E15: Marten Kaevats: Česko musí pochopit, že digitální transformace obsahuje jen velmi málo technologií

Digital transformation has little to do with technologies. Mindset is the key  - Marten Kaevats, former Estonia's advisor explains in an interview for E15 daily (in Czech) ahead of the AmCham Czech Republic Digitization of Czechia conference in Prague.

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English version follows

1. You have studied architecture and urban planning. How did it happen that you hold the post of national advisor for digitization in Estonia?
Architecture, urban planning and digital government are very similar. The job I was doing in the Estonian government I call governance architecture, and the reasoning is that today’s digital governance processes are very little about technology and very much about building a culture and mindset ready to adapt. Similarly to architecture, digital governance works with already existing tools. As an example - roofs, walls, windows, doors, floors are all elements already existing and used for years. If you look around the cities and buildings, some buildings are built in a very nice way and they inspire and help citizens to have a better life, and some of the cities that use the same elements – the roofs, the floors, the doors are not so good. In digital governance it is exactly the same.
2. So just take the current elements and put them together well?
The elements making a digital government are always the same, you have an ecosystem, you have some technical tools, you have the culture and the mindset, you have the needs of the citizens, and putting them together in a new way is exactly what architects are doing. This time, I am not working with floors, windows and doors, the traditional physical elements, but I am working with elements of governance and trying to put them together in a new way. That is what architecture is all about – to facilitate and to build and to manage complexity, because nowadays, all these information systems and all these needs of citizens are very complex and there are so many elements involved. We need to understand this complexity and put these elements together in a new way that actually would help the citizens, and also the government to operate more efficiently. 
3. What exactly is in your job description?

Well, I call it that It was a job for an inhouse visionary for Estonia. I was the highest-ranking civil servant for digital affairs who was responsible for everything digital and innovation related in Estonia. This meant that it was mostly about filtering and the difficult part was the filtering. So my job was to look at all the different new technological tools that were out there and to filter out what is and what is not important for the government This meant finding the owner in the government – who is the person whom this particular technology could help the most. Explaining these technologies to the society so that the society would be ready to accept these technologies. And also very difficult part is how to put this new piece of technology into existing framework of policies, legal regulations and so on. This meant that in certain technologies you need to change the law.    
4. According to the European Commission ranking (DESI), the Czech Republic is on the 18th position in digitization. Estonia leads the ranking. What can't a functioning digital society do without?
I think that any sort of digital society, may it be the Czech Republic, may it be Estonia, may it be USA or China, or whatever country, needs to deal with three specific problems. First and foremost, every working digital society, needs to have a working digital identity. Digital identity is the way to know you are you in a digital environment and this is the basis and the ground stone for any given digital society. This digital identity needs to be secure, private, robust, and needs to be also deployed all across the whole society. With digital signatures comes the ability to digitally sign documents, so digital identity and digital signatures is the first pillar of any given digital society. The second problem is the way of data exchange. Estonia uses a distributed data exchange layer called X road. There could be centralized systems, there could be decentralized systems, and distributed systems, but you need a unified way how different stakeholders and different participants of the digital society would have the ability to actually exchange data. This is the actual backbone of the digital society, a way, a flexible way and future-proof way how to exchange data. Third problem is the question of data integrity. Who changes what and when. In Estonia, all critical information. systems log files have been backed-up in blockchain which gives us a fundamental layer of transparency through the ecosystem. I as a citizen can go to a government website and see who has been looking at my data, when and why, and this gives you something you cannot ever do with a paper-based bureaucracy system. In a paper-based bureaucracy system, you fill out your form with your personal information, you give it to the civil servant. In Estonia, that actually helps us to build this democratic and transparent society.
5.  Are European countries interested in learning from Estonia?

Yes, not only European countries, but countries globally. Prior to the pandemic, Estonia had 1200 delegations from governments and businesses coming to see and coming to learn from the lessons learnt, and also sometimes coming to buy different products from us. The main thing that Estonia can teach is the idea of flexibility, modularity and utilization of open source throughout the ecosystem. Because when building governmental ecosystem, critical technologies in Estonia, we feel that, should be open sourced. This is due to the fact that open source is much, much more flexible, you never get vendor-locked, and you can build your ecosystem up gradually. The other thing that these governments and countries come to learn from Estonia is the idea of reusability and modularity.
6. What do you mean by that?

They can take some of those ideas of modularity and adaptability and open source and use these principles within their own governmental ecosystem, or corporate ekosystém, and build up the ecosystem, using these principles. As these principles have already been shown, not only in Estonia, but also in countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Israel, Singapore. Many countries with high success rates in digital society have been building and using the same principles, and I think the main thing learnt in Estonia is: build by principles, and not necessarily technology.   
7. But even Estonia certainly didn’t digitalize overnight. How long and difficult road it was?

Yes, it was super long. The story started in 1994 when the government basically published the first principles for digital governance. Similarly to the Czech Republic, we were poor country after the collapse of the Soviet Union and we basically saw potential in digitalisation and the reason why politicians saw the potential in digitization was that we actually really didn’t have the money to build a regular paper-based bureaucracy back then. PCs were taking off and there seemed to be potential, so politicians saw, grabbed that opportunity and started building. The first step was education – the Tigerleap program taught people how to use web browser and email, perhaps Word and Excel as well. It was very simple back then, but it actually gave us the ground work for the whole society to actually start using these technologies and start accepting them in the long run. Funnily enough, this initiative was also public-private partnership, the banks and telcos more or less paid for digital education of 18% of the whole society in an effort to make themselves more efficient later on. 
8. So should we be patient in the Czech Republic?

It was a long road and what needs to be understood also in the Czech Republic, and I said it in the beginning, Czechia needs to understand that digital transformation has got very, very little with technology and everything to do with building a culture and mindset that is ready to adapt. This means that changing the government into digital does not go super fast, it is a linear process that takes time and this is something that politicians and civil servants responsible for the digital transformation do not necessarily understand. It is about changing the mindset and the processes of the government which usually are human processes and not digital processes, so it takes time. Even after 25 year, Estonia is not there yet, there is a lot to be done, a lot to be built, but I think, well since 2008 we have digitalized the most, let’s say 99% of governmental services and since then we are continuing on this path of constantly making them better and better and more automated and more human-friendly, definitely more efficient and more easy to use for the citizens.   
9. Did digitization also affect the number of officials? For example, didn't the unions protest that people would lose their jobs because of it?
This is a unique question in the Estonian context. The answer is negative, i.e. no, they did not protest. Of course, digitization has affected the number of jobs in the public sector, but it has also increased the number of jobs in the private sector. Streamlining the public sector makes the economic pie for everyone to eat much bigger. Something similar happened in the agricultural sector in the 1930s. The automation of agriculture has actually made the economy much bigger, created various new jobs and actually increased the number of jobs. For example, the Estonian tax office, compared to the tax office of the beginning of the 21st century, is now at about one third of the staff. But at the same time, it takes care of a much larger economy more efficiently.
10. How do you explain this social harmony?  

Estonia is still a very small country, trade unions were not a problem, one of the reasons also was that government invested heavily into upskilling and reskilling of those employees. Also, in a small society this idea that you need to be very efficient to survive has been imprinted into all of us, so there was no issue of trade unions or something like that. I understand that this might be an issue in bigger countries, but one needs to understand that when you digitalize government the whole economy becomes faster, healthier and bigger, because some of those fundamental processes of doing business are going so much more efficient and you would also get money to invest in education, health care and others, but also that upskilling and the different job opportunities for members of the society becomes larger. 
11. When you debate with European politicians and experts, including those from the Czech Republic, what do they find as the biggest obstacle to the digitization development? Which obstacles do they talk about the most?

I still think that the biggest obstacle when talking to leaders of other societies, experts, is the culture and mindset, meaning when talking about digitalization, government is like big oil tanker, which means that it is very difficult for them to change course just a little. All of the civil servants and the mindset of civil servants is fixed on the status quo, on the maintaining of the status quo, and making procedural changes is extremely difficult. It’s never about technological things, it’s about how do you actually change the mindset of the same people within the society and how do you build examples and use cases that might also inspire others. I think the first obstacle would be culture and mindset, the reluctance to change, then secondly, I would argue that the biggest obstacle for digital transformation in most countries is actually not having a plan. Most countries when they address digital transformation, they actually, I would argue, do not have a plan for doing so. Yes, there are many documents being generated and millions and billions of euros and dollars being spent on the deployment of these documents, but in most cases these documents do not constitute an architecture or plan on how to actually achieve this cultural change. Creating a plan means that everyone in the society understands it. And above all, regardless of political opinions, the whole society is on board. 
12. How did the digital Estonia cope with the pandemic? For example from the point of view of proving vaccinations, Covid Passes or online teaching at schools?

Estonia has been preparing for Covid pandemic for 25 years. The covid pandemic was kind of a stress test to actually see if the society withstands and works in such a strange time. I would say that Estonia was one of the best-prepared countries to face the pandemic, because all of our government functions would remain intact - we can vote, we can decision-make, we can declare taxes online, and most of the businesses continued as usual. Of course, the tourism, restaurants and these types of businesses were hit such as everywhere else, but already the economic results - Estonia was the fastest recovering economy in the EU - show that a digital society helps a lot with the pandemic. Basically, vaccinations, covid passes and such - we were the first country in the world that has internationally recognized the EU covid pass, and also, I think the most interesting case was the schools, meaning that as everything went online such as everywhere else, this was an interesting time, because all the tools were there and ready, but they have not been used actively before. Of course, teachers and students had to change their habits, but again I would say Estonia dealt with covid very well and that was because the digital systems were already there before the pandemic. This is very important: they were in place already before the pandemic. Some minor systems were set up during the pandemic, such as the covid pass, but as said, most of the infrastructure was there before the pandemic started. I think this was of profound importance for Estonia.
13. In the Czech Republic, a current political topic is the support of households whose existence is threatened by high inflation or expensive energy. Does the Estonian system enable targeted social support based on population data?

Yes, this system can be made, because the data is there and different information systems are there. The main problem for this targeted support is the political decision-making, meaning that technically, yes, it is possible, but the difficult part is how to set the criteria in a way that would be very specific and exact. There have been some measures, but they have been quite broad still and I would really encourage politicians to do some data based micro targeting to the more vulnerable parts of the population. So, in Estonia I believe we still do not have a good use case example how these very targeted support mechanisms have been deployed. It can be done, though. 
14. You have voted online in Estonia for many years. How did the citizens adapt to this? Did the voter’s turnout increase for example?

Yes, Estonia started digital internet voting in 2005, this meant since then on every local, parliament and European parliament elections we have had the opportunity to vote online. In the first year there was a very little number of people using it, I think around 6,000 people. Throughout these years, in each of these elections, the proportion of voting online has been growing, and in the last elections, half of the electorate voted online. What is interesting about the online voting, is that we have done long and academic research about it, and if you look at the age groups voting online, young and elderly, there is actually no difference, meaning that the proportion of young people is similar online to the older one. Young and old people vote in a similar way, also when using the online way. Secondly, the online voting does not carry ideology, meaning that it does not really depend on your political world view, on whether you use online means or not.
15. And the turnout?
It has increased, but it has happened in a different way. From 2005 till 2022, the voter turnout has been globally going smaller and smaller - in each of these countries people are kind of fed up with the politics and they do not go voting, their voting activity has gone smaller and smaller. In Estonia, voter turnout has remained more or less the same and this is mainly thanks to the internet voting. 

16. Digitization of public administration must go hand in hand with security. Isn’t the excess of digitization a potential threat? How does the Estonia protect the personal data of its residents?

This is a critical question. All of the Estonian systems have been built with high cybersecurity standards from the beginning. This is a ground work anyway. You cannot build a system nowadays if you do not consider cybersecurity. Also, in Estonia, we have had some cases such as in 2007 with first state-wide cyber attacks originating from Russia. This gave us a very good glimpse of what could come and how can we protect ourselves. Since then, we have opened a NATO cyber defense center in Estonia which basically does cyber security exercises and develops cyber security for the whole of NATO in Estonia. Cybersecurity is above all a day-to-day practice, meaning that digital hygiene of the citizens must be at a high level. 

17. How does Estonia protect the personal data of its residents?

Every citizen themselves needs to know how to keep their own data secure. In Estonia, the government is doing a lot in order to keep personal data secure. I mentioned it before that Estonia uses blockchain throughout the ecosystem meaning every critical information system‘s log file is blockchained. This gives us also a very good overview of cybersecurity and the usage of personal data throughout the ecosystem. If somebody who is not supposed to, looks at the data, somebody changes the data, who is not supposed to then there are different automatic systems on how to prevent that. Estonia approaches cybersecurity via architecture, via distributed architecture, meaning that in Estonia we never put all eggs into one basket, but will distribute them around and this data exchange system is called  X road. All of the personal data of a citizen is distributed among something like 250 information systems, servers and databases all across the ecosystem. So, if I am a malicious attacker and want to get hands on my personal data for example, then I would have to attack those 250 systems simultaneously. 

18. One of the current topics in Europe is the use of artificial intelligence to automate the administrative process. This is also your specialty. How far did you get in Estonia?

I am the initiator of the Estonian AI strategy, policy, and law and currently Estonia has roughly about 120 different narrow AI use cases in the public sector meaning there are different bots within the public process doing different tasks. We already see that AI can help a lot with actually making the public sector much more efficient. A very good example is that Estonia is getting some EU funds to keep grasslands in the nature clean and healthy in an ecological way. Previously, the inspector would have to go to the spot and see if the farmer cleaned the land or not and get the support, but nowadays we use satellite image and the AI to actually see if farmers have done what they are supposed to. This is a good example of the efficiency, because the system deployment cost Estonia about 200,000 euros and in the first year when the system was deployed, it has already saved Estonian government roughly 600,000 euros. Again, there are 120 of these types of examples of how AI can help within the public sector.

19.  The future officials will not be needed? 

A project in Estonia which is gaining momentum is our Bureaucrat program - our next generation digital government architecture approach. Bureaucrat is basically your personalized digital assistant that will do all the bureaucratic mambo jumbo for you. Bots in a combined effort automate all bureaucratic procedures. I am pretty sure that Estonia can automate 90-95% of all bureaucratic routines within the next 10 years. So, if we can imagine a government without any bureaucracy then there is a potential to do so. What is really good about the AI projects is that you can start small and with low investment: Estonia is starting with projects worth 10-50 000 euros to deploy a proof of concept. These AI projects are not expensive. The main issue is that public servants should ask the right questions and try to find very pragmatic and practical solutions. 

20.  You are going to Prague for The Digitization of Czechia conference. Alongside you, Ivan Bartoš, the Czech Minister for Regional Development, will be speaking there, and he is also responsible for the digitization of construction management. Are building permits in Estonia applied for exclusively electronically?

A very specific question. Building construction is one of the most inert industries in a society, all of these projects usually used to come with these very large paper systems. We have digitalized our building permit registry, I think one and a half years ago and since then all of these processes for construction management have been completely digitalized. To be more precise – if all is done „exclusively electronically“? – the answer to this is that in Estonia, everything also can be done in paper, but because the digital process being so much more efficient, people tend to use digital means. People file their building permits digitally, because it is much easier for them than taking all papers to the office.     

21. One of the topics of the conference is the government's support for the digitization of business. How can governments support entrepreneurs in the field of digitization?

This is a tough question also in Estonia. I think the first thing is having in place some of the fundamental processes such as electronic signature, filing of different permits in the digital way so that the entrepreneur does not need to stand in lines and work in the heavy corridors of bureaucracy. In Estonia, the issue is that more traditional sectors of business such as forestry, is not as digitalized as it could be and our government is working a lot to digitalize these more traditional industries. So the governments need to digitalize processes that are crucial for them, for example the digital signature, used by everybody throughout the society, but when this is done it is important not to create obstacles, not to come up with some strange bureaucratic loopholes that different entrepreneurs need to follow and also, I think that government can help with the ease of doing business. For example, Estonia ranks first in the Doing Business index, our business environment is very competitive thanks to the digitalization of these government processes. Through the ease of doing business and with the use of e-residency as well, the number of entrepreneurs who are coming, taking advantage of this ecosystem has been growing, day by day. These ecosystems are made both by Estonians and foreigners. So, governments can do a lot to help businesses to evolve, but it is mainly about fixing some of the very basic things. This also revolves around investment in education and R&D at universities etc. Also, good quality urban space is becoming more and more important, because as start-ups are growing bigger, they need employees and employees are coming to those places that also offer a nice living environment.


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