Through an encrypted digital ID, Estonians can access about 99% of public services online

The country's paperless system serves as a model to other nations.

  • A new report from The Associated Press outlines Estonia's most recent advancements in its digital government.
  • Estonia allows its citizens to vote, obtains medical data and register business documents online.
  • Given security concerns and other complications, it remains unclear whether nations like the U.S. could implement similar systems.

It's easier than ever to order goods and access information online. So, why don't governments offer the same level of digital convenience to citizens when they need to, say, go to the DMV or register a birth certificate?

A new report from The Associated Press shows how Estonia's digital government is doing just that, and how the country serves as a model for how the rest of the world might pursue digital transformation.

In Estonia, which has been steadily digitizing its government for decades, the country's 1.3 million citizens can access virtually all public and private services online by using a digital ID card that enables them to do tasks such as banking or business operations, signing documents or obtaining a digital medical prescription.

The country's digital government also:

  • Became the first country to offer online voting in a national election in 2005.
  • Provides each citizen with online access to nearly all of their personal medical data.

In the spring, Estonia plans to automate the birth registration process, making it so parents simply receive an email when their child is born. These and other records are managed through a software called X-Road, a decentralized data exchange system that links separate public databases, and enables people to see when data has been accessed or changed.

"Outgoing data is digitally signed and encrypted, and all incoming data is authenticated and logged," the report reads.

Marten Kaevats, Estonia's national digital adviser, told The Associated Press that the goal is to create a government that supports its citizens while cutting out the red tape.

"In an ideal world, in the case of an invisible government, when a new child is born neither of the parents would ever have to apply for anything: to get maternity leave, to get child support from the municipality, to get a kindergarten place, to put the name to the child," he said. "All of those different services would be delivered automatically."

This increased efficiency could affect the way people perceive their governments.

"People's expectations for government services are the same as they have of all other digital interactions in their daily lives," Steve Hurst, who heads Deloitte Consulting's Digital Government group in New York, told Nature. "If you don't meet those expectations, it affects people's perception of the quality of government."

Security concerns

One major concern about digitizing government information is that compiling a cache of data belonging to a person or business in one easily accessible place might be convenient, but it also makes it an attractive target for hackers.

For instance, Estonia had to issue software updates for hundreds of thousands of ID cards after security experts discovered a flaw that hackers could've exploited to gain access to private data. Government officials said they expected it wouldn't be the last security risk the country would have to navigate.

Government corruption is another concern, though some say it could be prevented by technologies such as cryptocurrency and smart contracts, which could also make nations more transparent in areas like government spending.

"With smart contracts, governments can collect taxes in real time — this a more dynamic way for governments to collect," wrote ConsenSys Media, which covers the blockchain industry. "Additionally, blockchain technology would provide radical transparency for taxes — we would be able to see precisely where governments are using citizen's taxes."

​Implementing e-governance in the U.S. and beyond

According to the United Nations, the U.S. currently ranks 11th worldwide in terms of how well it's implemented e-governance technologies, which have recently included:

  • Vets.gov, where American veterans can register for health and education benefits.
  • Login.gov, where Americans can access numerous government services by using one username and password.

Still, it remains unclear whether Estonia's more comprehensive implementation of digital government would currently work well in the U.S. or other countries, as Zvika Krieger, head of technology policy and partnerships at the World Economic Forum, suggested to The Associated Press.

"When you add in more people, more diverse stakeholders, more layers of government at the city, state, and local level, you are adding in exponentially more complexity," Krieger said.

The promising sign is that the transparency of Estonia's model seems to give people more faith in government.

"Estonians hate their politicians just as much as everyone else," he said. "But at least since the administration of the state works extremely well and efficiently, people trust the system."

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