During the opening ceremony of the 5th International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance in his keynote lecture, President Ilves in his keynote lecture, referred to the “twentieth anniversary of Estonian independence version 2.0” by addressing the fundamental question of “how sustainable in the globalized world a small country of 1.4 million could be”. To answer this question, Estonia has chosen to “increase its functional size far beyond its mere numerical size through computerization and automation”, with “information technology and its use by the state and its government” leading to “one of the most successful modernization efforts in the past quarter century”.
This effort was based on the principle of inclusiveness where “not only young people, through school computerization” but also “older people and those in the rural areas” were educated to become computer-literate, with the understanding that “e-government is not about filling the same old forms and questionnaires online, but rather achieving the goals of administration and services in the most intelligent and citizen-friendly ways using the opportunities offered by information technology”. Estonia has pursued such goals by offering a variety of electronic services, from prefilled tax returns, through e-policing and e-voting services, to “one-stop access portal to hundreds of services offered by various government institutions”, based on the legal framework, technical infrastructure, and education programs for citizens to make informed choices and discharge new responsibilities online. One such area of responsibility is the “ownership of one’s own medical data” which through e-health is already “transforming patient-doctor relationships”, towards sustainable provision of health services, particularly in the rapidly ageing European societies.
Subsequently, President Ilves addressed in his lecture the issues of transparency, trust, security, and changing relationships between the public and private sectors:
1. By “opening governance processes to inspection though e-tenders and publication of expenses and incomes online” and “eliminating the nodes of opaque, discretionary and arbitrary decision-making”, information technology has a “cleansing effect on the operations of government and the public sector in general”. According to President Ilves, “consistent ranking of Estonia as the least corrupt among once communist countries is directly the result of this information technology-based transparency”.
2. An issue of major public concern is the “big brother fear, following George Orwell’s 1984 metaphor of a computer where all your information is stored, the computer knows all about you and can use this information at will”. To address this fear and build trust in electronic services, citizens must “legally own their own data” and government must “make sure that any unauthorized access to such data – who, when and where, is recorded”.
3. Another issue of concern, particularly for Estonia which experienced a massive denial-of-service attack on its cyber-infrastructure in 2007, is cyber-security - “the more we rely on information technology in our daily lives and to run government operations, the more vulnerable we are”. This is an area where the public and private sector vulnerabilities are intertwined, as the attacks are produced by “public-private partnerships”, including attacks on the national economies through piracy; “the latter can see years of research and development investment by companies” as well as “expected state revenues from taxes”, “stolen in a matter of microseconds”.
4. In view of the security and piracy challenges, the legal and technical “firewalls built between public and private sectors”, particularly in the countries with high transparency indices, and the corresponding public-private sector relationships, must be reconsidered. “No such separation exists in many regimes that initiate such attacks – one serves the other.” However, closer public-private relationships require both flexibility to be able to address attacks, and precise rules of engagement to address the risk of corruption. Another problem is that “the state cannot afford the best and the brightest to develop cyber defense solutions”. Estonia addressed this challenge by recruiting those with “high-paying day jobs in IT departments in companies and banks” and “who find it cool to volunteer for their country” to the “cyber national guard”.
In the closing, President Ilves expressed that “We are e-believers. We are proud to be pioneers in e-government and convinced that a public sector information technology approach that is citizen-centered, secure and transparent is the future of all good governance in the 21st century”.
The full lecture by President Toomas Hendrik Ilves is available here