eEstonia – Learning E-Governance from Estonia


Ask the average person to list a fact about Estonia and most people would rightly reply that it’s a nation in Europe, and that’s about it. But if you’ve read some of our previous articles, or keep your finger on the pulse of the world’s technological frontrunners, you’d know that the archipelago is also lauded as one of the more digitally advanced countries in the world, boasting an enviable and highly successful model for electronic governance (E-Government).

Long queues for government services or having to leave the house to cast votes in elections are things of a forgotten past in Estonia. In under two decades, the Baltic state has forgone most of the inconveniences of the public policy and administration bureaucracy and is running almost entirely online. We believe that there are valuable lessons to learn from their example, so keep reading to see what contributed to their successful transformation, how they achieved it, and what can we lessons can we take from their achievements.

What Does E-Government Success Look Like?

Building the Foundation

When Estonia gained independence from Soviet occupation in 1991, the situation was dire for the small nation. Technological penetration and service delivery were both extremely low. So low, in fact, that less than 50% of the country had access to a phone line.

The government, however, had the opportunity to turn over a new leaf and did so with tremendous foresight, plotting a course towards modernity and making rapid digital technological infrastructure their first stop. One bold target set by the Estonian leadership was to equip every school in the country with computers and internet by 1998. They also offered computer classes to the adult population, and in the year 2000 declared internet access to be a basic human right. This push toward digital literacy was big first step needed to build a foundation for what was to come.

Introducing the Infrastructure

In 2001, Estonia built on that foundation by introducing X-Road, a digital information exchange system that housed national public policy and administration data and facilitated the exchange of that data between government departments, as well as between the public and private sectors. A good way to understand X-Road is to think of it as just that – a road. Once it was built, the next stage was to give citizens a safe vehicle with which to use that road. This came in the form of a Smart Identification system utilising physical ID cards with unique digital signatures. This effectively enabled citizens to access public services, pay taxes, vote, bank online, and access health records and services all via computer. With this, the groundwork was laid for the system Estonians enjoy today.

Success Metrics

While not without it’s problems, the Estonian case does present some interesting statistics that are well worth pondering. In a country of 1.3 million, the Smart ID signatures have been used over 350 million times, the country has 100% internet penetration, taxes are completed entirely online, around 45% of votes are cast online, and the Estonian Government estimates that more than 800 years of working time has been avoided across the public and private sectors. How much money does this save? The Estonian government places that figure at around 2% of their GDP, or roughly $600M usd.

Takeaways from Estonia

As the saying goes, ‘in order to make an omelette, eggs must be broken’, and Estonia has had its fair share of broken eggs. One major drawback of a government system run entirely online is that it leaves a state at the mercy of cybercriminals. In 2007 the country was thrust into mild political unrest after a being hacked. The nation certainly learnt their lesson and went so far as to create a data embassy in Luxembourg where they store backups of all their data. Despite being ranked by the UN as having the one of the best defences to cybercrime, they still respond to some 10,000 incidents a year.

Estonia is also a victim of its own success in some ways. Having made such a rapid and successful early digital development in the 2000s, they were left unable to meet their own lofty standards in the last decade. There is no stronger proof for this that the fact that in 2014 they ranked in the bottom five OECD countries for satisfaction in both Education and Health services. A failure to keep up with the latest technological advancements is the likely cause for this relative stagnation. For example, they did not make the jump from online card payments to cashless and NFC payments like Apple Pay and Venmo. Though seemingly inconsequential, the government of Estonia has received lots of flack from its citizens for being ‘backward’. Yikes.

While the Estonian model is definitely a worthy case study, it is not directly applicable to any other nation. More so than trying to emulate their system, countries and their leaders should try to emulate the foresight shown by Estonia and seek to use emerging technologies adapted to their own unique circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all solution in building a Smart Nation.

We’ve got a few thoughts on tech we’d like to see adopted in the transformation to a Smart Brunei, but we’d much rather hear yours. What are your ideas for seamless, E-governance systems in Brunei?