Keep your eyes on Estonia in the coming year. Its ongoing efforts to make government more digital promise to guide similar pushes in other parts of the globe and lawmakers and regulators try to move away, as much as possible, from paper-based processes.
The Baltic country, in which about 1.3 million people live (that’s about the size of Dallas), employs a single platform to handle tasks as varied online prescriptions, city hall inquiries and checking whether one’s children are doing their homework, as noted in a recent report. “Estonia has created one platform that supports electronic authentication and digital signatures to enable paperless communications across both the private and public sectors,” the AP report said.
Among the latest developments? Automatic digital registration of citizens at birth — “with his parents receiving an email welcoming him into the nation.”
“In an ideal world, in the case of an invisible government, when a new child is born neither of the parents would ever have to apply for anything: to get maternity leave, to get child support from the municipality, to get a kindergarten place, to put the name to the child,” Marten Kaevats, Estonia’s national digital adviser, recently told a reporter. “All of those different services would be delivered automatically.”
Estonia’s ongoing efforts to digitize government offer lessons on security. For starters, the country made sure to bake in security and privacy safeguards from the start, according to Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. According to the AP report, the Estonian platform “is underpinned by software called X-Road, a decentralized data exchange system that links databases. Outgoing data is digitally signed and encrypted, and all incoming data is authenticated and logged.”
This means citizens have to feel as though they are in control of their data, argued another analysis of the digital progress in Estonia. “To ensure transparency and accountability, citizens are allowed to monitor their own privacy,” that report said. “They can trace anyone who has tried to access their data by logging on to the state portal, eesti.ee. There have been a few cases — among doctors and policemen, for instance — where people have been sentenced for unethically accessing databases.”
Making the move from analog to digital in governments around the world could save an estimated $3.5 trillion per year thanks to productivity gains and other savings, according to one recent McKinsey analysis. Just the relatively simple task — emphasis on “relatively” — of moving various governmental websites to gov.uk resulted in approximately $772 million in savings between 2011 and 2016, according to the U.K.’s Government Digital Service, the report said.
That said, it can be challenging to find a country or other unit of government as advanced as Estonia is when it comes to making the move from paper to digital — though, of course, various governments are trying, and will continue that push into 2019.
Sometimes the work involves relatively small initial steps. The U.K.’s Government Digital Service, for instance, is trying to persuade government employees to eschew PDF in favor of HTML. The reasons include the difficulty of copying and pasting PDF content into other documents, its crankiness when it comes to playing nice with browser extensions and other digital tools and how it promotes analog-centric thinking, which can gum up the process of government.
Outside of the U.K., the European Union’s Blockchain Forum recently noted that government bodies need to home in on two aspects of the blockchain to help the technology fully actualize. That is, the institutions need to have digital national currencies as well as systems for digital identity.
It’s not just blockchain that’s in the mix when it comes to digital government, identity and related services. Lawmakers and bureaucrats need to focus on mobile, according to another recent report.
“Making local government websites mobile friendly is no longer a nice-to-have because residents, businesses and visitors expect to be able to find information and access government services anywhere, any time and on any device,” it said. “If you’re not already providing mobile-optimized content, you’re behind not just the private sector, which has been serving up responsive or customized mobile webpages for years by default, but also many of your public sector peers.”
The coming year will no doubt see various government doing their best to copy the Estonian model. But 2019 will also bring smaller steps, especially as lawmakers, regulators and citizens around the world figure out how to best balance security and convenience when it comes to online data and privacy.