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Hannes Astok: Digital state on political high seas

Hannes Astok.
Hannes Astok. Source: Private library

The political-mechanical problem with the personalized state seems to be that if finding €5.7 million to hike teachers' salaries seemed to be an almost insurmountable hurdle, why should the coalition partners be motivated to come up with €200 million, Hannes Astok writes.

The plan for a personalized state, or updates to Estonia's e-state, have sparked a number of political (differences of) opinions this week. Let us first take a look at the plan and then its reflections.

The proposal is quite sensible and the updates long overdue. But what has been lacking so far?

We have too many sectoral service portals (Transport Administration, Tax and Customs Board etc.) the services offered by which do come together in the eesti.ee portal but the look and user logic of which are very different. Estonia lacks a state mobile application, even though internet use has largely moved to mobile devices, especially in situations where use of a laptop computer is insensible or impossible.

There are several examples of states' official apps. The best-known right now is Ukraine's Diia application, which offers, in addition to services and personal documents, access to television and radio channels and even a game where you can destroy Russian tanks as a drone operator. While these add-ons might not be necessary in peacetime, they helped the app gain traction in Ukraine. By now, around 20 million people or half the population of Ukraine use the app.

But let's come back to Estonia. The saddest fact is that many of Estonia's digital services remain clumsy and complicated to use. Whereas this oversight is not just on the part of engineers and designers. Rather, service owners have not been diligent in updating services, including their digital solutions.

The services are usually not owned by the Information System Authority (RIA) or the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, but rather various state agencies and local governments. Their ability to deliver content and UI updates is of key importance in terms of efforts to update the digital state.

Therefore, development of the digital state must support not only technological innovation but also make smarter and more skillful the people planning public services.

Continued development of proactive or event services is a sensible and frankly the only course. In simple terms, we should not be searching for a service for registering getting married, but simply saying or pressing a button called "I want to get married" should kickstart a host of processes, from registration to potentially changing one's name, requesting new identity documents etc. While it's true we have been saying these things for the last 15 years, Rome wasn't built in a day.

It is important to involve end users, Estonian people in the design process. Solutions cooked up in a ministry office might not work on a tiny smartphone screen deep in the woods.

While doing research for the piece, I went and pressed the "Marriage event service" button in the eesti.ee portal and received the reply: "Something went sideways..." (an error message – ed.) Reader permitting, we might interpret it as computers also having a human side and making mistakes, as the same thing happens to 50 percent of marriages.

Therefore, the plan to move forward with the digital state and have services that match people's needs and lives is entirely proper. While it hardly constitutes a revolution, even a digital welfare society needs constant development and promoting, irrespective of whether we call it a personalized, proactive or user-centered state.

Why, then, are politicians skeptical when it comes to Minister [of Economic Affairs] Tiit Riisalo's plan?

Firstly, there is the question of money. Riisalo declared the investment requires north of €200 million.

While I realize that public services funding needs to be permanent and stable, it is somewhat peculiar to talk separately about funding for digital channels as that is where 99 percent of services are now offered.

Unfortunately, there is no political agreement in Estonia in terms of whether funding the digital state constitutes an investment or a fixed cost. Over the last decade, the idea is that it is a fixed cost as no information system should be left the same for more than 12 years, while user data expires after just four years.

The problem is that IT systems are usually not included in fixed expenses plans, while the EU has been offering rather generous investment support. The latter fact has meant that while there is money to develop new things, there's none for keeping existing ones up to date.

The political-mechanical problem with the personalized state seems to be that if finding €5.7 million to hike teachers' salaries seemed to be an almost insurmountable hurdle, why should the coalition partners be motivated to come up with €200 million.

Secondly, the "personalized state" brand was an important slogan in Eesti 200's recent election campaign. Politicians make for a jealous bunch, and Eesti 200's coalition partners might find it difficult to pledge €200 million for as long as the project is called that (in fear of Eesti 200 getting all the fame and glory). The lesson is probably that while the digital state used to transcend political parties until recently, there has now been a deviation from this.

What to do to make sure the baby isn't thrown out with the bathwater?

First, the costs need to be elaborated on and distributed. The sum of €200 cannot be the result of precise calculations. The expenses need to be split up by year and sector (read: between ministries), with everyone contributing something.

Second, come up with a pretty, human and inclusive name for the plan. /.../

Thirdly, end users, Estonian residents Mari, Evald and Christopher, need to be involved so they can tell engineers and politicians how and what really needs to be done.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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