On Tueday morning, President Kersti Kaljulaid delivered the opening remarks at the two-day Tallinn e-Governance Conference 2017, which has brought together participants from 115 countries around the world.
"A quarter of a century ago, when Estonia restored its independent statehood, we were a poor country," Kaljulaid said in her opening remarks as published by the Office of the President. "The crucial question stood in front of us — how to overcome the legacy left to us by the Soviet occupation? Our response was — we need to build up a modern, efficient and democratic state. Radical reforms were carried out in all walks of life. The forward-looking idea was to harness the innovative potential of information and communication technology (ICT). Neither we nor anyone else knew 20 years ago how important the internet and ICT would become and what role it would play in the organization of state and society.
"The choice we made in favor of technology was not an easy one. The decision to invest the scarce resources of a newly-restored independent state — not into repairing potholes in roads or crumbling school-buildings but into equipping those school buildings with computers and an internet connection. In hindsight we can agree that the Tiger Leap program, as it was called, gave the entire Estonian society the momentum to make a digital leap into the future. Schoolchildren, having become computer literate, brought their newly-acquired skills home and also 'infected' their parents, and grandparents, with the digital 'bug.' Priorities changed for families — instead of a new refrigerator, it was often decided to rather invest into a computer and an internet connection."
Digital life now standard in Estonia
"Resulting from that digital leap of faith, fast changes have shifted the fundamentals of our society in many spheres of public life — in business, in governance and also in the very way members of our society lead their lives. Today in Estonia, we talk about e-governance and e-state, but what is much more important is that we are a digital society — a society where technology is thoroughly interwoven into the fabric of everyday life. We have e-school, e-health, e-voting, even e-police.
"It is indeed true that in Estonia, we are born e-citizens. A newborn baby's data is entered into the Population Registry, equipping him/her with a digital identity, the integrity and security of which is guaranteed by the state. Actually, it is an automatic process — when a doctor in a hospital enters data about the baby into the registry, a digital identity is generated automatically. Parents can now tag to this identity the [baby's] name — of course from their laptop, if they so wish, using their own ID-cards, not going to any office. No young parent wants to spend time in a boring public office; they want to spend time with their child.
"When kids grow up, they start exercising their own right to be a digital citizen. For example, this year, the right to vote at local elections is also given to 16-year-olds. These young people will be able to cast their ballots via the e-voting platform, without having to leave their beloved digital environment.
"As during the transformation years, Estonia always felt the support of our international partners, we now feel particularly proud to be able to give something back to international community. What Estonia can offer to the world today is our experience about how a digital society works and how governance needs to change to meet the demands and expectations of e-citizens. E-governance is not so much about technology. It is rather about using technology to bring a change in governance — making governance more transparent, citizen-centred and less corrupt. Connected databases make it impossible to present alternative versions of yourself to different parts of government — both for private personas and business entities.
"As the World Bank's last year's report 'Digital Dividends' demonstrated, the countries to gain most from this digital revolution are those where technology goes hand-in-hand with relevant changes in the so-called analogue sphere — the legal system, economy and developing the skills of people. Added value that digital technologies provide are a more transparent business environment and more accountable government.
"The digital society enables above all the free and free-thinking citizens. Their interactions with the state become effortless. For citizens, being the center of the system does not only mean high-quality public services; it also means having more opportunities to effectively have their say in politics — not only on social media platforms or street demonstrations, but also by engaging the citizens in a meaningful dialogue with the government permanently. This is the Open Government of the 21st Century we need — a culture of governance where the power-holders and citizens are de facto partners, sharing a responsibility for the future of their country."
Estonia can share e-governance experience with other countries
"An e-state in its complexity cannot be directly imported from one state to another — each nation must build their own. After all, a state is also a tradition, and new technologies must embrace that — not replace. However, what can be transferred, though, is knowledge and experience regarding how to build up well-functioning e-government systems. Knowledge transfer, as the main subject of our conference, is a key.
"I'm proud that Estonia has chosen the furthering of good governance via ICT as one of the key priorities of our country's international development cooperation activities. Smart and knowledgeable use of ICT is an efficient tool for bringing about fundamental changes in governance. The benefit to government institutions, businesses and citizens from e-services offered by the government and also private businesses far outweighs the cost of investments made to create and maintain these e-services. We have been able to offer more efficient public services, and the efficiency gains from digital signature are estimated to be as much as 2% of GDP per year. These two percent benefit most of all simple people and SMEs, as neither has the capacity to handle big bureaucracy.
"As it currently stands, the Estonian development cooperation portfolio, which is managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, holds 38 active projects aimed at implementing ICT solutions to governance. Many of these projects are financed jointly by Estonia and other donor countries or organisations. Estonian experience has thus reached countries like Moldova, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Tanzania, Mauritius, Kenya, Angola, the Palestinian Authority and many more. We also cooperate with the funds and programs of the United Nations.
"Each passing day convinces us more of the fact that people really like to use digital applications. A smartphone has become a household item used for business or pleasure in almost all countries of the world, including those countries where cable-based internet connections are still a luxury. In such a world, it is increasingly difficult to convince citizens who are used to modern technology that a document would need to grow a pair of legs to travel from one government official to another or explain why a citizen would need to queue in long lines in some government office in order to acquire a permit or an approval. E-state and e-governance are no longer an expression of exceptional goodwill from the government towards the citizens; it has become a vitally needed commodity of a global information society."
Digital services as a priority of Estonia's EU presidency
"Exactly one month from now and for the first time in history, Estonia will hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. We accept this role with full responsibility, because a strong and developing European Union is Estonia's goal as well. We will do what other EU member states as well as the EU as a whole expect of us and what we ourselves keenly wish to contribute towards — an ever growing digital capability of the European Union.
"Among Estonia's priorities for our presidency are cross border e-services, security and trust in digital services. Estonia also wishes to use its upcoming EU presidency to enhance the capacity of the EU to support the digital development in the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) and in other partner countries. The conference which begins today offers a great opportunity to brainstorm how to do it in the best possible way.
"Digital disruption changes societies at least as much as industrialization did, probably more. So, we need to develop our capacity to foresee and to be prepared for this fundamental change. I am convinced that these future trends will pose a challenge to our current understanding about work and welfare but also about global security.
"Cyber-attacks which have recently taken place in many corners of the world challenge us to strengthen international cooperation in stopping and catching cyber criminals. The field of cyber security is particularly well known in Estonia, as our country was a target of cyber-attacks a decade ago. For this reason, Estonia has prioritized cyber security on the international level for a long time and it is our continued concern now as we aspire towards becoming a member of the UN Security Council for the years 2020-2021. But cyber risks must not mean the withdrawal of governments and honest citizens from cybersphere. Quite to the contrary, it is our obligation to use technology for good causes and thus build the trust of citizens into it."
President Kaljulaid's speech was originally published on the website of the Office of the President.
Editor: Aili Vahtla