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PoliticsNovember 21, 2015

Politics: Cyberguvnors – Peter Dunne Goes Digital in Tallinn


A dispatch from Estonia, where the five leading countries in terms of online government are deep in digital conversation.

The second D5 Summit is being held this week in Tallinn, Estonia. At first glance, it may appear an unlikely venue. After all, Tallinn is one of the oldest cities in the world, with the first traces of civilisation in the area dating back nearly 5,000 years, and the city itself being over 850 years old. Much of its old Medieval old town centre remains in place today. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, a dramatic revolution has taken place in Estonia, and today it is recognised as the most digitally advanced state in the world, because of a dramatic partnership between the government and the private sector to build a new future for the country after Communism.

Tallinn city centre. Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

It can boast some mighty impressive results. Estonia was the first country in the world to introduce internet voting in 2005; and today, 99% of all bank transactions are online; 95% of tax returns are filed on line, and 98% of all medicines are prescribed electronically. While Estonia has the world’s most advanced electronic personal identification system, the intrusive aspects of that are balanced by strong citizens’ rights to see who has been accessing their personal data, and to take action against the individuals, government agencies or businesses involved, if they consider the access to have been inappropriate.

The D5 (comprising Britain, New Zealand, Estonia, South Korea and Israel – the five leading countries in terms of online government services) was formed last year to promote digital government and greater co-operation between governments in providing services digitally. The drivers for digitisation were different in the other countries. In both South Korea and Israel national security has been the obvious focus. In the case of Britain and New Zealand,  delivering public services more conveniently and at a time of people’s choosing has been the dominant influence.

The D5’s focus is not on global security, but on the delivery of joined-up government services services online. In short, the D5 looks to the positive use of cyberspace to facilitate governments’ interactions with their own citizens, and with other governments. (The recent agreement that Australia’s Justice Minister and I announced about sharing cyber data to prevent identity theft is a good example of the type of inter-governmental co-operation we envisage.)

In my bilateral discussions with other members a clear theme has already emerged. How can we ensure the benefits of online government are delivered to our citizens, without compromising their personal personal privacy, and how do we ensure that greater information sharing between government and private agencies does not lead to the data being shared being used by governments in particular for purposes other than which it has been collected? While no-one is talking specifically about national security, it is very clear that this is real issue in many countries.

The D5’s solution is likely to revolve around greater co-operation between the member governments; not only more sharing of general information about the innovations each is making, but also what common projects, performance standards, and industry development opportunity our partnership might lead to.

Britain and New Zealand are working on a joint project to give New Zealand businesses greater access to Britain’s digital hub, for example, and Britain and Estonia are involved in a joint venture to create and support public private partnerships in digital government issues between those two countries. Over the next few years, the expectation is that these types of working relationships will become more commonplace between the member nations, leading in time to an expansion of the D5 to involve more digitally advanced countries.

Smart governments, smart businesses working together to make smart countries can have a profound positive impact on the quality of people’s lives, as well as the efficiency of those states improves.  As an Estonian Minister said to me, more digital societies can give people back more than a week of their time every year that they currently spend dealing with the system. More time for people to live their lives the way they want to.

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