e-Estonia

Experiencing the most advanced digital society in the world

  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

This is the research proposal I used to apply for a Churchill Fellowship in 2018; I was one of 249 applicants shortlisted (out of a total of 1,798 applications), but was ultimately unsuccessful.

Estonia is the most advanced digital society in the world. Since the mid-’90s, the ex-Soviet republic has led the way in digital governance through its e-Estonia project. Estonians can access 99% of public services digitally and vote in elections over the Internet. The UK could learn a lot from Estonia—for example, the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy wants e-voting for all by 2020, and Estonia has been doing it since 2005. I want to find out how we can best build our own e-Britain.

Estonia claims that its e-Estonia projects have, for example, made the police 50 times more efficient and save[d] more than 800 years of working time for the state and citizens annually. E-voting is on the roadmap for the UK and the Estonian e-Residency card has been displayed by the V&A Museum as one of 100 objects shaping the future. All of these advances will take time, trial and error—errors that the Estonians have already encountered, and found solutions to. Every element of digital governance planning in the UK will be benefited by in-depth analyses of the established case studies presented by Estonia’s trailblazing. Whereas an MP can arrange for a trip to Estonia and talk to government officials, they are limited by how long they can stay there and how much they can immerse themselves in the lifestyle. I would focus on first-hand experience of the Estonian systems, the experiences and views of the Estonian people who use them every day and the security aspects, as this is my area of expertise.

I would first contact Estonian government departments in order to schedule meetings with officials and experts, along with submitting an application for e-Residency. The project would take place whenever I can arrange the most meetings, and would hopefully coincide with an election if possible. Once I had dates I’d contact my own MP and other members of government with relevant remits to introduce my project and solicit any questions they might have that I could attempt to answer whilst in Estonia. I will try to arrange to stay with Estonians rather than in hotels wherever possible in order to observe how they interact with the systems in day-to-day life and find out their thoughts on the e-Estonia project. During my time in Estonia I would use my e-Residency ID to experience as many digital services as possible first-hand and book a visit to the e-Estonia Showroom. Finally, I would get in touch with Estonian security firms and informal tech meetups to get their take on the security side of things.

My local MP is currently Shadow Minister for Youth Affairs & Voter Engagement, so many aspects of digital governance fall under her remit. I would produce a report on my project for her and other members of Parliament under whose remits digital governance falls—hopefully, I will have engaged them prior to going to Estonia and they will have contributed questions of their own for me to investigate. Through my employer, I would aim to publish a series of white papers on the cyber security aspects of Estonian digital governance and the lessons that could be learnt in the UK. I would submit evidence to any future government commissions set up to examine issues of digital governance, and may consider pursuing a Ph.D in the area. Finally, I would publish my project reports online and would happily offer to talk at conferences and meetings about the topic.

I would hope to provide policy-makers with an in-depth examination of the relative successes and failures of the Estonian digital governance project—an examination that it would not be possible for them to otherwise experience. In particular, I would focus on how the systems are actually used in practice every day by normal Estonians, rather than just how they are intended to be used. My other focus would be on the security aspects, as the UK National Cyber Security Strategy has demonstrated the depth of government concern over such risks going forward—Estonia borders Russia, with whom it has had a historically turbulent relationship, and with a threat like that on their doorstep Estonia’s discoveries regarding how to secure their digital nation will be incredibly useful to any other countries aspiring to do the same. Hopefully, my contributions would ensure the government is better-informed when the time comes to properly digitise our own nation, as it surely will.