E-state engine says don’t rest on laurels

Priit Pullerits
, vanemtoimetaja
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Photo: Tairo Lutter

Founder and council member of e-Governance academy Ivar Tallo (50) was in Myanmar just before recent Riigikogu elections, telling their political leaders about e-Estonia. «I thought why just talk the talk, let me show them how it’s done,» the man recalls.

Using a local computer, Mr Tallo installed ID-card software and the needed bit of a programme, participating Estonia’s elections right there and then. Thereafter, he demonstrated how, by QR-code in iPad, one may check if his vote had arrived.

«Afterwards, one by one the people came up to ask if I actually did vote,» he adds, laughing.

Edgar Savisaar said Centre Party would never win elections before the e-elections problem is solved in Estonia. What do you say?

At local elections in Tallinn, Centre has begun to decisively win since 2005 when the e-elections were introduced. Both in 2009 and 2013, they achieved absolute majority – and in both cases we had e-elections. What’s Mr Savisaar whining about?!

How many countries have e-elections?

The way Estonia has it, nowhere really, as they lack the infrastructure – ID-card and an electronic population register. In forms different from us, however, may countries use the Internet at elections, from India to Switzerland.

Thanks to Mr Savisaar’s propaganda, and the pride the state takes in e-elections, it is too much of a fetish at the moment here. In reality, e-elections are just another way to vote next to all others, like voting by post. For people like me who travel a lot, e-elections is a convenient way to be part of Estonian society.

Actually, e-elections should be made more convenient still, like achieving that if some documents need to be sent abroad these would be accepted there. There’s lots and lots of room for development.

You have been to 80 countries, talking about e-governance. In how many lands is the e-governance system comparable to ours?

The administrative cultures how to do certain stuff differ and thence the way e-state is built varies a bit from state to state. In the UK, for instance, they haven’t still been able to introduce an ID-card as, due to the political philosophy, people fear that oh my the state is big and powerful, it may do me harm. 

There, if the state wants to attach a number to citizens, they say: no, no, we don’t need that! But then the state does possess data on the people anyhow and it is not difficult to collect it. As we know from the revelations of Edward Snowden, this is being very actively done anyhow.

And in continental Europe, people have their own ways of looking at things, so no country can be directly compared to Estonia. But when it comes to Estonia, perhaps we have been the best to shake the paradigm that IT and e-stuff is the domain of the pony-tailed boy in a basement.

We have entwined e-stuff into lots of governmental operations. As early as the second government of Mart Laar they had the e-cabinet; before that, all ministers used to have kilograms of papers on their desks where they were not able to find the needed ones. We have managed to take IT into the mainstream of governance and in this we definitely are among the fastest developed nations.

But that would not mean that if we did something very well and very fast in 2000, no-one could invent anything better in 2015.

Where has our e-state development stalled?

The complacency hit in mid-2000ies as we made it into EU and thought we were so nice ant that was it. But to be good we need to keep up the effort, not just try hard once but all the time. And we haven’t had much of the effort afterwards.

For instance, I have for several years been laughing at our diligent public servants who continue to exchange information by e-mail. Lots of Western nations have created for public servants a closed environment, like a social network, where representatives of various ministries may communicate horizontally.

In the old days, everything was very «rules and regulations»: an official wrote something, it went higher and higher by levels and then downwards again. Sending letters was very slow even electronically.

Now, several links may very quickly be connected horizontally. It does not take new buildings, no rebuilding of ministries. Lots of things can be done in a network, by new technology. For some reason, we have not laid hold of such developments.


Probably because in Estonia there are too many people who feel the state is ready, completed. Also, we lack a deeper understanding about what it means to have competitive edge.

Among «fellow sufferers», our e-state development has up to now provided for a clear competitive edge. But, in the international economic system of today, competitive edge is something one needs to continually feed.

Today, we may no longer think like the peasants once did: I have built the sauna now, I will no longer touch that, but I will build the barn and once the barn is ready I will put a new roof on the house. Nowadays, one needs to rather invest where one already has an advantage – to make it even better. Then, others will also come to our sauna and we’ll be famous and that equals large added value.

We don’t want to remain a low productivity country, a subcontractor – do we? Therefore, we need to try hard where we have it good, nor so much where we have it bad. I don’t think we have grasped that in state governance and, therefore, we have stalled in our development.

Some examples, please!

A few years ago, we had something happen called People’s Assembly Rahvakogu which ended up in Ice Cellar [initiative]. Meanwhile, it is increasingly being grasped in Europe what the modern state is like – involving, participating. The modern state is not like somebody someplace takes a decision and you people be happy to keep your heads not chopped off. A modern state lays the information out there and asks the people to let’s do it together as this is our common state not some squirrel or soc dem state. Estonia has had relatively few of such experiments and these have not received political support.

I still do have positive hopes regarding Taavi Rõivas, he seems to have the new school of thought. But Juhan Parts, Jürgen Ligi and many others were not interested in this.

Could this be the generation gap?

No, I don’t think so. I had the honour to work with Lennart Meri who understood several things very well. As early as in 1990ies, Lennart sat in the Internet reading news, while people in the government took no interest in the Internet.

We can’t say the old are backwards and the young are progressive. Rather, it’s people becoming complacent – which is normal as we all are seeking complacency which we call happiness.

Maybe a brake is that we have talked our e-state into some myth status, instead of developing it.

I think it is good for us to have such a myth. I dare say I have helped along creating it. (Laughs.)

The reason being, as a small nation we need visibility: so when I say «I’m from Estonia» they won’t ask me what company is that and what do you sell, but rather they will say aha you are into this e-state thing. This has provided Estonia a chance of visibility, and many have taken notice.

Take, for instance, India: their high officials are coming to Estonia, in e-Governance Academy, for training. This is excellent, as it then reaches the highest levels of Indian consciousness that Estonia is not some abstract spot that Russian planes want to fly over or Russian tanks roll over, but that it is a nice country where they are doing interesting stuff so it is not a good idea for Vladimir Putin to send the planes and tanks here.

As I asked Indian representatives why they bothered to think about us while India was so much larger than Estonia and the administrative processes much more complex, they said that was true but that they were sending officials for the trainings because Estonia is the ideal picture and they want their officials to have the ideal picture before their eyes of how things should be developed. 

Or take Japan. To my knowledge, Japan is the only country where they have actually written a book on Estonian e-state. About six years ago, we had two Japanese researchers sit in our academy for half a year who wrote a book on it, in Japanese. For them, the e-state topic was very interesting and the interests towards us gives the government at least the chance to sell milk into Japan.

Thus, e-state as such has been created for our own citizens, to make life more comfortable, but in reality its meaning and weight are a lot broader. But, obviously, we have been resting on laurels now.

Where then have we gotten stuck?

The things once developed have not been improved much afterwards. We are indeed very much satisfied with the e-tax office, but yet the Tax Board director-general has said the system will be 15 years old soon and we would need to make a new one. 

As a parent, I notice the e-school is poor in user logic and not much has been invested in developing it. The same goes for the eesti.ee state portal: in it, it is difficult to find something and perform operations. Lots of things need to be done on computer screen; there a few apps which would allow stuff to be done more conveniently.

We have most of agencies interconnected but why do we need to take some certificates to some places? Like from family doctor to the motor vehicle register to renew the driving licence.

Let me bring a real life example. During Christmas of 2011, I hastily flew home from Bangladesh, having broken a leg. When beginning treatment in Estonia, I climbed by crutches to 2nd or 3rd floor in the Mustamäe polyclinic where they told me it was nice I came but would you please go back downstairs and pay the money and then come back up and then we’ll see about you. 

Is it hard to set up some local system? This must not ne by some central agency; the hospital could think about not having injured people running around this way.

There a lots and lots of such small stuff left undone. And with many things it has not been considered how to make it user friendly.

Then the broader issue we never talk about: what should our state look like, in the future? In Denmark, they are talking about making the state invisible, but over here we are arguing over the boundaries between local governments. During the elections, it was not talked about if the universal services – be it allowances or benefits – must be asked for or might it just be given to people.

They do automatically take the taxes from us, but why could child allowances or sickness benefits not be coming semi-automatically? Why could the state not address the people, send them an e-mail or SMS that, hey, do you want to get parental benefit also? Just like the education ministry, for years, sends notifications by SMS on state examination results. 

I think one reason the state does not do that is to save money.

Meanwhile, in other nations we find examples of life made easier. Like in Armenia: if you get a parking ticket, immediately you get an SMS saying if you want to view a video clip on the infringement, press this button and if you want to go pay the fine, press another – and it’s done.

Don’t you fear that if life develops too fast technologically, it will go over people’s heads?

One thing the state has failed is creating the e-citizen. With so many things happening on the Internet, we ought to teach at school how to behave in the virtual world and e-state. But we do not do that as we assume the kids just grasp it anyhow. And probably they do.

But the others? To this very day, half of those applying for parental benefit visit the official, though it could quickly be fixed over the Internet with ID-card.

E-state would require a rather generous degree of openness, but isn’t it so that the recent trend over the web is towards tightness and even secrecy?

I agree, there has been a clear shift towards secrecy. Everywhere, experiments are made with involvement on state level, but we aren’t too willing to go along. We don’t lay put sufficient information for us to feel we could participate in the life of the state, that our voice would matter.

The thing is, an individual will make an input if he feels he gets feedback. Once upon a time, we built the Estonian state portal TOM, Täna Otsustan Mina (Today, I Decide) and when Mr Laar as Prime Minister said he was interested, and thus many people participated. But as the prime minister changed, the governmental interest waned and immediately participation by people declined. For several years it struggled on till it was changed into the osale.ee participation portal.

But as officials have realised that politicians aren’t really interested, they do not take the trouble to upload much data. The system has been built, but there is no political subscription like let’s build something nice from this. Had the demand been there, we would have had a new culture of governing enforced in 2007–2009 and Ice Cellar would never have been needed.

For contract, take the Indian prime minister who has created the mygov.in portal where he’s asking people everything, beginning with asking people to send ideas for birthday cards to what the people want him to talk to president Obama on his visit to the US.

Does Estonia have any such project to show where ideas have been asked from the people? We haven’t been too eager to utilise the creative energy in people for a common cause.

Because, probably, it will become bothersome for the powers.

Yes, probably. Thence the current culture of governing: let us govern as we have the mandate for four years and you do your own thing. 

Would you give the new government a lead: where do we begin that, ten years from now, they would still be coming to see an ideal picture of a state!

Firstly, that the new coalition would seek for new things to do, not being satisfied with what already exists.

Secondly, all that is done must not be grand and high-sounding. The e-stuff could be taken into everyday life, so I would not have to go on crutches to 2nd floor and back.

And thirdly, that more people be involved in governing culture. 21st century is the century of involvement. The technology is there; it is the issue of willingness – which is lacking at the moment and which is viewed cynically: let the frogs croak while the swamp is being dried, we need not ask their permission. 

Actually, in a democracy, we are frogs all of us. We all croak, not that some crow and most of the others croak.


The financing misconception

Ivar Tallo admits to have run into critical attitudes, among entrepreneurs, regarding e-Governance Academy.

«Everybody thinks we are a state agency and on state payroll and do fun stuff, not what is needed,» he says. «But we are not on state payroll and have not received money at all from the state. When in 2002 I created e-Governance Academy, we did have the idea to make it a foundation with state holding, but it was impossible to formalise the papers for that so the plan was off.»

In its first three years of operation, e-Governance Academy got money from the UN and Open Society Institute created by George Soros. Afterwards, we have made all our money ourselves.»

According to Mr Tallo, in earlier years e-Governance Academy in earlier years has drawn activity support of about 20,000 Estonian kroons a year, and in the euro-era it has amounted to about two percent of the budget. «But foreign ministry has been our good partner and customer,» he adds.