There is not much uniqueness about Estonian public administration model. It follows the pattern, which (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011) calls as New-Weberian state (NWS), where bureaucracy is made a bit more professional, efficient and citizen-friendly.
In general, Estonia has quite traditional model of public administration with 138 thousand employees (out of 1,3 million population) in public sector with 34% of taxes-to-GDP ratio. However, our efforts to make the public administration more efficient are steady and effective. According to (Kalvet, 2007) Estonia spent 1% of state budget to ICT starting from 1993 (being independent from 1991). Starting from 2000 it is possible to submit tax returns on-line, from 2005 there is online voting for municipal and national elections and everyone has digital ID (national ID card is available and compulsory from 2001). There are many more cool examples of ICT usage to make public management more citizen-centric and efficient.
According to (Karo, 2017) in the NWS model a public administration reaffirm Weberian state elements: facilitation of solving major issues like technology revolution and globalisation, functioning of representative democracy and administrative law and delivering solid amount of public services. From “Neo” side there are citizen-centric approach, consultations with civil society on all major policy matters, greater orientation on results (policy outcome) and intense professionalization of public servants.
This NWS definition is fully applicable and visibly presented in Estonian public sector:
- Weberian elements:
- New government (since the end of 2016) sincerely believes that they can push economy growth (attempt to solve major issue)
- There is well functioning parliament and municipalities with stable income base (representative democracy)
- Amount of politicians sentenced for corruption demonstrates well-functioning administrative law, which ensures equality before law for everybody (administrative law)
- Neo elements
- User-centricity: Prefilled tax return contains not only taxable incomes but also deductible expenses
- Results orientation: almost in all ministries there are reasonable well done annual reports, which are providing make-sense account on how the performance targets were met during the year
All this is supported by remarkable achievements in the area of digitalisation of public administration. According to the Digital Economy and Society Index 2017 Estonian digital public services are on the 1st place amongst EU28 countries. However, how unique and scalable Estonian e-Government actually is?
Before answering this question let’s have a look what is e-Government after all. Widely used definition of e-Government is much like (Kalvet, Innovation: a factor explaining e-government success in Estonia, 2012) is stating based on the European Commission definition: “E-government is defined as the use of information and communication technologies in public administration, combined with organisational change and new skills, to improve public services and democratic processes and to strengthen support for public policies”. Intuitively it is clear what it is. However, for the sake of our discussion on uniqueness and scalability I would like to add few more aspects.
According to the TOGAF every enterprise can be viewed as a system with 3 layers: business architecture layer, information systems architecture layer and infrastructure layer. Like that, public administration is an enterprise, which contains all public sector organisations and e-Government is an extent by which information system layer is supporting business architecture. More sophisticated information architecture layer we have the more advanced digitalisation is in place.
From such enterprise architecture perspective the uniqueness of e-Government can be defined through uniqueness of the business and information system layers’ features.
If we look to the information systems layer of the Estonian public administration, there is only one system, which is really quite unique: there is fully online voting system available without any restrictions for national and municipality level elections. All other systems and features of business and information systems architecture of Estonian public administration are in one or another way presented in many countries in Europe, America and Asia. There is literally no any other unique example – everything we have in Estonia I saw working as consultant in different European and Middle-East countries.
For example, Estonians are very proud about X-road, which is supposed to be kind of revolutionary interoperability enabler. It indeed simplifies connectivity between two information systems taking care for some low-level technology aspects and simplifying life of developers through ability to use reusable component while developing point-to-point connectivity between two organisations. And this is it. Otherwise, legislative norm, which is not allowing to ask twice information from citizens and businesses makes much more. X-road per se just reduces the amount of software code lines.
Estonian e-government would be unique if it would start actually re-engineering the structure of the operational model of public service delivery. For that one should start from the business architecture layer, one should start redesigning the whole idea about how public services are delivered. For example, instead of online voting we may have participatory budget not for small fraction of the budget but the whole budget on all levels – then you do not vote for representatives to parliament but directly can decide how and what to finance with the public money. Instead of having separate service halls for police department, for tax department, for social insurance department etc. we – citizens, businesses, residents – should have one and unified service delivery front-end on behalf of local and central governments for all public administration functions in all channels.
This kind of re-engineering must be concerned with business architecture not with information architecture. Our software development capacity – in Estonia and globally – is that mature, that it is safe to say, that everything can be automated. New approach to digital public administration should rethink the whole idea of how public administration acts. For such transformative thinking Estonian public management establishment is too lazy and too in the comfort zone. All those state secretaries (kantsler in Estonian) and deputies are mainly advancing in keeping they workplaces intact. Even after wasting 5 MEUR on some ICT project (like it recently happened in Ministry of Social affairs) nobody lost their position, that skilled are they in justifying themselves and status quo.
Still, one aspect could be somehow highlighted as unique: the extent of actual usage of ICT in public service delivery. This implies the extent of public administration dependency from the information systems availability. And this is giving an opportunity to learn actual problems and issues of future digital public administrations. For example, what to do if hostile state started to spam all your e-services? Or what to do when some crypto algorithms, which are used to provide digital identity for millions of users are not secure anymore etc. etc. For that Estonia is really exceptional place for now.
How scalable is Estonian e-Government? Not very much, really.
Firstly, how many solutions our software companies were able to export on industrial scale to international markets? The answer is: only X-road is mature enough for export. All other attempts to capitalise from public sector solutions on international markets are more like selling experience-based consultancy services and not really selling of software products.
Secondly, digital identity is a cornerstone of e-Government. Lately, Estonia discovered that ca 700 thousand ID cards users must replace technology due to security concerns. My parents in their late 60 are very active users of e-services. They wanted to change certificates and the whole army of grandsons and granddaughters were instantly in place to help with that. Still, it took one week to get results. All thanks to excellent work of our officials. Estonians are relatively calm and patient people; they can wait for one week to change certificates. In many other places, where I’ve been living and working people would just stop using e-services for good. Trust would be broken.
In conclusion, Estonian e-Government cannot be brought to other places and thus it is not scalable – at least not in its current form. Apparently, it is also not unique as almost everything you can find in Estonian e-Government you can also find in other countries.
Kalvet, T. (2007). Eesti infoühiskonna arengud alates 1990. aastatest (Vol. 30). Tallinn: PRAXISe Toimetised .
Kalvet, T. (2012). Innovation: a factor explaining e-government success in Estonia (Vol. 9). Tallinn: Electronic Government, An International Journal.
Karo, E. (2017). Public management and administration, HHL1040 TUT course . Tallinn: TUT.
Pollitt, C., & Bouckaert, G. (2011). Public management reform. New York, USA: Oxford University Press Inc.
 Source: OECD tax aggregates 2015
 The Open Group Architecture Framework