by TR Raghunandan
I ended my last blog a fortnight back, asking whether Blockchain technology might provide a disruptive breakthrough in reforming governance processes. I had lamented that if most reform suggestions had to go back to the same people who benefit from the lack of transparency in the current system; they would not have any incentive to reform.
Yet, aspirations must be created, if they do not exist. e-Governance is as likely to get stuck in a low level equilibrium if not challenged. So challenge it, we must.
The best way to prove that something can be done, is to find somewhere where it’s done. And that’s where Estonia comes into the picture.
The Baltic nations- tiny Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia- have always had the Russian bear at their doorsteps. For them, defence is an urgent national priority. But defence could cost a great deal for a small country. Since an army might not provide enough deterrence to a large aggressor, so defence by a larger strategic alliance becomes a necessary option. In the case of Estonia, defence cover is provided by the NATO, and the country pays through its nose for it.
All the more reason that the country has to tighten its belt and maximise its efficiency. What better way to do that, than reduce its bureaucracy? On the face of it, streamlining the bureaucracy is no big deal. Countries speak of it all the time – indeed, the same bureaucracy that does not wish to be streamlined, leads the way in streamlining itself. What makes Estonia different is the staggering scale of its vision, as also the steps it has taken to achieve its vision. There are some key principles that emerge from the Estonian experience.
- First, e-Estonia, sets its sights high. It is not merely about going through a shopping list of disconnected processes and simplifying them; the vision of the government is to transform itself from a state to a digital society. In this regard, it touches everything that has to do with citizens’ lives and in direction, the distinction between the public and the private sectors has disappeared.
- Second, keeping in mind its ambition vision, e-Estonia has discarded the conventional approach of e-Governance in departmental silo. Instead, it aims to integrate all services with which the government is involved, under one seamless platform. This transcends service delivery to include legislation, voting, justice, banking, policing and taxation, apart from the delivery of public welfare services such as education and health.
- Third, at the citizen level, the core assurance of the system is the ‘once only’ policy, which lays down that no information should be entered twice. Thus, at the citizen level once basic data is entered once, then there is no need to ‘prepare’ data for individual transactions with the government. No applications for loans, passports, certificates, licences need be written up all over again, because data for these can be automatically pulled from various places in the system. This means that only the barest minimum of transactions will need physical presence. Thus, if Estonians want to marry and register their marriages, they will need to turn up at the marriage registrar. Similarly, if they want to sell properties, they will need to turn up at the property registry office. Nearly all other bureaucratic processes can be done online, including voting, which can be done from the citizens’ laptops.
- Fourth, while it is inevitable that the system rests on a foundation of personal data of citizens, the state does not own this data. The state cannot manipulate and use this data without the consent of the citizens concerned. Citizens themselves have a two-step access code to look over their data. They have to insert their ID cards into their laptops, and type in their two secret codes, one of which issues their digital signature. This unlocks access to the personal data stored on the population registry of the state. Different boxes contain employment and property information, traffic records, health, education and even pet ownership records. Best of all this data is not centrally held, but is distributed across encrypted pathways. It is the individual concerned that has access to the rigorous filtering of who can access what.Thus, if you were in Estonia, you could at your option, disallow your heart doctor from checking what your dentist has to say. And to seal the security, every time anybody peeps into one’s records, that is recorded and reported. Electronic peeping; checking out someone’s data for no reason, is a criminal offence.
These principles may give the impression that Estonia is non transparent to the extreme. What use is big data capability, if citizens can block access to nearly all data relating to themselves, in a capricious manner? Yet, Estonia is hugely transparent in many other ways.
More of that, in my next blog.
Reproduced with permission from Accountability Initiative.