E-government in Estonia: JCU Welcomes Ambassador Kuningas-Saagpakk

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John Cabot University’s Institute for Entrepreneurship welcomed the Estonian Ambassador to Italy Celia Kuningas-Saagpakk on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. Entitled “e-Stonia: Innovation and Digital Solutions,” the lecture was about Estonia’s successful experience with E-government. Before becoming the Estonian Ambassador to Italy in 2017, Kuningas-Saagpakk was Assistant to the Secretary-General in the Estonian Foreign Ministry and she coordinated the international personnel policy office. She also worked in Estonia’s permanent representation to the United Nations and at the Consulate General in New York.

Estonian Ambassador Kuningas-Saagpakk

Estonian Ambassador to Italy Celia Kuningas-Saagpakk

Ambassador Kuningas-Saagpakk began by telling the audience a few facts about Estonia, a country with a population of 1.3 million. Immersed in nature, half of the country is covered by forests and there are about 1200 lakes and 2300 islands. The Old Town of the capital Tallinn is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage sight. In addition, the Kaali Crater is an important site to Estonians, since they consider it as “the Sun falling to Earth.” It was formed by a meteor crash 3,500 years ago and now it has turned into a lake.

Estonians are very passionate about their language, which is similar to Finnish. Finland is one of the four neighboring countries of Estonia and Ambassador Kuningas-Saagpakk described Estonians as “Finnish with a spice.” The other countries that share borders with Estonia are Latvia, Russia, and Sweden.

Wired magazine has described Estonia as the most advanced digital society in the world. This implies the use of electronic communication devices and the internet to provide public services to citizens. Interactions between citizens and the government are completely digitalized. There is no main server collecting data: each government agency is responsible for collecting and securing its own data. The core principle of the digital Estonian government, Kuningas-Saagpakk argued, is that once a citizen provides personal information to the state, the government cannot request it again. A request by the government to submit data that has already been provided is illegal and the citizen can sue if this occurs. In addition, institutions and agencies cannot check citizens’ data without their knowledge. Citizens are informed via email when their information will be checked. The Ambassador underlined that, in Estonia, “You own your own data.”

Ambassador Kuningas-Saagpakk explained that religion doesn’t have a significant role in Estonian society. In fact, only 14% of the citizens claim otherwise. As a result, the Ambassador claimed that “Being less religious, we tend to be more innovative, so digital progress has come very naturally to us.” She acknowledged that, in order to transform into a completely digital system, countries will have to start from zero just like Estonia did. The key to an efficient beginning is promoting digital alternatives to traditional paperwork. Internet is a social right in Estonia, therefore it is free and accessible throughout the country.

Estonian Ambassador Kuningas-Saagpakk at JCU

Estonian Ambassador Kuningas-Saagpakk at JCU

The Ambassador stressed the importance of education in Estonia’s electronic  government: “To go fully digital, we need people to understand digital.”  Children start learning about robotics, 3D printing, and programming in elementary school, where computers and internet connections are common. In addition, every student must create his/her own company during before the end of high school. Since all procedures are done digitally, launching a business is a simple process. Kuningas-Saagpakk highlighted the contribution of this requirement to the Estonian economy: “The more entrepreneurs, the better the economy.”

In 2014, Estonia established e-Residency. “We are basically going paperless. You need to make a special request to obtain paper,” the Kuningas-Saagpakk said. With e-Residency, no birth certificates are issued since hospitals collaborate with the government, so when a child is born, the family receives an email asking them to register their newborn online. “Self-service in the digital world is more convenient because it is state-fee free,” the Ambassador stated. Estonia digitalized its electoral system too. Thanks to a system called i-Voting, citizens can vote abroad, cancel their votes, and vote again. There are only three procedures that cannot be done digitally in Estonia: registering marriage, finalizing divorce, and selling real-estate.

Estonia uses the blockchain technology to protect the system from cyber-attacks attacks. Active since 2017, the blockchain provides cloud assurance (accountability, attribution, and transparency regarding the citizens) and it functions on a real-time awareness (in opposition to other cyber-attack defense systems, blockchain technology immediately identifies the attack and issues an alarm).

Kuningas-Saagpakk ended her presentation by encouraging JCU students to “Be very bold; don’t be afraid to think outside the box.”