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President of the Republic at the Tallinn e-Governance Conference 2017

President of the Republic at the Tallinn e-Governance Conference 2017 © Raul Mee (Tallinn e-Governance Conference 2017)

30.05.2017

Excellencies, dear participants of the Tallinn e-Governance Conference 2017!

It is my honour and a great pleasure to welcome you in Estonia. As you can see Estonia is real, not only a virtual state – the image which may occasionally emerge from news and articles about e-Estonia. The fact that so many of you have travelled long distances from so many different continents to be with us today, already demonstrates how keen you are to harness the power of technology for better governance and a better life for your people. It is our devotion to work together, keeping in mind the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030 – an ambitious agenda for all Governments to improve the lives of people everywhere.

A quarter of a century ago when Estonia restored its independent statehood we were a poor country. The crucial question stood in front of us – how to overcome the legacy left to us by the Soviet occupation? Our response was – we need to build up a modern, efficient and democratic state. The radical reforms were carried out in all walks of life. The forward looking idea was to harness the innovative potential of Information and Communication technology (ICT). Neither we nor anyone else knew 20 years ago, how important Internet and ICT would become and what role it would play in the organization of state and society.

The choice we made in favour of technology, was not an easy one. The decision to invest the scarce resources of a newly restored independent state not into repairing potholes in roads or crumbling school-buildings, but into equipping those school-buildings with computers and an Internet connection. In hindsight we can agree that the "Tigerleap" programme, as it was called, gave the entire Estonian society the momentum to make a digital leap into the future. Schoolchildren, having become computer literate, brought their newly acquired skills home and also "infected" their parents (and grandparents) with the digital "bug". Priorities changed for families – instead of a new refrigerator, it was often decided to rather invest into a computer and an Internet connection.

Resulting from that digital leap (of faith), fast changes have shifted the fundamentals of our society in many spheres of public life – in business, in governance and also in the very way members of our society lead their lives. Today in Estonia we talk about e-governance and e-state, but what is much more important is that we are a digital society. A society where technology is thoroughly interwoven into the fabric of everyday life. We have e-school, e-health, e-voting, even e-police.

It is indeed true that in Estonia, we are born e-citizens. A new-born baby's data is entered into the Population Registry equipping him/her with a digital identity, the integrity and security of which is guaranteed by the state. Actually, it is an automatic process – while a doctor in hospital enters data about the baby into registry, a digital identity is generated automatically. Parents can now tag to this identity the name – of course from their laptop, if they so wish, using their own ID-cards, not going to any office. No young parent wants to spend time in boring public office, they want to spend time with their child.

When kids grow up, they start exercising their own right to be a digital citizen. For example, this year the right to vote at local elections is also given to 16-year-olds. These young people will be able to cast their ballots via the e-voting platform, without having to leave their beloved digital environment.

As during the transformation years, Estonia always felt the support of our international partners, we now feel particularly proud to be able to give something back to international community. What Estonia can offer to the world today is our experience about how a digital society works and how governance needs to change to meet the demands and expectations of e-citizens. E-governance is not so much about technology. It is rather about using technology to bring a change in governance, making governance more transparent, citizen-centred and less corrupt. Connected databases make it impossible to present alternative versions of yourself to different parts of government – both for private personas and business entities.

As the World Bank's last year's report "Digital Dividends" demonstrated, the countries to gain most from this digital revolution are those where technology goes hand-in-hand with relevant changes in the so-called analogue sphere – the legal system, economy and developing the skills of people. Added value that digital technologies provide is more transparent business environment and more accountable government.

The digital society enables above all the free and free thinking citizens. Their interactions with state become effortless. For citizens, being the centre of the system does not only mean high quality public services. It also means having more opportunities to effectively have their say in politics. Not only on social media platforms or street demonstrations, but also by engaging the citizens in a meaningful dialogue with the Government permanently. This is Open Government of the 21st Century we need – a culture of governance where the power holders and citizens are de facto partners, sharing a responsibility for the future of their country.

An e-state in its complexity cannot be directly imported from one state to another – each nation must build their own. After all, a State is also a tradition, and new technologies must embrace that, not replace. However, what can be transferred though, is knowledge and experience how to build up well-functioning e-government systems. Knowledge transfer as the main subject of our conference, is a key.

I'm proud that Estonia has chosen the furthering of good governance via ICT as one of the key priorities of our country's international development cooperation activities. Smart and knowledgeable use of ICT is an efficient tool for bringing about fundamental changes in governance. The benefit to government institutions, businesses and citizens from e-services offered by government and also private businesses far outweighs the cost of investment made to create and maintain these e-services. We have been able to offer more efficient public services, and the efficiency gains from digital signature are estimated to be as much as 2% of GDP per year. These two percent benefit most of all simple people and SMEs, as neither has the capacity to handle big bureaucracy.

As it currently stands, the Estonian development cooperation portfolio, which is managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, holds 38 active projects aimed at implementing ICT solutions to governance. Many of these projects are financed jointly by Estonia and other donor countries or organisations. Estonian experience has thus reached countries like Moldova, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Tanzania, Mauritius, Kenya, Angola, Palestinian Authority and many more. We also cooperate with the funds and programmes of the United Nations. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank our international partners for their substantive and impactful cooperation. Many of the projects are implemented by the e-Governance Academy, a professional centre of excellence, which is a good example of a well-functioning Public-Private Partnership.

Each passing day convinces us more of the fact that people really like to use digital applications. A smartphone has become a household item used for business or pleasure in almost all countries of the world. Including those countries, where cable-based Internet connections are still a luxury. In such a world it is increasingly difficult to convince citizens who are used to modern technology that a document would need to grow a pair of legs to travel from one government official to another or explain why a citizen would need to queue in long lines in some government office in order to acquire a permit or an approval. E-state and e-governance are no longer an expression of exceptional goodwill from the government towards the citizens. It has become a vitally needed commodity of a global information society.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In exactly one month from now and for the first time in history, Estonia will hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. We accept this role with full responsibility, because a strong and developing European Union is Estonia's goal as well. We will do what other EU member states as well as the EU as a whole expect of us and what we ourselves keenly wish to contribute towards – an ever growing digital capability of the European Union.

Among Estonia's priorities for our presidency are cross border e-services, security and trust in digital services. Estonia also wishes to use its upcoming EU presidency to enhance the capacity of the EU to support the digital development in the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) and in other partner countries. The conference which begins today offers a great opportunity to brainstorm how to do it in the best possible way.

Dear fellow-citizens,

the digital disruption changes societies at least as much as industrialisation did, probably more. So, we need to develop our capacity to foresee and to be prepared for this fundamental change. I am convinced that these future trends will pose a challenge to our current understanding about work and welfare but also about global security.

Cyber-attacks which have recently taken place in many corners of the world, challenge us to strengthen international cooperation in stopping and catching cyber criminals. The field of cyber security is particularly well known in Estonia, as our country was a target of cyber-attacks a decade ago. For this reason, Estonia has prioritised cyber security on the international level for a long time and it is our continued concern now as we aspire towards becoming a member of the UN Security Council for the years 2020-2021. But cyber risks must not mean the withdrawal of governments and honest citizens from cybersphere. Quite to the contrary, it is our obligation to use technology for good causes and thus build the trust of citizens into it.

To conclude, I would like to express my sincere thanks to the organisers of this conference – to the e-Governance Academy as our host and also to the ACP secretariat and the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for supporting the event with your advice as well as your financial resources. Looking around, I can say that the effort has already paid off, as there are delegates from more than 100 countries present.

I wish you fruitful discussions and a pleasant stay in Estonia!