thing. We have taken several steps toward that understanding materializing as concrete and sufficient funding. We took one step during Jüri Ratas' government and have taken another with the current cabinet, but there is still a lot to do.
The state spends roughly €190 million on IT every year, both on workstation procurements and your salary. We can add to that around €30 million in EU subsidies that is mainly for investment.
Those are the figures for last year.
An additional €30 million came this year. However, this is one-off funding that does not reflect in the state budget strategy (RES). Do I understand correctly that we would need an extra €70 million in next year's state budget compared to the RES for things to be going well?
That would allow us to maintain existing systems, infrastructure, workstations and servers. To keep the holes patched.
To avoid the digital state crumbling from the other end?
Yes, that is the sum needed to maintain things. Next to it, there will be European funding we will be using to develop event services or services that can be accessed very conveniently and in a single location or the Bürokratt system where people can talk to robots in Estonian. But that is the investments side of things. The base need is to get those extra permanent €30 million and then another ca €40 million.
While money is not everything, we can still see things built from the hip. The Estonian digital state continues to be a daily miracle. To borrow a colleague's expression, it is kept going using spit, duct tape and headwind.
Our from-the-hip service is almost the best in the world. If we want to make it the best in the world, we also need to invest. Because looking at the private sector, those who have the best conditions in the world are the best in the world.
The Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) sent a letter to the interior ministry in the summer of 2018, asking for the Aliens Act to be amended less often. There had been four amendments that year and five the year before. IT system developments could not keep pace and police officers were eventually forced to realize politicians' bright ideas using a pen and paper. Is this extraordinary or rather widespread?
It is not the status quo nor is it completely extraordinary. But it does not dominate.
Is it the situation in some fields today?
Every time we change the income tax rate or introduce an exemption, it requires a massive overhaul of Tax and Customs Board systems.
Social insurance is another area that has massive IT systems that cannot be changed overnight. It is a separate problem that they were built to be too complicated in the past.
A large part of the solution is rebuilding systems, which we have launched at the economy ministry. I would give the example of a building made out of blocks as opposed to a single solid piece. Where you can just exchange one of the blocks when you need to alter the income tax rate. But it is a long road. It will not happen overnight and will take years if not decades.
Could you give an example of an area where people are doing extra work because an existing system is not working properly?
The problems surrounding the Aliens Act serve as that example, with the information system in question horribly out of date. But work is being done to replace it.
The population register is another such example. Registering births, deaths and marriages could be much faster and more flexible, but the register cannot facilitate it. It needs to be completely rebuilt. Plans are in the pipeline.
However, at the end of the day, those are not core problems when talking about the functioning of the digital state. The quality of services that reach people boils down to processes. Whether there is the desire to make services better, whether processes are managed and measured.
If the latter is not standard practice for officials in state agencies, you could have the ideal information system made out of an infinite number of blocks and it would still be useless.
Does this realization differ from one agency or ministry to the next?
Precisely! And there are two ways of solving the problem. One is to try and develop skills and know-how, which is undoubtedly very important. That is why we have phrased the role of the economy ministry as that of the digital state's locomotive, that it is our task to aid and assist other institutions if needed.
The other side is to consider whether more can be centralized. We can aggregate more functions or give the digital state's core institutions, like the economy ministry, levers with which to demand more from others. That is likely also part of the solution. To have even clearer requirements for architecture, systems that could be changed in less time or service quality standards.
You and the economy ministry have lobbied for giving the IT minister greater capacity in deciding developments.
We held back that lobby for a very long time. But it seems the change is necessary. If we look around in the world and compare Estonia to others, countries that have managed to rapidly improve service quality have used such levers – opted for centralization and given institutions like the MKM the right to demand more. It works.
Could you give a practical example?
Our IT minister loves to give the example of having to fill out a form when returning from abroad (due to Covid rules – ed.). You log in using your ID-card only to be asked for your address and phone number. That information already exists in various systems, meaning that the principle of only asking for data once is not being observed.
The principle has hardly been enforced. There is no lever with which to require anyone to comply. Perhaps there should be. This would allow the MKM, State Information System's Agency (RIA) or another institution to require changes be made.
You've already taken some flak for your efforts.
Not yet, while I think there will be a debate.
I have read very critical feedback from some ministries.
What I would like to emphasize is that this is very much global experience. When people say that the rest of the world is catching up or even overtaking us, serious players use the aforementioned levers. We need to look at the competition or colleagues if we want to stay in the game.
In other words, the Estonian e-state needs more centralized management and more carrot and stick type motivation?
It needs to be a little more stick but not all the way. We do not want to make the entire digital state dependent on a single institution. That would be creating a bottleneck. We need a little more stick and a lot more skills, know-how and funding.
Having sufficient funding means not having to run around patching holes and praying there will not be another one. Funding is also needed to make sure we have the best people in charge of creating these systems and services. Then we will have hope of improving the digital state.
I'm sure you have a presentation on problems ready for each new minister. How often have you changed those slides over the last five years?
The fundamental touchstone remains the same. I phrased it for myself when I first took the job – that we will always have two simultaneous tasks. On the one hand, to keep jumping to new levels, taking the digital state forward. Like what we are attempting with Bürokratt where people can simply tell their smart device what they need and things will start happening. A smart assistant to take care of things for the person.
But this developmental leap needs to happen hand-in-hand with maintaining and safeguarding what we have. We cannot bet solely on new innovation. Just as we cannot settle for keeping the home base going even when we are short on resources, because people expect change. And doing those two things simultaneously is quite the challenge. And that is the agenda I had for all ministers over the last five years.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski