Lessons from the land of e-government, digital trust and accountability

(Map of Estonia. Source: BBC News. e-Estonia logo. Source: e-estonia.com)

Estonia may seem an obscure nation to choose to research. To the average British citizen, the small republic on the Baltic Sea is relatively unknown. I draw this conclusion from a couple of years of attempting to explain my own research; whether to family, friends and occasionally, colleagues. The frequent response is; “okay, but why are you researching this in Estonia?”. Well, Estonia matters for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is drawn from a general belief that small nations also matter within our global political system. Kenneth Waltz, the famous realist International Relations scholar, once famously declared “Denmark doesn’t matter” (Waltz, 1999, cited in Cooper, 2016). He was talking in the grand scope of international, geopolitical relations, and the comment was less an attack on Denmark itself, but a wider observation that smaller nations were largely irrelevant in global affairs. This was because they do not possess the ability to influence global affairs like the larger powers, such as the United States, China and Russia, and were thus subject to the whims of these larger nations. My reply to this, quite simply, is that Waltz was wrong then, and he is wrong now. Denmark matters, and Estonia absolutely matters as well. This became even more evident during a recent visit to the e-Estonia showroom in Tallinn, as part of my ongoing research project.

Estonia may be small, but it is a fiercely proud, independent nation, with its own language, traditions, customs and history. It is both Post-Soviet, yet modern. Baltic, yet Nordic also. It is a member state of the European Union and NATO. It is also, crucially (in a Geopolitical context), right on Russia’s doorstep. It might, dramatically, be considered the frontline between East and West. As a small nation, it has been noted that Estonia must rely on these larger networks, as well as ‘softer’ forms of security, such as cyber security (Crandall, 2014). More than that however, Estonia are pioneers of e-Governance. Estonia is one of the most wired nations on the planet, and offers the ability for citizens to file their tax reports, access their medical records, or even vote from the comfort of their own homes. This is all enabled by an efficient e-government system, and at its heart, the digital identity bestowed upon each Estonian citizen. Indeed, as the speaker at my recent visit to the e-government showroom in Tallinn proudly boasted, there are a mere 1% of public services you cannot access remotely through this digital identity. Those were marriage, divorce and buying property. These, it was explained, are by necessity as there must be a notary physically present on such occasions, to formally approve the procedure, and to ensure no party is being coerced against their will.

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(Visiting the e-Estonia showroom, Indrek Õnnik discusses Estonias global digital leadership in e-governance. Authors own image.)

It is fair then, to say Estonia is unique. No other country, as of yet, has quite so enthusiastically embraced such a form of all-encompassing e-governance – something that has arguably crowned Estonia as global, digital pioneers. This might be further evidenced through additional initiatives such as the X-road, e-citizenship and the data embassy initiative. Throughout my research, however, my curiosity has been driven not by Estonia’s e-governance systems, services, or technologies. Nor has it been focused on the cryptography involved in creating secure digital identities, or the technological capability of the Estonian government. Whilst Estonia has clearly nurtured the expertise of its population (Coding is taught in schools, internet access has been declared an essential human right in Estonia), the question I often find myself asking is why this works in Estonia. What made Estonia so willing to accept such innovation, whilst the UK seems to be lagging behind. Unlike Estonia, the overwhelming majority of our official documentation is still paper based, whilst our MP’s must still patiently wait in line Parliament to cast their ballot. The technology, whilst contentious to many across the political spectrum, exists to streamline the process. Votes could be cast in seconds digitally, saving time and, consequently money.

Which leads us onto the fundamental bedrock of Estonian e-Governance; the digital identity. Each citizen has an encrypted, online, digital avatar. This also acts as an individual’s digital signature, which in Estonia has equal standing as a written signature, thus allowing e-government to function, by enabling the individual citizen to authenticate themselves online, and consequently authorise official acts digitally. This is linked to a physical identity card, issued to all citizens, ensuring two steps of authentication are required, for increased security. Through this digital identity, Estonians can access the myriad of e-government services available to them. This, Indrek, the speaker at the e-Governance showroom assured us, saved the Estonian government around 2% of the countries national GDP, through increased efficiency and reduced bureaucracy, allowing public funds to be reinvested elsewhere. In the case of Estonia, this is vital as a small nation with limited resources. Given the geopolitical situation of a perceived hostile neighbour, Estonia chooses to spend that money on defence. It is one of the few NATO members to spend the required amount of GDP upon defence, an issue which came to prominence in the recent US election.

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(The card reader which allows citizens and e-residents to use their digital identity: Authors own image)

Aside from my own personal interest in Estonia, it is also the goal of my research to explore if or why Estonian style e-governance could work in the UK. Questions of security surround e-Governance. The Estonian system is based upon mutual trust and transparency. Parts of this system now utilise blockchain technology, which creates a system of accountability, ensuring databases and registries are immutable and secure. This fosters an environment of transparency by alerting users when data is accessed, who has accessed it, and why. Research suggests that in Nordic countries, citizens are far more likely to trust their government. This may be down to myriad historic, social, cultural and political reasons, something which my research is eager to further explore. This transparency has been put to the test recently, as a weakness in recently issued cards has been exposed, causing some embarrassment to the Estonian government, which prides itself on the tight security of e-governance.

On the flip side, a fundamental lack of trust in government tends to pervade the western, and particularly Anglo-centric world. In such an environment, the challenges of implementing an Estonian model become clearer. The UK in the past has stubbornly resisted the possibility of formal identity cards. Yet, the benefits of a secure digital identity, and the opportunities of e-governance in the future could yet resurrect the debate. Especially when, as has been noted, the UK has effectively bypassed identity cards, and citizens personal data already circulates through multiple forms (Amoore, 2008) the privacy argument seems increasingly redundant, and the case for secure digital identities strengthened. Furthermore, Estonia believes it saves 2% of its GDP through its embrace of e-governance. 2% of the UK’s GDP last year was approximately £40 billion. Perhaps writing that on the side of a bus could prove persuasive to a sceptical public.

Academic works cited:

Amoore, L., 2008. 2 Governing by identity1. Playing the Identity Card: Surveillance, Security and Identification in Global Perspective, p.21.

Cooper, A.F. ed., 2016. Niche diplomacy: Middle powers after the Cold War. Springer.

Crandall, M., 2014. Soft security threats and small states: The case of Estonia. Defence studies14(1), pp.30-55.

Waltz, K.N., 1993. The new world order. Millennium22(2), pp.187-195.


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Alex Hardy is a Royal Leverhulme funded PhD Research Student at Royal Holloway, researching Geopolitics and Cyber Security. Having previously studied International Relations and Human Geography research at Durham and Newcastle University respectively, his research is based across the Geopolitics and Information Security departments.

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One thought on “Lessons from the land of e-government, digital trust and accountability

  1. Pingback: Fake news, Dis-Information and Popular Geopolitics |

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