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President of the Republic at the Tallinn e-Governance Conference


Dear friends!

There are some familiar faces, but also a lot of new faces sitting in here and interested to understand how can current technologies could help public sectors globally.

Last year we celebrated a milestone in global Internet usage – more than half of the mankind is a regular Internet user with the fastest growth in Africa, followed by Middle-East and Latin America and the Caribbean.

In 2018 one minute in internet means 185 million e-mails, 38 million messages, 18 million text messages and almost one million dollars spent online.

This growth also means, that internet uses close to 15% of global electrical energy with environmental footprint unfortunately as big as aviation industry. We also need to be responsible in recognising these issues, because we know that the climate change is The Issue globally. After all, all the discussion about digital societies only makes sense and is not short term if we can solve the climate change.  

Let´s take for example education, health-care, national economy or even more narrow spectrum of the services as population registry, marriage registration, customs and tax authorities vary in the legislative and institutional setup. Therefore we also need to create tailor-made solutions and consider the local culture when we want to digitalize these services. This is different when we compare what we can currently get from the big companies. For smaller companies it is easier to work with governments for tailor-made solutions.

At the global level Sustainable Development Goals are also similar to our objectives in the digital world. We all have agreed to the 17 goals, but the roadmaps to achieving these goals and the ways how digital technologies could help us on achieving these goals can be very different, considering where we are and which country we are talking about.

That means, and have also been noticed by important economic trend-setters like the Economist, that e-governance services will have to develop differently from commercial services. If you use Microsoft, you have to adapt your needs to the functionality of the software. In creating e-governments, your culture of running your state must prevail. I agree that going digital from analogue you also change your processes, because you will streamline then as many steps can be omitted in digital systems interlinking with all state databases. But still, this culture sphere which we so value, the multiculturalism, our differences – we want to remain different also online and this means that we can not use the words and the excels in e-governance services. Of course we all need to work and Estonia also works with international developers, but we are always taking care that those companies also operate and develop the local IT sector. Our companies are therefore used also in working with other countries in this way.         

Because, if you are building up your public service offer in the long term, you want to develop considerable home support for your e-government, complete with language skills. After all, foreigners don`t speak your languages. I know many countries who are striving to have e-government, but have high number of local dialects and in principle technology offers many services, which can be also using translation machines to provide these services, but for some local services you absolutely need that you have support for your e-government at home, complete with the language skills and also readiness to react extremely quickly.

We have seen this in Estonia – that if you do not control the supply chain then most difficult part is working with the behemoths. We had a major ID card failure that was caused by an international chip-maker, their negligence of the fact that in Estonia whole ecosystem relies on quick fix of the problem, was clear. They had a problem with a billion of chips and we were using 700 000 of them, but of them billion chips were used to open doors or even if somewhere were ID cards, then they hadn`t attached yet a lot of value to this with services. So the level of problem it created in Estonia was clearly underestimated by this big company. Again, they were local developers who left their own daily jobs to find quick patch and solve the problem. A clear demonstration that makes me once more say that you must have a critical knowledge of the system in your own vicinity.

Involving therefore companies who respect these principles either because of business ethics or because they are themselves SMEs and always work with local enterprises, is useful for e-service development.

However, tailor made does not mean no interoperability. Interoperability allows your digital citizens to work cross-border and it can be directly built into system, i.e you establish standards before you embark on service developments. Or you can later spend huge resources to bring interoperability into picture. First is more rational, second is probably politically more feasible, as it allows more independent development in initial phases. Yet I believe that should done region globally be able to establish common digital ID and common service backbone for a high number of countries, they would see economic interlinks developing at the speed never been seen before. Imagine filing your taxes through the same system, and having necessary elements taken into account by tax boards in many countries. It would automatically make companies grow quicker and seek international markets where the digital umbrella is guaranteed.

We get higher returns from our investments to digital technologies and more digital dividends when we are able to assure that national digital systems have compatibility also on cross-border use – trade, business services, environmental issues and tourism are among few simple examples that are by nature going through global digital transformation process.

Learning to cooperate while ensuring the integrity of national digital roadmaps is a true challenge – perhaps something that European Union can serve a great lesson from the last decade of attempts on harmonizing the digital policies and practices. We now in Europe have EIDAS, which also has brought along common safety standard for digital IDs – not all qualify, so are not safe enough. But it has been hard work to achieve and in addition, there are digital IDs which exist, but do not qualify for EIDAS. Would have been better to standardize first, we can say with hindsight. And politically totally impossible, as we see – otherwise, we Estonians, would have been also waiting for standards to develop and will not be years or maybe even decade and a half ahead in our digital public ecosystem development. So, yes it was costly to interlink later, on the other hand it probably has been a useful way to go. So world is, as usual, full of paradoxes, even if it is the virtual world.

Earlier e-governance conferences here in Tallinn have covered the impact of e-governance on economic growth and transparency, citizen centricity of e-governance and coordination of the e-governance on the national level, but this year´s conference focuses on different roadmaps, which governments and regions are implementing to achieve their digital goals, with special attention on aspects of cooperation in the digital transformation process.

The conference is organized by the Estonian e-Governance Academy that was initially founded in 2002 as a joint initiative of the Government of Estonia and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The Academy has been sharing Estonian best practices with digital transformation – e-governance, e-democracy, national cyber security and the development of open information societies. This knowledge has been demanded by so many countries that Estonia is again cooperating with UN system, especially UNDP, to share our experiences with more countries.

We also have a memorandum of understanding with African Union and cooperate with CARICOM region. As a small country, we are grateful for UN for leveraging our capacity to help, because we see supporting effective, efficient and transparent digital public service development as our mission in making our world a better place for all the people globally. We are also ready to serve global community in forwarding the thinking on cyber security, particularly in understanding how our international legal space can be transposed from analogue to digital world. We have participated in all 6 UN working groups on this issue. But we have seen no tangible process – if we are with one hand benefitting from promoting digital services, we have to be very attentive also of all the risks and cyber risks, which will immediately also reach those who are geographically far away and not used to taking the whole world as something which is risky for them. Therefore, we see very much that this would be our mission as an UNSC elected member to make sure that digital domain would be a natural part of all kind of conflict resolution and this way securing that what we build, can also be protected and not used to harm the sovereignty of the countries, who use digital services. There is no getting away from the fact that these risks exist and digital governments, while bringing enormous benefits to societies, need careful protection once they become key interaction point for state and its citizen. It is a moral issue for me personally and for all Estonia.

Tallinn manuals one and two deal exactly with the academic understanding, how should legal space apply in digital sphere. So, in principle we know all, but haven`t been managed to make this as a common platform for international decision making, when it comes to digital and conflict. We can say that so far these issues have not been so closely linked, but with digitalising also more volatile states globally we will have more and more this kind of situations. Yet it is not that we don`t currently have military conflicts where digital is an element. Take Ukraine for example.

Thank you all for the support you have shown us and discuss the regionalisation at the very least. Learn from our experience and do better. I wish you all the best of chance to leapfrog Estonia.