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Külli Taro: Should public administration be convenient only for the state?

Külli Taro.
Külli Taro. Source: Postimees/Scanpix

Bureaucracy moving online does allow state agencies to do their jobs more simply and quickly. Public administration, however, should not be organised in such a way that it is better for the state, but more convenient for the people, public administration expert Külli Taro says in a comment to Vikerraadio.

Tallinn Digital Summit 2018, a summit of the digital field, just ended at Tallinn Creative Hub [held on 15-16 October]. This brought IT ministers, entrepreneurs and experts from all around the world to Estonia. Estonians truly have reason to be proud of their state's digital solutions. We can oragnise these kinds of grand summits with honour.

We can no longer even imagine a state where electronic bureaucracy, registers and information systems don't allow needed information to be obtained in minutes. Where procedures with the state would technically take longer than just a few keystrokes. More and more we consider it natural that the state communicates with its citizens and businesspeople exclusively via electronic channels.

At the beginning of October, the Supreme Court of Estonia made a landmark decision. The court decided that a requirement according to which all annual reports must be submitted exclusively via the Commercial Register's online portal is constitutional. Annual reports submitted by any other means, such as on paper or via email, will not be accepted. No exceptions will be made. The same requirement applies to large companies and small nonprofits born of citizens' initiatives alike. The court case itself, by the way, involved a nonprofit operating as a small club whose members averaged 70+ years in age. These dames had to establish a nonprofit in order to be involved in charity work and in order to belong to an international network of associations.

[The week before last], the government decided that a bill may be submitted to the Riigikogu which would allow for the transition in the future to the use of e-PRIA [Agricultural Registers and Information Board]. Applying for agricultural and rural support could only be done electronically. A few weeks prior, the government approved a plan according to which summons for compulsory conscription duty will in the future be sent only to official @eesti.ee email addresses. Summonses forwarded in this manner will legally be considered delivered. Following the state's keystroke, a citizen could no longer claim that they had not received their conscription summons.

These three examples of transitioning to exclusively electronic bureaucracy are fundamentally different in nature. The submission of annual reports could affect anyone. This is a requirement put in place by the state which hinders the realisation of a person's fundamental rights, ie entrepreneurial freedom and freedom of association. If you do not submit your annual report via the business portal, then your business, nonprofit or foundation will be deleted from the register and thus lack the opportunity as a legal person to operate. The electronic PRIA is something that only those interested in applying for support from the state would come in contact with. Receiving support is neither a right nor a duty. Summoned for conscription are young people for whom computer use skills have been part of their general education.

Not everyone raised on computers

But should life without the internet and a computer be fundamentally possible? Is an electronic life, which seems so natural viewed from Tallinn, actually so? In rhetoric we rely on the societal engagement of older people. At the same time, we forget that for people currently just in their 40s or 50s, computers were not a required part of their education. Today's pensioners likewise have not all had experience with computers in their earlier professional lives. And financially, neither a computer nor the internet are accessible to everyone. We are, of course, still waiting for the construction of the "last mile" of the high-speed network.

Is Estonian society prepared to transition to exclusively electronic bureaucracy in communications with the state? If legislators, the government and the top court decide as much, then so we are, perhaps. This is the most convenient for people themselves today as well. But exceptions are nonetheless possible. A regular citizen's required communication with the state is possible with the help of real people at service offices as well. I believe that two or three decades from now, all bureaucracy will be exclusively online, and by then it will seem as natural as literacy.

What worry me, however, are the grounds for the government and court's explanations for why the requirement to communicate with the state by exclusively this means is justified. They talk about uniform, fast and transparent reporting, effective turnover and comparable data. These are just the principles of efficiency, which are indeed appropriate in the state's evaluation of its own work. State agencies have the opportunity to do their own work more simply and quickly this way. But public administration should not be organised in such a way that it is better for the state, but more convenient for the people.

Would it not be most efficient to hold only e-elections? There would be no need to maintain polling places, print ballots, buy secure ballot boxes or arrange for manual counts of ballots. We could know the results very quickly. It would be much easier for the state. But calm down! Nobody, thankfully, is currently debating this possibility.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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