From Soviet-era rotary phones to public services run on artificial intelligence, Estonia has pioneered digital government. But an architect of its transformation says success depends on “analogue factors, not digital”

Not high-tech, just tech savvy


As the Berlin Wall fell, Linnar Viik was a student travelling in Europe. In Dresden, he witnessed crowds gather in the central square; one crowd in one corner, in favour of a united Germany, the other opposite, in favour of remaining part of the Soviet Bloc. After 90 minutes, they would dis- perse, and then reconvene at the same time the following day. In Prague, he found, it was very dif- ferent; intellectuals would gather in studios to debate the seismic political shift. Culture matters, said Viik,

when countries are going through change. Viik is from Estonia and in Tallinn, its capital, those involved in re-establishing their country as an indepen- dent nation came from a variety of backgrounds, including the sciences. But, fortuitously, he added - only half joking - “not so many lawyers.” When the newly installed prime minister went to his office, after giving his oath to parliament, he was confronted by a desk with a row of rotary telephones. “Why so many,” he asked, “and if the red one rings, who will it be?” “We don’t know,” came the reply, “better answer it so we can find out.”

Te early days of trying to

build a digital society were not easy; metaphorically and physically. Estonia’s communica- tions network was a traditional tangle of copper wire, linking the military police to the KGB and, somewhere in between, the trade unions. At a meeting with IBM to discuss new infrastruc- ture, they were congratulated on their new-found independence and asked: “What’s your IT budget?” It was $1.3m. “For that, you can look at our mainframe,” Viik recalls them saying. “For ten times that, you can touch it; for 100 times, we can talk business.”

So, Estonia built from scratch, using whatever technologies were easily available and afford- able. “We didn’t know we were doing anything different,” said Viik, “we were so busy building basic public services.” While government services were being established online, Estonia’s gov- ernment was still paper-based. Viik commandeered the remain- ing photo-copying budget and built an IT system for cabinet decision-making. “Te greatest achievement was

not saving money,” he said, “it was creating transparency. Te public could see online before-


hand what was to be discussed by the cabinet, with all the background papers, and know decisions seconds after they had been taken. It was building another bridge between govern- ment and society.” Te digital cabinet progressed

to laptops, then to tablets, and now today it is a ‘bring-your- own-device’ cabinet. “It takes time,” said Viik, co-founder of the e-Governance Academy in Tallinn, “sometimes five or 10 years for digital innovations to become norms. Spending has remained steady, no peaks or troughs. None of the projects have been a success from day one. It can take two or three iterations.” Next month, Estonia is host-

ing the fifth e-Governance Conference. Its strapline: ‘Same goals, different roadmaps’. “Te conference has become a bit of a religious pilgrimage,” said Viik, “governments and countries who are converted to a belief in the power of e-government gather- ing on an annual basis. We have found that while their goals are similar – for IT to amplify en- trepreneurship, the knowledge of their people, the efficiency of government – their roadmaps are very different.

Linnar Viik: “Nations need to find their own roadmaps”

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