The next challenges of e-government in Europe will stem from a very small country, and a relatively new member of EU: Estonia. Since its independence from the collapsing USSR in the early Nineties, Estonia has been committed in taking the leap towards a more structured and deep digitalisation of economy and society. The “Tiger Leap” program (Tiigrihüpe) dates back to 1996. Its main aim was to grant Internet access to all the schools in the country and from there, Estonia initiated a fast -paced process of digitalisation of the whole public sector.
It has recently been named the“champion of Europe in online provision of public services” by the European Commission; it ranks 9th in the DESI (Digitalisation of Economy and Society Index) report of 2017.
Identity, residency and voting online
Estonian citizens have an electronic identity card, fitted with a chip, which “can function as a definitive proof of identity in an electronic environment” thanks to encryption. It can be used to sign documents via web, obtain medical prescriptions and sort out business paperwork.
In 2014, a platform from e-residency has been developed, marking a truly game-changing moment for legal and business practices. It has essentially the scope to encourage people to set up online business in Estonia, even if they do not live the country. Business with e-residency can take advantage of being legally based inside the EU, even if the company has not a physical venue at all.
“E- residents can establish and manage an EU based company 100% online. This is the best way to run a trusted location – independent business with minimal costs and hassle – free administration.”
This chart collects figures showing the progress of e-residency since its introduction.
Even voting is made available via web. Thanks to a secure identification process, it’s not necessary to go to the polling station. “The ballot can be casted from any internet-connected computer anywhere in the world.”
All the detailed information (even the technicalities) about Estonian digital governance can be found on the website e-estonia.com.
A replicable model
Public sector reforms
Implementing a structural and effective reform of the public sector is a challenge that big countries of Europe (and Italy in particular) will have to face very soon. Cutting bureaucracy costs and simplify administrative procedures have been top priorities of recent governments (from the Nineties onwards, at least) but the success of the reforms has been mild. Uncertainty of procedures, unclear and overlapping norms, long and complex processes discourage entrepreneurship and investment. They have been estimated to cost the collective around 30 billion every year (source: Il Sole 24 Ore) and to weight between 2% and 4 % on the revenue of small and medium enterprises (source: Assolombarda).
Redefining the public sector will surely impact on the public employment level and structure: this constitutes one of the greater concerns about e-government reforms. Will we need less or more public employees? Which digital skills will be required? How much money will be invested in training new “tech-savvy” civil servants?
One factor that gives Estonia a competitive advantage are its higher education rates: 45% of the population between 30 and 34 years old, in 2015, well above the target set by Europe 2020 strategy (40%). The adults with STEM education are 24%, again approaching the objective set for 2020 (25%).
Needless to say, the new educational strategy proposed by the government is entirely focused on highly digitally skilled workers, research, development, and innovation.
The data tell us another interesting story: public employment level in Estonia is significantly higher than the OECD average. In 2013 the share over the total employment was 26.1%. The OECD average was 21.3%; Italy had 17.3% and France 19.8% (Source: OECD).
Public employment as a percentage of total employment. Source: OECD
It’s certainly hard to draw conclusions from raw data. The bottom line is that broader strategy may not concern only cuts in public employment, but also more investments and even more hiring. Without doubt, improving the literacy of civil servants in technological domain will be pivotal. In Italy, only 62% of the people are Internet users, and the broadband subscription are only 23,5 per 100 inhabitants*. In general, Europe presents a quite fragmented picture in terms of Internet usage and digital literacy: closing the gaps is the first measure to render e-government reforms truly effective. How are business owners supposed to understand something like e-residency if they have trouble connecting to a server in the first place?
Security and Online voting
How to communicate clearly with the citizens about the risks and benefits of voting via Internet? I-voting in Estonia hasn’t been free from criticism from independent researchers, but the number of i-voters increased constantly since the practice was first introduced in 2005, from 1.9% to 30.5% in 2015.
Managing an online voting system requires a constant maintenance and a thorough check for vulnerabilities. Cyber-attacks against a national election have to be taken very seriously. Before implement i-voting platforms a careful consideration on external threats has to be made.
Exporting the i-voting system to other countries doesn’t have implication only in terms of investments in technical innovation. It also means that cyber-security expenditure will significantly impact on public accounts. European coordination in this matter may be key. Substantial investments and inter-governmental cooperation might help making online voting a widespread and secure process.
It will probably take a long time before e-government issues will start dominating the public debate. The Estonian presidency semester will be a benchmark for their initial assessment. European digital agenda already tackles a lot of market-related issues (such as geo-blocking). The next step will be including public sectors and administrations in a process of digital transformation and harmonisation.
*Data from “Pocket World in Figures, 2017” (The Economist)
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