This article is part of our Essential Guide: Essential Guide: Digital transformation in the public sector

CIO Interview: Siim Sikkut, Estonian government CIO

Siim Sikkut is one of a generation of tech native Estonians, who is turning his knowledge and experience to transforming government services

The Estonian government is going a step further than just making all of its services available online and is contacting people automatically when certain life events require government information.

The Baltic state’s CIO, Siim Sikkut, explains how the country, with a population of just 1.3 million, is pioneering digital government. He is an example of the digital generation that is currently transforming Estonia.

Sikkut is the product of Estonia’s Tiigrihüpe (Tiger Leap) project in the mid-1990s which saw the country invest in developing its computer and network infrastructure, including a particular focus on education.

This is why, although he spent most of his career in economic policy development in government, Sikkut can thrive in his current role as CIO of Estonia, which he has fulfilled for past three years.

“In Estonia, people aged between 35 and 45 are all children of what we call the Tiger Leap generation,” Sikkut told Computer Weekly. “This was the first Estonian government computer project and was all about taking computers and the internet around the country.”

He said the founders of fintech Transferwise and other startups in Estonia also fall into this category. “We are a generation of people who got early exposure to the internet and computers,” he says. “Even if we ended up going into different careers, we are able to transfer into technology-related jobs.”

As a result, Estonia has a digital-savvy population, which is partly the reason why, over the last 20 years, it has moved all interactions between government and citizens online.

Sikkut’s job involves steering how the government makes the most of technology. “We set the strategy and we oversee the execution,” he says.

“My job is about keeping up innovation momentum to ensure the country tries out the next things”

Siim Sikkut, Estonian government

He is lucky to have such an engaged audience – one that keeps him on his toes. “In a nutshell, my job is about keeping up innovation momentum to ensure the country tries out the next things and doesn’t become relaxed and lose pace,” he says.

Tech-savvy citizens are demanding users and just because a service is online doesn’t mean the job is done. Sikkut admits that while Estonia offers citizens an online channel for interaction with the government, it is not always as good as it could be in terms of user experience.

So the digital team changed its approach to improve things, he says. “Of course, technology moves ahead all the time, so we decided that instead of trying to design or redesign services one by one, we would figure out how to deliver them differently.”

As a result, the government is working on bundling services around people’s life events. This might include moving house, getting a new job, or losing a loved one. “You might have no interactions with the government for a year and then suddenly you have three or four things to do,” says Sikkut.

The strategy is for a citizen to have a single place to go to when a particular life event happens, rather than having to locate different services, often from different government departments.

Read more about tech in Estonia

“We have the aim that whatever happens in life, there should be one interaction, regardless of the different government agencies involved,” says Sikkut. Going further, it will be the Estonian government that contacts the citizen when something happens, he adds.

For example, if somebody dies, this is recorded by a doctor, who puts the information into Estonia’s national healthcare system. “So the government knows someone has died, so why wait for people who are in mourning to figure out all the bureaucracy involved?” says Sikkut.

A condolences email can be sent with support information about where to go to sort things out in one place, he says.

Most of these services are in the design phase, but one that is live involves registering births, says Sikkut. “Currently, we have all the bits online for when a baby is born,” he says. “You can get everything done that you need to before you leave the hospital the day after the birth.”

This includes registering the child’s name and accessing child benefits, he adds. “But it goes beyond making it easier for the parents by being proactive. We know when a baby is born because it has been registered in the healthcare system and we know the mother, so we can email the parents automatically. Instead of waiting for citizens to come to us with four or five different requests, we can email asking what the name is, and which bank account to send benefits to.”

The government’s digital services can be accessed via multiple channels, including smartphones, laptops and desktops.

Sikkut also has responsibility for cyber security nationwide, which complements his digital services role. He says that without strong security, Estonia’s ambitious digital strategy would fail because of a lack of trust. “Cyber security is an enabler of digital government in a country,” he adds.

Personalised services

Artificial intelligence (AI) is another area where the Estonian government is investing as part of its wider digital government services project. AI technology can make services more personalised by understanding different citizens’ needs or preferences. For example, the government is likely to go further with a Siri-like personal assistant for all citizens who access government services, says Sikkut.

In terms of challenges, skills is number one, he says. With a population of just 1.3 million and ambitious plans for the IT industry, finding people with the right IT skills is tough. Part of the goverment’s plan to address this is being open to overseas IT professionals coming in.

“Skills is our number one challenge and that is why we are happily inviting Brits and people from anywhere in the world to come to Estonia,” says Sikkut. In an earlier interview, he said: “Our pitch to you Brits is: don’t worry about Brexit, accelerate your career by joining the true digital society and live easy by taking your skills to Estonia.”

The country is also investing in IT education for children starting school right up to adults being retrained.

It also plans to work more closely with Estonia’s innovative tech startup sector. Sikkut thinks this resource should be harnessed more by the government as it progresses in its digital services journey.

“The link between startups and the government digital space has, surprisingly, not been that strong in Estonia,” he says. “But one of my agendas is to change this, so we have been doing a number of innovation initiatives and we are publishing all of our code and data for open use.”

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