The UK government has signed an agreement with Estonia to work together on developing digital public services and to learn from the Eastern European country’s advanced approach to public sector IT.
The Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries will enable sharing of knowledge and capability in design, architecture and security of digital services, and see the formation of joint projects.
Government chief technology officer Liam Maxwell said the first such initiatives will consider open standards, identity verification and open data.
“These will be initially set up bilaterally between the UK and Estonia, but we will welcome participation from other countries in future,” he said.
The agreement will also provide for greater cooperation between Estonian and UK officials, and working together on developing digital services.
Estonia's open source model
Mike Bracken, executive director of the Government Digital Service, and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude (pictured) visited Estonia last year to learn from its open source model and how the country built its public sector IT infrastructure.
Just 1% of Estonia’s GDP goes on technology and services, with 0.1% going on software licences, thanks to a heavy dependence on open source software.
Bracken told Computer Weekly after his visit that Whitehall could learn a lot from Estonia’s approach to IT.
“They are advocates of open source, having built the infrastructure of the country using it, and we should learn from that,” he said.
"The absence of open source [in UK government] is restricting change and innovation. It restricts market innovation and the speed of innovation. A wider selection of technology gives you more tools in the bag to get things done,” said Bracken.
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UK can learn from connected Estonia
After being administered by the Soviet Union for so long, following independence Estonia had to build its infrastructure from scratch, quickly and at low cost.
“It’s a huge advantage starting from scratch. But there was a huge cultural advantage as requirements weren’t being imposed. It was cheap and quick,” said Bracken.
“Self-sufficiency happened there over a generation. But if we stick at trying to create that culture over a number of years, why shouldn’t that happen in the UK, too?”
Minister Maude said today that the UK has much to learn from Estonia.
“Estonia is one of the most connected countries in the world and a trailblazer in public sector ICT and cyber security. I was hugely impressed when I visited Estonia last year by how much of government there is online, with e-voting, e-health, e-schools and virtually all tax returns completed online in minutes,” he said.
Cyber security capabilities
Jaan Priisalu, director-general of the Estonian Information Systems’ Authority, said the country was particularly interested in “cooperating in matters of IT security”.
In 2007, Estonia was the target of one of the largest sustained cyber attacks on any country. Its banking and government websites were paralysed for several weeks by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.
The incident prompted a reorganisation and upgrade of network security and early warning systems among Nato members. Nato even set up a cyber security research centre in Estonia.
The UK government is keen to export its cyber security capability to other countries. Prime minister David Cameron promised greater collaboration with India in fighting cyber attacks, during a recent visit to Delhi.