The Freedom Monument in Riga, Latvia. Pertinent for an article on e-government?

Pointers on successful e-government

A couple of weeks ago, at the traditional ProjectiveGroup end-of-year offsite in Riga, Florian Marcus of Proud Engineers gave an interesting presentation on digitalisation in the public sector. It was mainly based on examples from Latvia’s Baltic neighbour Estonia, which is of course widely known for being a pioneer in government tech.

Three key points struck me.

First, the “only once” principle. Essentially, citizens should only have to provide information to the government once, and all related actions should flow from there. For example, if you are registering the birth of a child with the population registry, it should also trigger a notification for parental leave from the employment office and the payment of child support from social services.

All too often today, getting these in order would require going to each different department in charge. From a customer experience focus, this principle is very much in line with Steven Sinofsky’s advice not to ship your org chart. More importantly, good design in this sense also leads to less social exclusion, since the underprivileged groups in society are usually less able to navigate bureaucracies, and hence tend to miss out on benefits they are owed.

Second, behind the scenes, organisational design is key to ensure successful delivery. To avoid infighting and turf wars, the Estonian government created a CIO position that took over control of the IT budgets related to collaborative and cross-agency projects (day-to-day operations remained with individual agencies.) With this central control, the CIO was able to persuade agencies to collaborate for citizens’ benefit, and avoided IT systems being built in silos. This serves as a reminder always to be aware of the incentives your org chart and processes exhibit, either explicitly or implicitly.

Lastly, and arguably most importantly, the Estonian government addressed well-founded concerns about privacy through transparency. The government portal for citizens shows when and why the government has accessed your data, in a detailed audit trail going back years.

Combined with an extensive and sustained information campaign, especially in the beginning, this approach seems to have won over most Estonian citizens. It’s all the more fascinating given that Estonia only won back independence from the Soviet Union some thirty years ago. Distrust of the government before then understandably would have been deep seated, and the institutional memory of it probably remains to this day.

There were many other interesting points in the story, and Florian delivers it in an engaging way, so if you have 15 minutes to spare, I encourage you to watch this TEDxTartu talk, which covers much the same material.