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Notes from Estonia’s e-governance conference

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The 6th e-Governance Conference titled Giant Leaps Start With Small Steps which held from Monday, May 18 to Thursday, May 21; is an annual event which is aimed at international digital development cooperation. As with every year since its inception in 2015 and with no exception; the 2020 edition was organised by the e-Governance Academy in collaboration with the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The only exception to this year’s conference was that due to the coronavirus pandemic; the event did not only take place in Estonia as with other previous years but the conference went virtual i.e. online and global. And it provided the online delegates with a unique opportunity and most importantly, a virtual platform to discuss governments’ current challenges in helping citizens to manage their lives and businesses online.

The annual e-Governance Conference is one of Estonia’s flagship events for global decision-makers and business leaders to learn and discuss digital transformation in all its entirety. 

Overview of Digital Society was the theme of the first day and online participants were taken through the holistic journey of e-governance which ranged from the basics to the principles for next-generation e-services in pre-emptive cum proactive governance.

The panellists concurred and it was generally agreed that Public Private Partnerships are set to be one of the main trends in e-governance in the next decade, since PPPs are a new, virtuous option available to governments to save time and deliver faster. However, it was noted that decision-makers should always keep in mind their own efficiency needs and goals, and select a fitting approach accordingly as the one size fits all does not work in all scenarios.

The Chief Technology Officer of the Government of Estonia, Kristo Vaher; highlighted the fundamentals for the next generation of e-services in Estonia. He highlighted how service provision can be streamlined to offer the best performance to citizens. However, he said that this cannot happen if public sector entities do not intervene on their processes.

It was opined that one of the errors made by public sector officials is the desirability to just move to the digital field processes and services that do not meet efficiency criteria. Technology alone does not improve services just by default. Next generation e-services must be informed by a domain-driven design and a citizen-first approach. From baseline technology architecture to communication, and single gateways to access services.

The term digital maturity came up during the first day’s deliberations. And it was stated that digital maturity is not only about realizing where the government stands in terms of institutional and technical capabilities. It also requires the government to analyse unexpected, challenging situations, and understand how to overcome these hurdles.

From vision to small actionable steps was the second day’s theme and focused on how to achieve the targets usually listed in policy and strategy blueprint papers. It was stated that these papers up to a certain extent, might turn out to be hurdles in a country’s path to digital transformation. Vision is great, but translating it into small actionable steps could be the true game-changer. Arvo Ott, who is the Executive Director, Chairman of the Management Board of e-Governance Academy put it plainly when he stated that “digital transformation is not a process of months or years but a gradual process. Visions are good to have but practical steps are better to follow. Not just political will but continuous government policies.”

During her speech to open the deliberations for the second day, President of the Republic of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid, focused on the lessons being learnt from the corona virus pandemic crises.

She stated that “If there is a bright side to it all, it is that the world has finally come to the realisation that solutions to common problems in the digital world can be sought and found. Social distancing has been a reality in most parts of the world in this first half of 2020. This should take us to rethink what presence, and being present, actually mean.

“A more reflective take on this point can, indeed, shed a light on what we actually value in life. If we were to choose, would we rather be physically present at a population management office, or at a gathering with our friends and family? When boring, routine tasks are moved to the digital world, we make time for the things and people we actually love and care for.”

President Kaljulaid revealed that while this new normality has been consolidating in Estonia in the past fifteen years, in many other nations the crisis is playing the role of an eye-opening moment. She advised that the world should allow the innovative technologies that are assisting countries and citizens to survive this crisis to become permanent features and options in governance.

The founding editor of Wired UK David Rowan, who is a brilliant storyteller with in-depth knowledge of start-ups and innovation; began by informing and highlighting how tech firms are trying to penetrate established markets by picking apart and decoupling functions, tasks and goals of traditional custodians and key players. In doing this, David Rowan stated that they take risks, but try also to dominate the next opportunity. He further stated that due to these dynamics, we are forced to think in a more agile way, experiment more, learn to take bigger risks ourselves too. And what would be the first lesson?

That innovation is no longer about cool and hip words, but thinking what is the real problem here, and how can we solve it with fresh tools, fresh thinking, and a diverse group of people. He went further to state that ticking boxes while nothing changes in practice does not work. What has worked, instead, is any of the sixteen approaches to innovation and transformation that he said he analysed from experiences in his 20-country journey. Governments need to be aware of the cultural shift that is taking place in their societies with digital development. And the statistics are available to prove it.

David Rowan furthered stated that innovation is not about a gimmick; it is about solving with fresh tools and fresh thinking. During his frank conversation, he opined that hierarchy often gets in the way of creative talents. And he advised the corporate world to give the talented employees the freedom to create. 

From his many travels to discover what start-ups have in common, he observed that the start-ups that work don’t think they have the answers. Rather than strategy what he sees resilience and suggests that If you (as a venture capitalist) have one bullet, shoot it outside the government, to the start-ups, who would work with government from the outside. And he advises that we all need to be where the ball is kicked faster unless you won’t know what is happening with the ball.

Furthermore, David Rowan identified the five Ps which are namely People, Purpose, Process, Protection, Preparedness. And opined that the five points can guide countries’ adaptive strategy, both for the public and private sectors. And speaking further on innovation, he posited that real innovation comes down to how you deal with people, a purpose at the heart of the project, processes to optimise transformation, protecting the people taking bold risks and being prepared for the uncertain future.

Another panellist Siim Sikkut stated that digital transformation does not take place overnight since it is a gradual process adjusting to unexpected setbacks. It is a process of trial and error where resilience is paramount. Siim Sikkut (who is Government CIO; Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications of Estonia) stated that people often ask if Estonia has ever failed in Information Technology. And he replied; “Yes, many times. Most often because we made things too big and complex. It should not be a black and white game: either we have a perfect solution or we do not do it at all. We should be acting more like start-ups; start building something up and then scale.

The third day’s theme was financing for digital transformation and Amani Abou-Zeid, Commissioner for Infrastructure, Energy, ICT and Tourism at the African Union made a lot of salient points. She pointed out that in the present global situation regarding the corona virus pandemic, countries can find an opportunity to reinvent business and public service models alike. She also pointed out that digitalization witnesses now a shift in scope from posterity agenda to survival theme.

The Commissioner for Infrastructure, Energy, ICT and Tourism at the African Union further stated that the advantages of digital transformation in developing countries can be particularly impactful in education, healthcare, digital payments. However, the future depends on how governments and societies together respond to the aftermath of the current economic crisis. And she reiterated the fact that digital transformation has moved from posterity agenda to a survival theme. The question is no longer why or when but how and how fast. We all should use this time to accelerate digital transition to allow recovery and build resilience in the new reality.

In his speech, Estonia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Urmas Reinsalu stated that it is clear that digital transformation can improve countries’ total resilience, building stronger societies that can withstand social, economic and political emergencies.

The Foreign Affairs Minister highlighted four points that are set to be crucial to this end. First is that, digitalisation needs to become an integral part of any development aid programme. Secondly, multi-donor cooperation should be pursued from the earliest stages of digital projects, to pool and reap the benefits of available resources and know-how. The third point is that roadmaps and action plans need to be based on a clear vision that accounts for each country’s institutional capacity. And the fourth point is that, a fundamental task will be to improve the digital skills and literacy of the people involved, makers and end-users, by mainstreaming high-quality Information Technology education.

The Use of Modern Tools to expand and enhance the digital capacity of governments was the theme for the fourth day of the e-Governance Conference. A salient reminder was made by Ilja Livenson who Is the Cloud Architect at OpenNode, when he said that cloud computing despite the hype should not be regarded as a promised-land or Eldorado. 

Alex Benay, the former CIO of the Government of Canada; opined that a bad or outdated process which is tailored to serve the needs of public administrations from a past era, should not be translated to the digital sphere just for the sake of it. This applies to cloud adoption too.

Richard Curran, Chief Security at Intel for Global Cloud, in another panel session reiterated that trust has become a major element in security talks on cloud adoption. Particularly, this is the case with the creation of the Confidential Computing Consortium. Moreover, ultimately, governments need to always keep in mind what is the goal to be achieved by adopting this technology. He went further to state that data itself has no value. It is the information in the data that is of value. And in the world, we are in; data does not care about borders. Mr Curran also reiterated that a government moves her country by transforming the digital. And conclusively, he stated that we are in new norms where Confidential Computing is the way forward.

In a nutshell, the e-Governance Conference was the first of its kind and it was quite an experience to see a conference go virtual without any technical glitch from Estonia. The conference’s online platform was structured in such a way that the delegates from all over the world could take part in the discussions and ask the experts and panellists questions. This year’s e-Governance Conference was totally digital, from live discussions to seminars and the Expo Hall which had twenty firms showcase their digital services.

Over nine hundred and forty participants from one hundred and twenty-nine countries (all Continents were represented) registered for the event. As the conference progressed over two hundred delegates were constantly watching each live session. At the end of the conference, fifty-nine speakers, twenty exhibitors and one thousand one hundred and fifty delegates from one hundred and thirty-five countries participated in the e-Governance Conference

The online conference highlighted the fact that though the corona virus pandemic disrupted the old ways in a lot of spheres of life; it also opened new vistas in the same spaces including the digital space. As the Programme Director of Smart Governance, e-Governance Academy, Linnar Viik said, “Nobody can say that going forward in a digital way is not possible, after what we have witnessed in the first half of the year 2020.”


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