There is Software Out There

At the core of e-Government there is software. Software development and software systems operation have certain unique characteristics. If you have never done an impact analysis of a new request in the system, which has millions of lines of code and thousands of daily active users – then you have no idea, what it actually means to develop an e-Government from inside. If you have never released a new version at 4 a.m. and waited what is going to happen – then you probably have little appreciation of the complexity of e-Government. But it seems to me that software is forgotten within the discussion about e-government and this is has its cost. Academia should pay attention during research design that all the e-Government managers and activists may be knowledgeable about some aspects of change management, but do not really have a clue about the real drivers of the transformation.

An interesting article “Estonia’s digital transformation: Mission mystique and the hiding hand” by Rainer Kattel and Ines Mergel (you can find it here) was published on 27 September 2018 by the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. The article is a tribute to the success factors of Estonian e-Government. However interesting this study is, in my view it has almost complete disregard of the software engineers’ point of view. At least what I see from list of interviewed people.

Naiveté of decision-makers is a very good point. I remember it in the same way: when the whole country was not participating for quite a long time in any meaningful decision making process during the occupation, and all of a sudden we were on our own – it created an optimistic and energetic atmosphere, where people were just ready to make decisions.

However, it is not correct to point to the X-road as a significant pillar. X-road is just a technical piece of software, which is simplifying communication between two systems. But at the time when it just appeared remarkable integration already existed (long before X-road):

  • Since 1999 pension data was collected in the tax administration and sent to the National Social Insurance Board (SKA)
  • In 2000 the e-Tax system was already in place, which was integrated with banks without X-road and without ID card
  • The 2nd pillar social insurance scheme, which involves many different players (collection, central repository and funds), was working as an integrated and distributed system since the beginning of 2002
  • The tax system was integrated with the business registry, population registry and customs since 1999

There are examples where same tools (X-road-like connectivity infrastructure and mandatory ID card) have not produced good results. For instance, Armenia has a compulsory ID card, yet the use of e-services in 2015 was below 2%. Kazakhstan has an X-road-like interoperability infrastructure in place already for several years, yet in 2018 they do not have the once-only culture, as Estonia had already in the end of 90-ies.

In my view, the one extremely important pillar that was present in Estonia was a certain state of mind of many technical people, who were close enough to decision-making, had the technical skills and the “let’s do it” attitude, were able to spot opportunities for meaningful public administration improvement projects, and were able to execute those projects. It was similarly important that the decision makers were result-oriented, and it was relatively easy to mobilise resources for really valuable projects.

The second important pillar was that at the time when it was already possible to build proper information systems with self-service capabilities and once-only integration, we still had neither remarkable legacy nor the automation fatigue that the Estonian public sector has today.

The third pillar was the total lack of resources, in conjunction with very high technical skills. As such, Estonia was not interesting for arrogant unmanageable international giants (like SAP, HP, IBM etc.). Which meant that we were doing agile developing with local resources – small projects, fast delivery, and learning each step of delivery.

The fourth pillar was internet banking, in conjunction with early and wide internet penetration with relatively decent quality. This prepared the user base of the future e-Government well before there were any serious governmental e-services.

Those four pillars created a certain pattern and a culture of innovation by the end of 90-ties. And like that, in my view, are much more important aspects in the genome of our e-Government than the X-road and ID card mentioned by the honourable professor.

Disregard of the real causes of the phenomena of the really outstanding comprehensiveness of the Estonian e-Government does a disservice to understanding why others are failing as well as why we are staying. For example, criticism about the outdated legacy of the Estonian e-Government by Mrs. Kaja Kallas is fully adequate. It is not about the X-road. It is about the actual core of the e-Government. The SKAIS2 failure is one of the symptoms behind the hidden problem, which Kaja was trying to address. The problem is that the Estonian public sector has no capacity to move forward. Only Taavi Kotka did anything meaningful in the period after 2008. His e-residency initiative, which was remarkable again mainly due to his outstanding personal capacity to strategize and deliver, not due to any state policy. The state has actually abandoned the e-Government, the components of which are getting old and becoming non-reliable.

My point is that in 2004, when the deployment of X-road and ID-card was still in its infancy, the Estonian e-Government model was already in place. The later components were rolled out in the glory of the potential earned in 90-ties and the first years this century. I also want to emphasise something that Taavi Kotka has said about interoperability, namely that most things in the Estonian e-Government are not a law (do not stem from traditional policy making processes), they are a principal (sourced from peoples’ tacit knowledge and behavioural patterns).

On the other hand, I agree with the authors’ conclusion that the main source of the Estonian e-Government success is a risk-taking politician combined with a network of agile software development. But this source of success disappeared somewhere around 2005–2006. The rest was rather accidental, as usual in Estonia. However, the author’s recommendations on design principles are rather dangerous to follow and definitely wrong for many of my clients, with whom I worked during last 15 years.

There is an excellent question at the end of the article. Intuitively I feel that informal networks is the only successful driver for software-driven innovation. However, the question is so good, that it deserves a proper answer.