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Lessons US and UK governments could learn from Estonia
by Steve Foley

“In the US, you need to drive to a DMV and have a utility bill to prove that you’re you. That is absurd.”

That’s Marten Kaevats, Estonia’s government national digital advisor, talking to Netflix’s new ‘Connected’ series. “Our country is the first country in the world that can operate from the cloud. This means that each time you need to interact with the government, you never have to stand in a line, such as when renewing a licence or registering a car,” he says.

It also means that every time you tell the Estonian government a piece of personal information, it means that they never have to ask for it again. By using the cloud, different sides of the Estonian government can communicate seamlessly. Every resident is given a digital ID, also in the form of a card, that can be used to see your data, decide how it can be used – and see who else has viewed yours. Your digital ID is used as a voter ID, health insurance and travel ID.

Every Estonian civilian knows exactly what the government knows about them. The documentary reveals that since the program started in 2002, no Estonian has ever had their digital identity stolen.

“The main lesson from Estonia is that this is not about gadgetry, this is about building a mindset and culture that is constantly ready to adopt new things,” says Kaevats.

Here, we will look at some of the customer experience lessons that the US and UK governments could learn from Estonia.

Seamless healthcare

Estonia was the first country in the world to implement a nationwide electronic health records system. It began in 1998 when general practices moved out of hospitals, but the records were kept in them. This resulted in doctors starting their own electronic system, though it was illegal until 2002.

Ninety-five per cent of health data has now been digitized. This means that all your records are on hand when they’re needed the most. If you need an ambulance, your blood type and medical history are available to first responders before they arrive.

It also speeds up prescriptions, with doctors being able to create e-prescriptions that are simply added to a person’s health card, which can be accessed at the pharmacy.

This creates a seamless experience for each citizen. Everything is logged at every step, which means you never need to give any of your information twice.  

Increase in trust

The Government of Estonia is in a unique position to run in the way it does because of the trust its citizens have in it, boasting a 51% trust rating, compared to the US’s 20%[1] and an EU average of 29%[2]. What’s more, 44% of Estonians use i-Voting, showing they are clearly not wrapped up in the same voter ID concerns that grip the US[3].

But it’s also likely that Estonians trust the government more because of the way it uses data. Every citizen can see their files, which means they have ownership of it. Right now, in the US and UK, no one really knows for sure what information governments have about them, where it is, who is looking at it and how it is being used. That results in two outcomes – either people just push it to the back of their mind and feel detached from their data, or they become paranoid and avoid sharing as much as possible. Neither mindsets are productive but neither are likely in a society where everyone is open about data.

That said, Covid-19 has presented an opportunity, with trust increasing by 4% on average across the EU[4]. When forced to deal with a collective problem, the value of sharing data and coming together has never been better understood. Governments should take the opportunity to lead these conversations.

Less bureaucracy

E-government makes life easier for all citizens. In Estonia, it takes less than three minutes to do your taxes. It takes just three hours to set up a business and 98% of Estonian companies are established online. If you have an ID card, you simply check the name is available, register and pay the state fee (€145) and then receive confirmation. Employees are then simply registered on the website of the Tax and Customs Board.

Less bureaucracy doesn’t just have benefits for the citizens, but for the cost of running government itself. It is estimated that the reduction in bureaucracy has saved more than 844 years of working time[5]. This could translate into millions in cost savings in the US and UK where the average annual US federal employee and UK civil servant wages are $87,312[6] and £27,080[7] respectively.

Privacy and security

“In Estonia everyone has a digital ID number. It’s not like a social security number, which you need to keep hidden,” says Kaevats. “A social security number is stupid.”

“In Estonia, my ID is like my name, I can tell it to you but nothing will happen.” Entering your Smart ID number will result in a verification message being sent to your phone to double check it is you.

On a national security level, the Estonian government cyber unit is one of the top ranked in the world. Each month the country’s national computer emergency response team logs 300 cyber incidents, and the country has advised many EU countries to deal with external threats.

Increased understanding of the value of data for its citizens has resulted in a better understanding of how to protect computer systems from attackers.

Conclusion 

While Estonia has some unique factors that make directly copying its style of government a challenge for other countries, the US and UK should take inspiration from Estonia if nothing else. By fostering a society of openness and willingness to adopt new ideas, Estonia has created a society that is dynamic and progressive, while enjoying efficiency savings and benefits.

For the US and UK, the key is to gradually make their citizens feel more attached to their data. Build systems so that people can easily access their data and control how it is used. Once that is in place, you can encourage people to give you more of it, particularly if they start to feel the benefits, such as in healthcare.

More than anything, Estonia proves that it can be done. It proves the benefits that come with a government that is user-focused and provides an exceptional experience every time its citizens need it.

 

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[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/09/14/americans-views-of-government-low-trust-but-some-positive-performance-ratings/

[2] https://ideas.ted.com/where-in-the-world-will-you-find-the-most-advanced-e-government-estonia/

[3] https://e-estonia.com/solutions/e-governance/government-cloud/

[4] https://ejpr.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1475-6765.12401

[5] https://e-estonia.com/solutions/e-governance/government-cloud/

[6] https://www.fedsmith.com/2020/09/09/agencies-with-most-100000-federal-employees-lowest-average-salaries/

[7] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/836373/Statistical-bulletin-Civil-Service-Statistics-2019-V2.pdf

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