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CIO interview: Taavi Kotka, former CIO, Estonian government

Estonia’s former CIO talks to Computer Weekly about how to make services work for people, why the skills gap shouldn’t be an excuse not to digitise, and the importance of going to the gym

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How Estonia took a digital lead

Estonia is often hailed as a leader when it comes to digital government. A small country bordering the Baltic sea, it may have a small population, but it has big ideas.

It’s a country of opposites in many ways. Estonia’s capital Tallinn is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe, yet it is also of the most digitally advanced countries in the world, with all government services fully digital. It was also the first country in the world to launch electronic voting during the 2005 election.

So how did this Baltic state end up as the champion of digital? One of the main drivers behind its digital drive, and quite possibly the reason Estonia has done so well, is former Estonian government CIO Taavi Kotka.

Ahead of e-Health Week last month, Computer Weekly had a chat with Kotka, a former tech entrepreneur who took the reins of Estonia’s digital government in 2013, when he became the country’s CIO.

His answer to why the country has been so successful in implementing digital government? “If you truly need something, you can actually achieve it,” he says.

This, he says, is also why some countries, the UK included, are struggling. “All these governments wanting to create a digital government, they might truly want that, but they don’t actually need that,” he says.

“Estonia actually needed it. We had a pain, and that’s why this e-government or e-society was created.”

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He added that in Estonia, with its population of 1.3 million, vast forests taking up 50% of the country and 2,000 tiny islands, something had to be done.

“If you have huge amount of land but don’t have enough people to serve other people, you need to push people to self-serve.”

In the UK, not having a fully digital government “isn’t so bad”, and because it’s functioning just fine without digital, he says, “you don’t have a push to move to digital”.

“For me, it’s like a person with a weight problem,” he says. “So I say I’m fat and I should exercise more, and I talk about it but I never go to the gym. Now, think about it like this, if you don't exercise you’ll be dead. That’s the kind of pain we’re talking about in Estonia. So in the UK it’s more like knowing you should be doing something but being too lazy to do it.”

Building a digital government

So how has Estonia done it? A lot of it, Kotka says, has to do with trust and willingness to try.

“There has to be a certain level of trust, and people need to trust that the government is actually able to do these kind of changes,” he says, but adds that “it’s also a question about how you approach those problems”.

In Estonia, there is an inherent belief in digital, both among residents and government. In healthcare, for example, if your doctor has all the relevant information about your medical history, they can treat you better.

“If you believe that, then it’s a question about how to solve that in a way where it’s not a privacy issue, and technology allows you to do that,” says Kotka, adding that in Estonia, they have achieved something the UK is desperately trying to do: all of the country’s hospitals are connected, meaning patient data can be seamlessly transferred and accessed by an appropriate clinician.

When it comes to creating digital services, a key focus is often skills, or rather the lack of them – particularly among the elderly, or those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

In the UK, there is talk of a skills divide, where millions do not have digital skills and 5.8 million people have not used the internet at all, which is costing the economy approximately £63bn a year.

Digital skills less of a problem

Kotka takes the view that although digital skills are “quite important”, it’s not as big of a problem as it was 15 years ago. In many cases in Estonia, people aren’t given a choice on whether or not to use digital services.

But Kotka adds that this is simply because the citizens of Estonia prefer using digital services, and the government has shut down the physical offices because they’re no longer efficient.

It’s still a problem but it's not a huge one. I have noticed that many western countries, also the UK, are always using this as an excuse not to go to the gym,” he says.

“You should solve the problem for 80% and then worry about the 20%. So you shouldn't put the 20% in the first decision. Don't use [the skills gap] as an excuse not to go to the gym.

“One of the key success elements for e-government is never try to find a 100% solution that fits for everybody. You need to understand that if you start designing your solutions and services for, say, 85% of people, you will be way more successful than trying to design everything for 100% of the population.”

He adds that the Estonian approach is far from as radical as in Denmark, where it’s a “digital only” approach.

Digital identity

Estonia has been flying the flag for digital for a while now. It’s more than 10 years since the country introduced paperless government meetings, and nearly 100% of the population hold smart ID cards to prove their identity when accessing online services.

Kotka, who has been keeping an eye on what’s happening around digital identity in the UK, and the UK government’s development of Verify, says part of the reason it has been a bit of a struggle, is that it’s been made into a political question – a huge no-no according to Kotka.

“You have to differentiate between engineering questions and political questions, so the UK has made an engineering question a political question,” he says.

“You cannot build a digital government without unique identifiers, so it’s an engineering thing. Don’t make it political. As long as you make it political, there won't be any digital government or society in the UK.”

Estonia’s e-residency programme

The smart ID cards in Estonia were the forerunner to what Kotka is probably best known for – the Estonian e-residency programme, which was launched in 2014.

An Estonian e-residency is a transnational digital identity available to anyone in the world interested in administering a business online, and in 2015, the country began taking e-residency applications, giving ID cards to foreigners, providing them with access to government services.

So far, there are nearly 40,000 e-residents from 161 countries around the globe, including more than 2,000 from the UK, with 206 of those having established new companies in the country, according to its e-residents dashboard.

Kotka says Estonia needed to do something to improve the economy and increase the wealth of the country and its people.

“You can do that through different methods. You can increase the amount of tourists – which is a big problem for us,” he says, because the Estonian climate makes for an unpopular destination.

The second is through immigration, but again, he says “no one wants to come”. The third is through increasing the amount of births, but Estonia has a negative birth rate, he adds, “so we had to come up with something new”.

Reaching beyond Estonia

He believes they can reach people further than Estonia. “Why can’t we serve people from anywhere in the world who want to have business in Europe?

“Those were questions we asked ourselves, and decided to create an e-residency which is not like a visa, or the Schengen agreement, but allows you to access all our business environment, plus legal, and all of our APIs and services.”

For British companies, which after Brexit want to do business with Europe, Estonian e-residency is wide open, he says. Estonia is open.

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