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!