The Importance of e-Governance
We take a short trip to France and Estonia in our quest for the true meaning of e-governance.
I missed the President of Estonia's opening speech at the latest ICEGOV (International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance) in Tallinn, yet after a couple of days at the gathering I felt as if I had actually heard the address – so much was it discussed in the couloirs of the 1970s Soviet-style Viru hotel where this international event was fittingly held.
Why 'fittingly'? Well, because the hotel, one of the best in the former USSR, also housed, carefully hidden on the 'closed' top floor, a fully equipped KGB station, whose purpose was to spy on the hotel's foreign guests. So, in a way, it was a clear opposite to the E-Governance Conference's main mottoes – 'transparency', 'direct democracy' and 'participation'.
Manifestations of e-governance in modern society are numerous and its importance is hard to overestimate. I have just returned from a press trip to France, where we were introduced to the country's achievements in the area of e-health – a rather broad concept that involves technological innovation, telemedicine, online access to medical records and drugs prescriptions and so on. In the Georges Pompidou Hospital in Paris, we were shown an impressive Telegeria network, coordinated by Dr Pierre Espinoza and Alexis Westermann, President of Bluelinea, a company specialising in home care of vulnerable patients. This network connects leading hospitals in different parts of the country and allows them to hold high-quality and high-definition video-consultations between leading specialists and patients staying either at home or at specialised care wards hundreds of miles away.
The latest telepresence technologies produce multiple life-size images on large displays, kitted out with directional sound and high-definition cameras, which allow home-based patients to be thoroughly examined by participating specialists, who are also able to view the patients' X-rays and ECGs at a distance. Telegeria and similar programmes have already helped to cut down health care bureaucracy and administration substantially (a topical issue for the UK), as well as ambulance and transportation costs, and to redirect more funds towards direct patients' care.
True, in many a modern country, the nice-sounding words 'e-democracy' and 'e-governance' have become little more than meaningless sound bites. Yet in France, as well as in tiny Estonia, now officially recognised as a leading e-country in the world, they are full of practical meaning.The exact statistics of budget savings due to e-governance are not yet available,but I was assured that in both Estonia and France they were substantial.
If France excels in matters of e-health, Estonia is the undisputed world leader in the areas of e-administration and e-services: around 90 per cent of the population (over one million people) is registered with the electronic multi-purpose ID card. This is used not only as an ID card but also a digital signature, a credit card, a card that permits you to vote, to build a business and much more, and it's all administered online.
Estonia is also the first country in the world to connect all schools to the Internet, to have a fully functional e-governance infrastructure and to implement nation-wide Internet voting which grew from 1.9 per cent of the votes cast in 2005 to 24.3 per cent in 2011.
In Estonia, wireless Internet is available everywhere: on small remote farms, in the deepest forests, on all trains and buses. Every Estonian child carries a mobile phone on his or her first day at school. For every 100 Estonians there are now 120 mobile phones.
For citizens of Estonia, e-services have become routine: e-taxes, e-healthcare, e-police, e-schools, even the world's first fully functioning e-cadastre, which offers a quick an easy way of buying land online.
It was not, then, by accident that representatives of 48 countries came to Tallinn to learn from the unique experience of Estonia, or rather e-Estonia, as it is increasingly referred to.
I remember Robert Marshall, an MP from Iceland, saying at one of the sessions that his country's recent banking and financial crisis was a direct result of the insufficient openness and lack of transparency in the government. He added that using the experience of Estonia, they were now trying to rebuild the trust they have lost by developing a new e-constitution and having all government meetings recorded and available on the Web.
His stance was echoed by Rick Falkvinge, the founder of the Pirate Party from Sweden. Falkvinge, whose party's aim is to fight online censorship in all its forms, recently found himself at the centre of the storm that shook the White House and temporarily shut Wikipedia. He came to ICEGOV to learn about Estonia's system of e-governance as a guarantee of free speech.
"I marvel at what Estonia has achieved and at its willingness to share it all with the rest of the world," Chris Vein, deputy chief technology officer at the White House, noted in his address entitled 'Open Innovation: Creating the next generation of Government'.
"In the USA we take freedom of information for granted, but – unlike Estonia – we are not very good at releasing information to other countries," he said.
So, why Estonia? This simple question was on everyone's lips. As I grasped press releases, that was precisely the issue the President of the Republic addressed in his opening keynote lecture in which he called his fellow Estonians 'e-believers', who are proud to be pioneers in e-government. How sustainable in the globalised world a small country of 1.4 million could be?
I was eager to ask the President this and many more questions, but heads of states, even small states, are a busy lot. Since I hadn't bothered to file an advance request for an interview, my chances of getting one were close to zero. But miracles happen. After one of the sessions, the President's office were in touch to say the President would see me.
Perhaps this was due to the fact that for a short time in the early 1990s we both worked for the then Munich-based Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe (albeit we never met face to face) and the President had recognised my name on the list of accredited journalists.
We had a lively two-hour conversation with His Excellency Toomas Hedrik Ilves, the President of Estonia, who is often referred to as Estonia's first ever e-President. And two days after returning from Tallinn, I received the following seemingly mysterious email with'"Message from the President of Estonia" in the subject space:
"iPad, iPod, iPhone, iMac, Macbook Air, Skype".
It was the list of his favourite gadgets and applications. An e-President indeed!
Curriculum Vitae: Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia
Born on December 26, 1953 in Stockholm, Sweden
1978 Pennsylvania University (USA), MA in psychology
1976 Columbia University (USA), BA in psychology
Career and public service
2006-present President of the Republic of Estonia
2004-2006 Member of the European Parliament
2002-2004 Member of the Parliament of the Republic of Estonia
1999-2002 Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Estonia
1998 Chairman, North Atlantic Institute
1996-1998 Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Estonia
1993-1996 Ambassador of the Republic of Estonia to the United States of America, Canada, and Mexico
1988-1993 Head of the Estonian desk, Radio Free Europe in Munich, Germany
1984-1988 Analyst and researcher for the research unit of Radio Free Europe in Munich, Germany
1983-1984 Lecturer in Estonian Literature and Linguistics, Simon Fraser University, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, Vancouver, Canada
1981-1983 Director and Administrator of Art, Vancouver Arts Center, Canada
1979-1981 Assistant Director and English teacher, Open Education Center, Englewood, New Jersey, USA
1974-1979 Research Assistant, Columbia University department of Psychology, USA
Interview: Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia
Mr President, you were one of the creators of what is known as Estonian technology boom. When did it all begin?
Roughly in 1995, even earlier, since in 1994 we could already file our taxes online. But I believed that we needed to get into this in a much deeper way. ...We had to teach our young people to get involved in computers at an early age. I grew up in America and learned how to program when I was still at school. We had a crazy maths teacher who thought it would be a good idea to teach these eighth graders how to program.
Estonia had to completely reinvent herself 20 years ago when the Soviet occupation came to an end. Did the relatively small size of the country and its tragic history play a role in the techno boom?
Well, it's worked out well for us... We've managed to get very involved in all areas of technology. I, for example, head the European Commission task force on e-health, for in this area we do certain things no one else in the EU does. Digital prescriptions are used by 90'per cent of the population now... And it's so much more useful because you don't have to go to the doctor every time, you can update your prescription online; no paper.
The meaning of it all is that a small country like Estonia cannot afford having huge bureaucracy, am I right?
We don't have enough people. Of course the other problem we face is that some of the so-called 'old' members of the EU find it very hard to believe that Estonia is ahead of them. When the commissioners asked me to be head of the e-health task force, I can imagine some of them said: 'What? An Estonian?!'
Stereotypes are still very strong and that's a challenge I was facing several years ago when I started writing about Estonia's technology revolution, people refused to believe me.
I read an interesting interview with a Silicon Valley venture capitalist a few months ago. In it he said: "There is nothing in Europe, except for London and Estonia." This is of course an exaggeration, but I do believe that, were the Internet to have a postal address, it would most likely be here in Estonia.
There are still difficulties, though, aren't there? One of them, as far as I know, is a certain reluctance of Estonia's young people to go into IT.
Yes, I would say there is a labour shortage here in IT, but that doesn't prevent Estonian companies from using people from other countries. All of our IT companies are English-language-based. At Skype for example, the research HQ is run by Estonians, but the language used there is English. One of the things I want to achieve is to get people to think more about the use of IT in government because it can make their lives much easier.
What are the areas of e-governance in which Estonia traditionally excels?
Well, we started doing computerised tax returns, where almost everything is filled out for you. Other countries do it now, but we were the first.
My Estonian friends say an average tax return takes just 15 minutes to file?
Well, for me it takes less since I only have the income from this office, I don't have to report anything else! I just click on 'that's right'. Another thing that was developed here which is now all over the world is mobile parking. Very few people know it's an Estonian invention, like Skype...'Also, Estonia is the only country where one can vote with a mobile phone... E-voting is very secure, and it works. You can't fake an electronic ballot, and you can't vote more than once.
But sceptics would ask how you'd prevent people from being influenced by, say, their family members while they e-vote'
Well, how do you prevent people from being influenced by their family members and others anyway? That's a problem for all kinds of voting. People can be bribed. Yet here in Estonia we didn't have the chads problems they had in the 2000 elections in the USA.
I think what you've been doing well in Estonia is turning your problems and dramas, like recent cyber attacks, into achievements. Is that a fair assessment?
Indeed, the tragic lessons of the Soviet occupation made us all very aware of the importance of the rule of law... We decided in 1991 that this time we are going to do it right. It was going to take a long time to build the physical infrastructure that we were missing out on: autobahns, and so on. We were not going to look like Germany right away, but we could do the technology side. So we put a lot of effort in that area.
What is the attitude to the engineering profession in Estonia and how are you going to deal with the shortage of qualified engineers? How are you going to lure engineers to Estonian industry and IT?
We are in the EU now and it's somewhat easier because engineers from other member countries can come here. But I have been pushing high school maths as being the key. I myself had a good maths education and therefore I always had a steady job.
So you do have an engineering background?
No. My father was an engineer. I know a bit of maths and computers and think that all people need to have a firm background in mathematics and physics in order to deal with the new world. And they have to start at primary school. It's like playing the piano: if you don't learn it at an early age, you're not likely to do it later. And that's where I think is the key problem.
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