Electronic Democracy

20 July 2011, 10:33

Today Estonia is a recognized European leader in implementing electronic government systems and in the level and quality of IT penetration in public administration. It also has its own strategies to overcome the world economic crisis, in particular actively reducing the national debt, achieving a budget surplus and stimulating small business. The Ukrainian Week has spoken with Estonian Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications Juhan Parts about these and other issues. In early June, he participated in the eGover 2011 Ukrainian-Estonian conference on information policy and e-government which took place in Kyiv under the patronage of his ministry. The Ukrainian co-organizer was the State Agency for Science, Innovation and Informatization.

U.W.: What share of government services is provided over the Internet in Estonia?

Today there are virtually no government services that do not involve an element of IT or communications technology. The Internet makes them more efficient and transparent. Nearly 95% of Estonians now declare their annual income and pay taxes using the electronic services of the tax department. This procedure does not require any paperwork. A person immediately receives an electronic declaration which already contains information from the social fund and banks. If it matches the real situation, the person is one click away from submitting the declaration. The same principle is applied to taxes paid by businesses. The system is convenient and efficient and enhances the citizens’ tax discipline.

In Estonia, specific information may be demanded from a natural person or legal entity only once. If an enterprise, for example, submits its annual report to the tax service, other government institutions do not have the right to require the same data from it again. To secure efficient circulation of data among various services and bodies, an electronic register system has been set up to which data is fed and where it is kept. All government structures have to cooperate to fill this unified system. In this way we reduce administrative pressure on citizens and enterprises and enhance the competitiveness of Estonian business.

U.W.: Was there perceptible resistance on the part of bureaucracy which likely lost the opportunities presented by corruption with the implementation of e-government?

No, there was no resistance. This is because building a new democratic state in Estonia and implementing e-government went hand in hand. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Estonia regained independence and resumed the construction of its state. A new corpus of officials was appointed and new electronic technology was implemented in public administration. When the Internet became a reality in the mid-1990s, it was government officials, to an extent, that actively implemented electronic knowledge in various spheres. In my opinion, politicians are even behind them in this respect.

We look at officials as a strategic resource for democratic statehood. An efficient state cannot function optimally without educated, conscience and deeply moral officials. Estonia is not a corrupt country. It ranks 25th in the world rating by Transparency International. Of course, we don't have the kind of transparency there is in Finland and Sweden, but the level of corruption in the country is fairly low anyway.

U.W.: What was the beginning of e-government in Estonia?

In 1990, the country received a cart blanche, so to speak. It was a choice of either remaining in the system of Soviet values and Soviet society construction or creating our own statehood on a democratic foundation. At this historical juncture, when we had to choose which way to go, the information revolution, opening access to the Internet and contemporary information communication technology played a major role. Not only the state but also many privately owned Estonian organizations began to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by the Web and rely in their a activity on electronic and information technology.

Initially, things were quite chaotic in the government sector. In order to build a market economy in the 1990s, we needed to create a stable market for land and real estate and lay a firm foundation for investments and mortgage lending. This was when we realized that we needed to set up a clear structure of transparent state registers. The thing is that the system of continental civil law that was in effect in Estonia before the Second World War was destroyed. In 1993, relying on the experience of our Austrian colleagues, we passed a law to enhance the efficiency of the civil legal system and put it on an electronic foundation in Estonia. Creating electronic registers of land and real estate was the starting point for the minimal standards that are now being used in other domains of national life. All processes that relate to operations with land and real estate take place in electronic format.

In the early 2000s, we took another important step by introducing personal electronic identification cards which enable their holders to solve many issues over the Internet, including voting in elections, managing bank deposits and traveling in the EU without a passport. We developed technology that simplified the exchange of information among various government services as much as possible and helped protect cyberspace. At the same time, we equipped all schools, towns and villages in Estonia with computers and provided them with Internet access. It should be stressed that the public was actively involved in this process and taught new technology to everyone who was willing to learn with minimum support from the state. Moreover, access to any information that was not a state secret is free. In other words, every Estonian can easily find information about what decisions are being debated in parliament at the moment and what a particular minister is doing in his office.

Today people are criticizing me, asking why so little has been done in this field. Society itself demands advances in digital technology, sensing that it is very important tool for influence and control in a democratic country. If the government does not do the will of its citizens, the taxpayers, it will simply fail to be reelected. These are the demands of a transparent information society rather than demagoguery.

U.W.: What investments were needed to implement e-government?

It doesn't take a lot of money. Every year we spend about 1% of the GDP, 20-30 million euros, on electronic government. This money goes to support various long-term projects, because we cannot do everything at once. We are also trying to expand Internet coverage in the entire country. We understand that in the next 5 to 10 years people will need the Internet regardless of what they will be doing. We have a goal to secure the connection speed of 100Mbps for any point in Estonia by the end of 2012. So far we have an average of 2Mbps. This is needed to enable every Estonian without exception to freely use all electronic services.

U.W.: In Estonia, people can vote in elections via the Internet or even from their cell phones. How did you manage to win citizens’ trust for e-voting?

The first electronic vote took place in our country in 2005. To accomplish this, we had to use personal electronic ID cards. Mobile voting is the next step in this technology. In fact, it does not make a difference whether you insert the card into your computer or your cell phone. In 2005, nearly 3% of Estonian citizens made use of e-voting. In the most recent parliamentary election, in the spring of 2011, it was the choice of as many as 20-25% of Estonians.

Regarding trust, ID cards with which people vote can also be used for banking. Today 98% of purchases in the Estonia are made electronically. This means that citizens trust this tool.

Biographical note

Juhan Parts

Estonian Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications

Born in 1966 in Tallinn, Estonia

1991 – degree in law from Tartu University

1992-98 – deputy Secretary General of Estonia’s Ministry of Justice

1998-2002 – general auditor

2003-2005 – Prime Minister of Estonia

2007-present – Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications

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