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Insights about Estonia

Recently I attended a workshop as a part of conference in which Kaidi Ruusalepp (thanks Kaidi!) from Estonia took us through the experience of using public e-government services there. That experience as well as other contact I’ve had with Estonia informed this post.

I think that Estonia has achieved a very high level of e-government through a combination of great skills, will and a supportive population. In a nutshell, using your Estonian e-identity card or app as a ‘key’ you can do pretty much anything with government online through websites provided by the government. There is an aggregator website with information about government services and data. The e-identity, e-services and the population register that backs it all, is part of what seems to be a sort of virtuous circle in Estonia in which people trust the government not to do things that they would not like, and in turn the government has become more trustworthy, rinse and repeat. Kaidi mentioned that 98% of Estonians trust the police, which is in an interesting correlator with government trust.

There isn’t much privacy from the government, but plenty of transparency about what is done and who has accessed your information. Estonians trust the government not to bypass those transparency mechanisms.

Comparison to New Zealand

I’ve done some thinking about the Estonian approach and how the concept we’re testing in Lab+ of ‘Government as a platform’ differs.

We’ve built a lot of websites and portals in government over the last 20 years. They were loosely aiming for a similar vision to Estonia, but our identity landscape is very different - the social licence or the government mandate to build a population register is not present. That would have made it simpler to use a more holistic approach to service and entitlements as well as preventing identity fraud. Additionally the agency wording of Principle 12 of the Privacy Act has been a prominent reason that we’ve been so far unable to provide the high-functioning, cross government service delivery in the same way as Estonia has.

We’ve come up with ways to provide services in ways reflect how we value privacy more highly in New Zealand which have been innovative in their own way and time such as RealMe (a Department of Internal Affairs service) and the Integrated Data Infrastructure (a Stats NZ research database).

Which brings us to the Government as a Platform (GaaP) approach that we’re experimenting with and fleshing out in Lab+. In Estonia, the ecosystem and approach is closed to government and third parties who have negotiated a specific agreement with government. This limits the scale of innovation and experience that is possible with government services in the current Estonian settings. Both approaches are concerned with creating environments for joined up experiences cross government, GAAP is founded around pursuing an open by default approach.

That means that in New Zealand, open data, information about services, and entitlement rules can be used – with the appropriate security – by NGO’s, the private sector and individuals as foundation components for creating new services While that approach won’t change the constraints I mentioned before, the Lab+ team  believe that we’ll achieve ease of use and rich service with a lot more diversity by keeping our people’s information under their control and using the special sauce of digital technology to reduce and hide the complexity of dealing with government.

We believe that this openness will create opportunities for innovation that haven’t been thought of yet. Some of them will enable people to be compliant and access what is provided for them by government without actually dealing with government. That in turn will create public value by smoothing lives, fostering better outcomes and freeing up time.

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