If you want a digital government, you need a single identity

Estonia’s former digital minister says too many competing systems hold UK back


Governments wishing to con- sider themselves “truly digital” need to underpin public services with a single digital identity, according to Estonia’s former IT minister. Kaimar Karu, who served as

his country’s foreign trade and information technology minister, said using multiple digital ac- counts “doesn’t work”, and that competing interests within gov- ernments are holding countries like the UK back. He said also that “fear-mon-

gering” over state snooping is another reason why efforts to create identity-based systems in places like the UK – and also in Germany where assigning numbers to citizens raises un- comfortable historical concerns – means that policy-makers have been unable to make progress on designing fit for purpose, modern technology-led public services. He said it has held back

progress on programmes which could be of massive benefit to citizens during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as e-voting; in Estonia, 46.9 per cent of the population used digital voting in 2019, which has risen from 5.5 per cent in 2007. Karu said: “Te basis for our

e-voting, or why it even works for us, is the national digital identity. Every citizen in Estonia has a digital identity which is secure; we still have physical ID cards but for many services we don’t need to use the physical card anymore. “Voting still requires you to

use ID cards in your computer for security but that will change; the reason why it works for us is that we have this national infra- structure and digital identities. Of course, people have multiple digital identities for different services but when you interact with government services there is only one.”

Karu recognises that the context for Estonia – rated “the most advanced digital society in the world” by Wired – is different. It gained its independence from Soviet Russia in 1989 and ever since has had a largely blank canvass from which to build its government services. “Being a smaller nation at the

mercy of a larger nation for cen- turies, we tend to over-achieve

when it’s possible, so in the case of Estonia when we created the digital identity and the infrastruc- ture for that we didn’t do some- thing which was ‘good enough’, we tried to create something that was best in the world, and it’s still the best in the world,” adds Karu. Estonia – where 99 per cent of

government services are online – has 2,600 services that can be accessed via its X-road digital infrastructure, which requires one log-in and authentication process. Te X-road code is open source, but Karu believes that the reason many don’t copy it explicitly is because of the dif- ferent cultural contexts, govern- ment structures and attitudes that

prevail in other countries. He says: “It doesn’t work.

Te infrastructure is different, people’s trust in government is different, habits with govern- ment are different. We were lucky in many ways - we had the brains, willpower and we had a very favourable context at that time for this to emerge. Various things aligned to make things work and we have been able to keep it working, in spite of the criticism.” “And also trust in government

is quite high in Estonia, and although speculation and fear- mongering is growing globally, we have managed to retain that trust in our digital systems.” l


Estonia’s former IT minister Kaimar Karu

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