Tiny Estonia sets pace in e-government

To wander the medieval streets of Tallinn, capital of the tiny Baltic country of Estonia, is to take a trip back several centuries. But hidden among the Old Town's fairytale Gothic spires is an experiment in 21st century government.

          To wander the medieval streets of Tallinn, capital of the tiny Baltic country of Estonia, is to take a trip back several centuries. But hidden among the Old Town's fairytale Gothic spires is an experiment in 21st century government.

          Linnar Viik, IT adviser to the country's prime minister, leads the way through elegant government offices, to a spanking new Cabinet meeting room. At each seat is a sleek NEC flat-screen monitor and a mouse. That's it. No lawbooks, no notepads, not even a pen. We're standing at the epicenter of the world's first paper-free government.

          "We are not so much anti-paper as pro-quality information," says Viik. The government asked a coalition of local software developers to create the web-based Government Electronic Information System. It took about three months over the past summer to complete.

          All government business is carried out via a secure HTTPS server. Cabinet ministers read proposed laws, make comments and suggestions, and carry out votes, entirely online. Real Audio broadcasts and full-text transcripts of Parliament sessions are posted immediately. Everything -- with the exception of certain classified agenda items -- is accessible by ordinary citizens.

          "The result is more transparency, better access to information used for decision making, and efficiency of decision making," says Viik.

          What's more, it's effectively free. The system is expected to pay for itself in savings on paper and printing costs in 14 months.

          The leaders of this country of 1.4 million, barely a decade after independence from the crumbling Soviet Union, have vowed to turn Estonia into a model of advanced technology use. Viik puts down the remarkable progress made so far in part to a "latecomer's advantage."

          "What good timing it was to get independence at the beginning of the 1990s," he says, "If we'd gotten independence in the 1970s, with an industrial economy and a mainframe IT environment, we'd be a very different country today."

          Estonia boasts 214 internet connections per 10,000 inhabitants -- ahead of Germany, and just slightly behind the UK. The government is setting up free public web access points around the country. Online banking has already proven wildly popular -- 90% of domestic payments are now made electronically.

          "Estonia is a small country, people are fairly flexible and easy, fast learners," says Tiit Pekk, head of e-commerce for Hansabank, the country's leading bank. "People don't have much money to buy computers, but they do have them at work -- and employers have not been so strict to ban private internet use at the office."

          A big spur to Estonia's progress, of course, is its proximity to, and cultural links with, the technologically advanced Nordic countries. Helsinki is just a 1-1/2 hour ferry ride away. Several Finnish and Swedish companies have found Estonia, with its small and tech-savvy population, an ideal test market for products which are later launched in larger countries.

          The same could eventually prove true of the e-government experiment. A number of foreign delegations, including officials from Greece, the Netherlands, and the European Commission, have toured the facility, says Viik.

          "They've been hearing a lot about e-government, and seeing Powerpoint presentations from companies about the future -- but those are just pictograms. This is the first time they can come and see it. There's nothing like it anywhere."

          Even UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's much-ballyhooed open.gov.uk project is far behind fleet-of-foot Estonia, he notes wryly. "The Estonian bureaucrat is often a young, educated, modern-minded person who doesn't have any historic traditions to carry on. I think Tony will have a hard time turning around his civil servants."

          The Estonian government Web site is at http://www.riik.ee/.

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