Digital DNA – it ain't what you do but the way that you do it

Estonian's digital experience means citizens should only have to communicate information to the state once
Owen Lamont

LAST June last year the small nation of Estonia, home to 1.3 million people, received minor notoriety when former Florida Governor and Republican Primary Candidate Jeb Bush made an off-the-cuff remark about how Estonians could file their taxes in five minutes.

Americans spend days filing their tax returns and anyone in the UK undertaking tax self-assessment will be lucky to complete it in one sitting. So, intrigued by this claim, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact website did some digging.

It turns out that Bush's claims were wide of the mark. Two minutes was closer to the truth, Estonians claimed.

The Estonian model is famous for its benefits to citizens, but is based on clear principles that determine how government runs itself as well. Digital is in its DNA.

With this in mind, Simon Hamilton entered into a partnership with Estonia in 2015 to draw on the expertise of the ‘Digital Five', which includes the UK government.

The resultant '16 by 16' strategy aims to put 16 government services online by 2016. Already running is the Landlord Registration Service from DSD, with the ability to register for fishing permits and licences (from DCAL) among the services that will be available to the public this year.

Progress is welcome but government in Northern Ireland still has a long way to go to meet its digital potential. To do so we must embrace both digital infrastructure and digital workplace structures.

While Estonia offers a decentralised approach to digital services, there are two elements that provide interconnectivity – X-Road, combining the databases on which government agencies rely, and e-ID, a system for verifying identity.

The Northern Ireland Civil Service employs a document repository system which stores data pulled from across Stormont departments into a single bank of data.

However, digital services which lack proper integration leave the impression of a fragmented state. This is quite the opposite to the Estonian experience, where trust in government is high and the ethos, recently adopted by HMRC, is that citizens should only have to communicate information once. The lack of national ID system, deemed unpalatable by politicians presents problems, however alternative biometric systems that help large organisations verify the identity of their customers are already in existence, presenting a viable alternative.

Systems aside, a key challenge for state infrastructure everywhere when it comes to digitalisation, is creating open, dynamic and flexible structures in a traditionally hierarchical sector.

In the days before the digital economy it was the case that organisations were focussed on the processes that built their outcomes, rather than the outcomes themselves. The rapid rate of technological change however, means that structures need to become looser, more based on trust, and less process obsessed, if the central role of technology is to bear fruit.

With this comes a skills challenge however – if technology is everyone's job, rather than that of a central digital team then an organisation needs to plan out what talent it needs to be looking for.

Estonia has digital structure boxed off. With few natural resources and a small population the decision was made following independence from the USSR to focus on IT. With so much of their economy dependent on technology, they have a rich talent pool. Their ‘public service' is simple and three-tiered. Applicants can enter at any level.

Crucial to our success as a digital nation will be aligning skills, culture and technology in government. DNA is the building block of life, and our digital life will be cut short without this being taken seriously.

:: Owen Lamont is managing director of Equiniti, which provides smart technology solutions


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