Tiit Riisalo: State activity must be rationalized
A balanced budget helps the state to set goals, while activities must be reviewed and unnecessary ones selected, new Minister of IT and the Economy Tiit Riisalo (Eesti 200) says), in a fairly nuts-and-bolts interview given to ERR this week.
Appearing on ERR politics webcast "Otse uudistemajast", Riisalo, who is a former chef de cabinet for Kersti Kaljulaid, when she was president, said his first proper working day as minister was already under his belt, and had involved meeting with minister deputy secretaries general, to talk over current work plans, preferences and development plans.
After that, the coalition agreement was examined for the relevant areas, while the work was "the first synchronization exercise of state apparatus and the situation with the political will. We will continue to go into greater depth, to see what activities we can do, to allow the digital state and the economy to advance."
Riisalo added that one of the reasons why he agreed to accept the new post was a desire to put together a methodology for a balanced budget stream.
"In the coming months, I would like to take a serious look at whether everything we do is done so out of expedience and if it is not, what we will do, and whether what is being done is being carried out optimally," he continued.
Riisalo said the work required will become clearer once one goes into detail in relation to the proposed balanced budget – traditionally a target for Riisalo's party's co-laborers in government, Reform, but a target which has receded further into the abyss following the Covid years in particular.
The goal is substantive, while the issue does not relate to
The aim is to do this in substance, and the question is not only about the numbers, but also about looking at the services provided by the public sector as a whole, Riisalo said.
"We would look at the system holistically," he said.
We are talking about a complete digital revolution within the Estonian public sector and the services on offer. We have a unique situation in Estonia, as we are essentially prepared for the 21st century; the digital sphere touches all our lives, on a daily basis," he continued.
Waxing philosophical further, Riisalo said: "The advantages to this field are obvious, but whatever may transpire unintentionally, these systems will not clash with each other, but instead will resemble parallel worlds as they branch out, as in an already built country. Some innovations have remained at a standstill. But now looking at the whole picture and starting anew, is viable."
As to the question whether this was not getting to technical and whether it might not be more important to deal with the substantive side, in other words to consider what services and what quality the state can offer, Riisalo answered that a balanced budget, the personalized state (an Eesti 200 pet policy) and state reform are in fact parts of the same continual whole.
"If we start to engage in a process referred to as a balanced budget, however unintentionally, it will lead to this outcome. As to what specific term is used [in the coalition agreement] - I have not taken part in the drafting of this document to this level of fine detail. This is simply the content, what happened there – we will look at what we are doing, is this appropriate, how can this be done expediently and as efficiently as possible, using the advantages of the digital world," the new minister added.
Riisalo said he was under no illusions about the likelihood of this being achieved inside the space of a year, but that does not prevent it from being an important process nonetheless. The first three months will be spent on preparation, after which it will become clearer what has been prepared for, at what pace and how much money is available for its fulfillment.
According to Riisalo, creating a better business environment in Estonia is an important step, while through the Eesti.ee state portal, serious work is set to commence to ensure the entrepreneur's digital gateway starts functioning. As many services as possible should be under the one roof, while a workflow referred to as the real-time economy should run in parallel; this will make reporting as simple as possible, for business.
In response to presenter Indrek Kiisler's remark that a company is primarily interested in taxes and whether their raising does or does not make the life of companies more difficult, the minister replied that, taking into focuses the overall picture of the EU, Estonia's tax burden is still competitive, and will not hinder businesses from functioning here.
"The fact that certain dividends are taxed at a preferential rate is somewhat of a bonus, and of course you get used to it, but it is inevitable that our people have expectations for a country to provide increasingly better and more expensive services," he said.
Riisalo added that he would not sideline Estonia's digital environment, since it is, he said, one of the few things that the country actually has to offer the outside world – given Estonia's size and geopolitical realities it will never be able to compete with the type of economic policy measures which larger countries can offer.
"What we want to do with the balanced budget exercise is to oversee the use of taxes being optimized," he said.
As to his party, Eesti 200, Riisalo said its goal is to be a reliable coalition partner, which will stand alongside its coalition partners in enacting the needed changes.
Riisalo conceded that not everything in Eesti 200 may work as a well-oiled machine from the outset, since it is a new political party.
However, one of the pillars of democracy is that it reflects society - people from different walks of life are heard, while politics needs a certain amount of cacophony and sometimes non-professional questions.
Regarding the case involving Eesti 200 MP Johanna-Maria Lehtme and director of the NGO Slava Ukraini, Riisalo said that he is not familiar with all the details, but agrees with party chair Lauri Hussar's claim that there is no reason to discuss the activities of the leaders of the NGO before formal procedures and a planned audit have been concluded
Media reports have claimed that one of Slava Ukraini's partners in Ukraine is a for-profit outfit which has obtained large sums of money, accrued from donations made in Estonia, with no obvious positive results arising from this.
"Personally, I wouldn't have done that, and worked with a partner like that," she said. Riisalo is a previous chief of the Estonian Center for Development Cooperation (Eesti arengukoostöö keskus) and said that center has been much more cautious in all things in relation to state money it has been entrusted with, and has very thoroughly researched the background of its partners.
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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Karin Koppel