Digital Government

Estonia and eGovernment: Born out of Necessity

Linnar Viik, Associate Professor and Member of the Board of the Estonian Information Technology College, likes to tell a story about what drove Estonia to become one of the most advanced wired societies in the world after gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.  Its new prime minister, the story goes, was being shown his office by his secretary for the first time. On a table sat six phones, two with a dial and four without.  Upon seeing them, the prime minister asked what all those phones were for. The secretary replied: “Mr. Prime Minister, we don’t know – they were there.” And so, as Professor Viik likes to put it, “That was the beginning of the infrastructure in the country. You didn’t know where the cables are going, what are the solutions behind them and who is where. And it gave the opportunity to start from scratch.”

No longer reliant on the economic resources of the Soviet Union and stuck with an archaic technology infrastructure, Estonia faced a daunting challenge in the early nineties: how was the small nation with a tiny population and very limited resources to move ahead? With the advent of the Internet, Estonia’s leaders saw the opportunity to create an e-society from the ground up and embarked upon an ambitious program to make it a reality.

First came the legal framework:

  • The Personal Data Protection Acts of 1996 and 2003 that established the laws regulating the use of citizens’ personal data by government and third-parties,
  • The Digital Signatures Act of 2000 that established the legal validity of digital signatures, and
  • The Public Information Act of 2000 that established a national registry (called the Population Register) containing the personal data of all citizens/residents and set forth the conditions, procedures and methods for accessing this information.

The centerpiece of the legislation is that it is the citizen who owns his/her private data and has the right to control who can access it. The “system” allows citizens to specify at a granular level who can access their records. For example, they can specify which individual doctor or doctors can look at their electronic health records. While there are situations such as law enforcement where a citizen cannot block the government from accessing their data, they can still get a record of who accessed it and when – on-line. If a citizen suspects an official of accessing their data without a valid justification, he/she can file an inquiry and have the official disciplined (read: fired or imprisoned) for unauthorized use of private data.

Once the legal framework was in place, then came the technology infrastructure. First, every citizen had to be uniquely identified. Each individual was assigned a distinctive 11-digit Personal ID Code based on his/her date of birth and sex.

The government then established a Population Register – a national database holding all the basic information about each person living in Estonia. It contains their names, Personal ID Codes, birthdates, places of residence, legal relationships and other statistical data such as nationality, native language, education, and profession. The Population Register is the central repository of all personal data.

Along with a Personal ID Code, every citizen 15 years or older was issued a compulsory Estonian ID Card (Figure 1). The card serves both as a physical identity document as well as an electronic identity. It can also be used in lieu of a passport when traveling within the European Union.

Figure 1: The Estonian ID Card (Source: European Commission IDABC website)

The ID card is a smartcard that stores the individual’s name, gender, biometric data, Personal ID Code, and cryptographic keys and public key certificates. The certificates are used to assure identity and allow the individual to digitally sign documents. As a result of the Digital Signature Act, digital signatures are legally equivalent to manual signatures – and government organizations are required to accept digital signatures from citizens.

In 2007, the government introduced a Mobile-ID Service that enabled individuals to use their mobile phones as a form of secure electronic ID. Like the ID Card, the mobile phone could be used to access secure eServices as well as digitally sign documents – but with the advantage of not requiring a card reader. The system is based on a specialized Mobile-ID SIM card which the individual must obtain from their mobile service provider. Private keys are stored on the mobile SIM card along with an app for authentication and signing.

As a matter of law, government systems are not allowed to store the same data in more than one place. In the case of personal data, all they store is the Personal ID Code. To interconnect all the various government databases, the state developed “X-Road”– essentially a secure data-sharing network. It was initially developed as a tool to perform database queries but has been significantly enhanced. Today, it has the capability to write to multiple databases, transfer large data sets and perform searches across multiple databases. External third parties such as businesses can now interconnect as well.

To provide a gateway to all available eServices, the government developed the so-called State Portal, The portal provides three views: a citizens view, an “enterpriser” (businessman) view and a public servant view and requires a single log-on.

To date, over 800 services are offered via the portal, both governmental and non-governmental. One of the first applications to be implemented was the Information System of Government Sessions, popularly known as eCabinet. It is akin to a workflow tool that enables ministers to prepare for cabinet meetings, conduct them and review minutes electronically. All documents processed and generated are digital and any that require official signatures are signed digitally by the cognizant minister(s). Under the paper-based system, cabinet meetings ran, on the average, five hours. With eCabinet, meetings are averaging 30 minutes. The fact that this was one of the first eGovernment applications implemented was no accident – it was intended to demonstrate the government’s commitment to eGovernment.

Other popular eServices include:

  • On-line tax filing – 97% of tax returns in Estonia are filed electronically. Why? Because it’s so easy – the process, on the average, takes 10 minutes. Most of the fields are already filled out: Wages are reported automatically by employers as are charitable deductions by non-profit organizations. Mortgage tax deductions are automatically calculated from mortgage information provided by commercial banks. And so on. According to Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, “[On-line filing] had the additional effect of dramatically increasing compliance. People paid their taxes! – which then had the additional benefit which allowed us to reduce taxes and, suddenly, the Estonian government found out it had budget surpluses because people were paying more – people were paying their taxes.”
  • Electronic health records – This nationwide EHR system integrates data from the country’s various healthcare providers and creates a common record for each patient. While it has the appearance of a centralized database, the system actually retrieves the data it requires from the various providers’ systems as needed and presents it in a standard format. Patients can access their own records and those of their children. By logging into the EHR Patient Portal with an electronic ID card or mobile phone, an individual can review previous doctor visits and current prescriptions, control which doctors have access to their medical information, and can even receive general health advice. Prescriptions are now being done on-line as well.
  • On-Line voting – In 2005, Estonia became the first country to use on-line voting for nationwide elections. The Internet-Voting System, or iVoting for short, allows Estonians to cast ballots from any Internet-connected computer, anywhere in the world. In the last parliamentary elections in 2011, 24% of eligible voters voted electronically, up from 5.5% in 2005.
  • Company registration –Estonians (and non-Estonians) can register a new business online in just minutes without ever having to go to a notary or government office. All it takes is an ID Card/mobile phone and an Internet connection. Through this system, businesses can also file annual reports and obtain information about other companies. This system decreased the average time required to set up a business from five days to two hours. By 2011, 98% of business registrations were done on-line.

If ever there was a proof-of-concept for eGovernment and, to a certain extent, Government-as-a-Platform, Estonia is it. Granted, in many regards, the country had the opportunity to build from scratch and with a manageable scale. But this doesn’t detract from the fact that it took sustained commitment and political will to make it happen. And it’s that which makes the difference between success and failure.

Big Data and Government Open Data United States

Americans and Open Government Data

In April of this year, the Pew Research Center published a report titled Americans’ View on Open Government Data. This very interesting study provides a measure of how the public views federal, state and local governments’ efforts to become more open and transparent through the dissemination of their data. The report is based on a late 2014 survey of 3,200+ individuals. The study examined:

  1. how aware the public is of governments’ data-sharing initiatives,
  2. if these initiatives are actually resulting in people using the data to monitor government performance,
  3. public’s view of whether these efforts have been – or have the potential to be – successful in making government perform better or become more accountable, and
  4. how the public is using this data.

Some of the study’s key findings:

  • PewFig1
    Figure 1

    While most (65%) of the individuals surveyed are using the internet to find government information/data; they are using it to perform simple tasks such as finding out public library hours or paying a traffic ticket (Figure 1)

  • Just a minority of respondents indicated they paid much attention to how governments share data – and only a relative handful said they were aware of instances where government had done a good or bad job of sharing data.
  • Less than one-quarter of those surveyed use government-generated data to track the performance of services such as hospitals, healthcare providers, school systems, etc.
  • PewFif2
    Figure 2

    People were divided on whether the sharing of data has the potential to improve government transparency, accountability and performance – it’s also not clear to them that this will even happen (Figure 2).

  • Only 23% of respondents indicated that they trusted the government to do the right thing – at least most of the time. Of this group – the “Trusting Minority” – roughly three quarters believe open government data is beneficial and contributes to better government (Figure 3)
  • PewFig1
    Figure 3

    The study found that smartphone users (68% of the individuals surveyed) have embraced apps that are based on government-generated data or capabilities, such as weather and GPS – what I call government-enabled applications:

    • 84% have used weather apps
    • 81% have used map apps
    • 66% have used apps that provide information about nearby stores, bars or restaurants
    • 31% have used apps to get public transit information
    • 14% have used apps to hire transportation such as Über or Lyft

Interestingly enough – but not surprising, I suppose – only 9% of all survey respondents believed that government-provided data helped the private sector “a lot” to develop new products and services (41% felt it helped “somewhat”).

I found the results of this study to be consistent with the findings of Dr. Donald Norris and Dr. Christopher Reddick: Citizens will use government data when it fulfills a need and won’t when it doesn’t.

Note: all figures Copyright 2012, Pew Research Center. All rights reserved.

Citizen Engagement Digital Policy United States

DTMO: The Director’s Interview in Full

A few weeks ago we featured a short segment of our recent interview with Harvey Johnson, Director of the Defense Travel Management Office (DTMO) of the US Department of Defense.

However, the full interview gives a unique insight into the challenges that are faced by organizations that provide services across all of federal government. In the case of the DTMO the budgets are vast and the number of customers is simply immense. In addition, understanding the service (and how to use it) is a great challenge to users given the accumulated administrative and legal red-tape that has gathered over many years.

As Harvey outlines in this interview with Larry Larkin, reforming such administrative processes is about getting congressional approval and then iterating change. Technology is only one part of the change process – it’s also about knowing and understanding the processes and improving upon them.

It’s clear from this interview that Harvey has ambitions to utilize technology to make things much, much easier for his users. He is an avid advocate of understanding user need and experience. He’s an observer of how things are done in the commercial world and by the ‘Millennial’ generation.

The interview provides a great insight into complexity – but, also, the pursuit of better ways of doing things against apparently insurmountable odds.

Digital Government Digital Policy GaaP Series Open Data

The Promise of “Government as a Platform”

In my last post on the subject I talked about the IT nuts and bolts of Government as a Platform (GaaP) and the significant operational cost efficiencies that it could realize. The real value – and power – of GaaP, however, is as an enabler of what I call, for lack of a better phrase, “government-enabled applications.” By that I mean applications developed by end users, be they individuals, organizations or companies that combine “Government Platform” capabilities with other web services to deliver applications that are only limited by one’s imagination. Or as Tim O’Reilly aptly put it:

“If there’s one thing we learn from the technology industry, it’s that every big winner has been a platform company: someone whose success has enabled others, who’ve built on their work and multiplied its impact. Microsoft put ‘a PC on every desk and in every home,’ the internet connected those PCs, Google enabled a generation of ad-supported startups, Apple turned the phone market upside down by letting developers loose to invent applications no phone company would ever have thought of. In each case, the platform provider raised the bar, and created opportunities for others to exploit.”

This is what GaaP is really about – government agencies not only providing web applications specific to their mission but also services on which citizens and organizations can build applications of their own for the benefit of other citizens and the community.

What kind of applications you might ask? A good – and commonly used – example is (now a part of created by Adrian Holovaty in 2005. combined (“mashup” for the technically inclined) crime data published by the Chicago Police Department with Google Maps. The result was a map showing the physical locations of where crimes were being committed. There is a page and RSS feed for each city block. The user can browse the crime data in a variety of ways: by street or address, by ZIP code, by location type (house, building…), by type of crime, by date and by keyword. In a matter of a few clicks, a person can get a picture of crime activity in their neighborhood and potential areas to watch – useful stuff.

Other examples: Real-time public transit schedules and updates; official information about buildings and construction projects and visualizations that show how a city is changing over time and real-time road traffic information. (OSM) – which provides free, editable maps – is a good example of how GaaP type of applications can evolve and blossom. OSM grew out of a crowd-sourcing effort led by Steve Coast to create free maps of the UK, where map data is expensive and not freely available. Using Ordnance Survey (UK’s mapping agency) out-of-copyright maps from the 40’s to aid navigation, OSM volunteers set out to map the UK in 2004 using handheld GPS trackers. Today, OSM now offers a map of the entire world and has over 1,000,000 contributors worldwide.

These examples represent the first-generation of GaaP applications – akin to the Pong video game of the early eighties. Much needs to happen to enable GaaP to achieve its full potential. This will be the topic of the next article in the series.

Read Larry’s full series of posts on GaaP.  

Citizen Engagement Digital Government

Citizen Engagement and Civic Movements

I recently had the opportunity to interview Tiago Peixoto, Governance Specialist at the World Bank.

Tiago’s focus is on citizen participation and he has conducted research into the effect of technology adoption – in various countries around the world – on civic engagement.

In this extract of the interview I asked Tiago for his personal views about the effect civic movements (like MySociety in the UK and Sunlight Foundation in the US) were having on government service provision and responsiveness. His insight is fascinating. His research has concluded that government seems more likely to respond to requests from men, than women, for example. He also goes on to argue that without effective processes – and technology – for responding to customer requests, government bodies may not respond appropriately, in a timely fashion, or even remedy the problems.

In short, effective government service requires joined-up CRM and performance dashboards.

Digital Government Digital Policy

Editor Viewpoint: Nick Wakeman Washington Technology

Nick Wakeman is Editor of Washington Technology, the authoritative source of competitive intelligence for executives providing contract services to the government market.

In this role he has an unparalleled viewpoint of what’s happening in the technology supplier market, what segments are hot (or not) and which prime contractors are coming up with innovative methods for winning market share.

In this interview Nick talks about the dynamics of the government IT market, emerging trends, new products and services and the effect of cyber-security breaches.

Digital Policy Government Cloud

Fancy a New Digital Identity?

It’s almost a truism that the small nation of Estonia, with a population of less than 1.5 million, has been one of the leaders in terms of delivering government service with the click of a mouse.

But now the government is rolling out a new concept: transnational digital identity.

Foreign nationals are now being offered an additional Estonian digital identity so that such nationals can avail of online government services with a few mouse-clicks. The opportunities, in terms of gaining access to the single European market, are obvious. Foreign nationals, equipped with their new Estonian e-Identities, can set-up new businesses super-fast with minimal fuss.

This video, from European Parliament TV, explains the concept in a bit more detail.

Digital Government Digital Policy

eGovernment Revolution? Not Quite Yet.

It’s been almost twenty years since government IT began evolving from automating back-office operations to implementing customer-facing functions – what we now know as eGovernment. Along with the technology came the promise of a more open, efficient and effective government; greater citizen engagement and a more participatory democracy, particularly at the local government level.

Has the local eGovernment revolution achieved its aims? Well, based on extensive research by Dr. Donald F Norris and Dr. Christopher Reddick,[1] not yet.

Both Dr. Norris and Dr. Reddick have been studying eGovernment since its inception and have published extensively on this subject. In their latest round of research on eGovernment adoption by U.S. local governments[2],[3],[4] published in 2013, they have found that eGovernment has not yet realized its full eParticipation and eDemocracy potential. They also question whether such potential exists.

The research was based on several comprehensive surveys of state, county and municipal governments of various sizes from across the US on the adoption of eGovernment. The surveys were conducted in 2004, 2006 and 2011. Key findings:

  • Table1
    Table 1

    By 2004, almost all local governments surveyed had implemented eGovernment and were mainly providing their citizens information and services. A limited number enabled citizens to conduct transactions and interact with the government through their website. By 2011, local governments were offering a much broader spectrum of capabilities: information, services, transactions and interactions (Table 1).

  • Closer examination of the data reveals that the purpose/function of almost all the services has been primarily for the provision of information or to enable citizens to conduct business transactions on-line, e.g., like paying a ticket – very few have been implemented for the purpose of increasing citizen engagement in government. Only a small number of governments have implemented engagement-enabling technologies such as chat rooms, moderated discussions and instant messaging.
  • Table 2
    Table 2

    More revealing is the data in Table 2, from the 2011 survey, in which the governments were asked which capabilities that enabled eParticipation had they implemented within the last year or planned to implement over the next 12 months. Half to two-thirds of the governments had implemented a one-directional eParticipation capability yet only 10-13% had plans to implement one in the near future. Two-way interaction capabilities – which provide for true eParticipation – had only been implemented, on the average, by 13% of the governments. The values ranged from 32% for the capability to conduct public consultations to 5% for operating chat rooms. Less than 7% of the governments had any plans to implement two-way eParticipation capabilities in the near future.

So why the low numbers? The data suggest that tight budgets are the primary cause.  Survey respondents indicated that the major barrier to the implementation of eParticipation was lack of funding. Other barriers listed – which are related to funding – were the need to upgrade technology, technical staff shortages, and difficulties in putting together the business case for justifying the investment needed to implement these capabilities.

Limited citizen demand was cited as another reason. According to Dr. Norris: “…citizen participation, under the best of circumstances, is very difficult to achieve.”  So, as a result of these two factors, local governments have taken an incremental approach to eParticipation initiatives.

Could this slow growth in demand be a generational issue? It will be interesting to see if late Millennials and Gen Zers, as they reach adulthood, embrace eParticipation more widely than their predecessors. These so-called “digital natives” grew up with social media and digital interaction is a way of life for them. We shall see.

The Citizen 2015 team recently interviewed Don Norris at UMBC. An extract is featured below. We’ll publish the full interview in the coming weeks.

[1] Dr. Norris is Professor and Head of the Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Dr. Reddick is Professor and Head of the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas.

[2] Local E-Government in the United States: Transformation or Incremental Change?

[3] E-democracy at the American grassroots: Not now … not likely?

[4] e-Participation in Local Governments: An Empirical Examination of Impacts

Digital Government Digital Policy United Kingdom United States

18F: Where next?

We have done our fair share of speculating, on this site, about the similarities between 18F, GDS and USDS.

But where do the similarities start and end? What is 18F and how is its role evolving now that its honeymoon period is over and it’s now into its second year of operations?

The Citizen 2015 team had the chance to meet with 18F just over a week ago in Washington DC. We interviewed Noah Kunin, Director of Delivery Architecture and Infrastructure Services at 18F.

We asked him about the relationship between the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) and 18F (and the similarities between the two). We also asked him to outline the government services most likely to be focus areas for 18F in the coming year.

We’ll feature more from the interview with Noah in the coming weeks.