An Overview of Estonian E‑Government Development and Projects

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Ingrid Pappel, PhD Conductor of the document 

Evelin Vanker, MSc Technical Writer

(Tallinn University of Technology)


eGov strategic documents and legal regulations

The public sector active role in the procurement and uptake of innovative solutions has been the fundamental accelerators for the development of Estonian information society and e­­‑governance so far. Important part in these regards have also played the investments to a new technologies by banks and telecommunication sector enterprises, as well as the overall readiness of the citizens to implement the innovation to their everyday lives and the tailored legal framework to support the advancements of the e-governance.

Before proceeding to describe the developments of the e-society era, it is essential to define two similarly used terms – “e‑government” and “e‑governance”. The e‑government denotes bidirectional relationships between the government on the one hand, and citizens, businesses, and civil society organisations (SCO) on the other (Gil-Garcia, 20051; Fountain, 20012). This approach contains the e-governance as e-government where the governance is extended by the engagement and participation of citizens and SCOs. Latter could be seen and defined as an evolutionary process.

The foundation of any e-governance initiative presupposes the existence of a sufficient governance structure that operates within a transparent legal and policy framework. The government entity has policies, processes, and procedures, which enable electronic governance to take place – all supported by laws which should be transparent to the citizen.

Although e-governance involves many different areas, such as the e-democracy, human rights (freedom of speech, freedom of information and knowledge) and e-commerce building opportunities for the private sector, the focus of e‑governance should be on the process of automatizing the delivery of efficient and effective government services to the citizens. Beyond the uptake of innovative tools and technologies3, various legal acts have influenced the digitalization of data and processes to enable the development of e-government.

The development of e-government and information and communication technologies in general was moulded by a number of laws. Firstly, was the law of private data protection in 1996; secondly, the law of databases in 1997; thirdly, the foundations of informatics in 1996; fourthly, the law of identification documents and digital signature in 2000; and fifthly, the foundations of information politics in 1998.4 The importance of technology legislation has been important success factor in Estonia. Also main acts, which have influenced the development of e-governance, are as follows:

  • Digital Signatures Act5
  • Public Information Act6
  • Personal Data Protection Act7
  • Uniform Bases for Document Management Procedures8
  • Archives Act9

Estonia as a “prototype country” for e-governance

The Government Office is a government institution established at the Government of the Republic and its function is to support the Government of the Republic and the Prime Minister in planning and implementing policy and ensuring good governance.

Estonian Information System Authority (EISA) who is operating under the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, administrates e-government solutions, its development and maintenance. While the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications is responsible for the elaboration and implementation of 12 different strategic documents that are shaping the development of Estonia, EISA is coordinating the development and administration of the national information system, to help the state provide the best possible services to citizens

Estonia as a key contributor of the development of information technology and e-services, could be used as a great example as the country has been recognised in Europe for their digital management and e-governance. Among other awards, the country won the European e-governance best practice project title10 for its transition into paperless records management in 2009.

Figure 1 describes the main enablers in the process of developing Estonian e‑government platform:

  • Strong Digital Identity (ID-card) ;
  • Digitalized Information Systems & Databases;
  • The X-Road to provide a data exchange layer.


Figure 1. The visual concept of an e-society by e-Governance Academy

There are many models developed for implementing e-government in Estonia. One of them has been named as e-Government Model (eGM)11. It represents a holistic and generic multi-discipline approach to study and illustrate the issues, which are considered important for e-Government development, adoption and large-scale breakthrough.

The key background principle is the emerging new paradigm. It leads to a flexible knowledge, resource and assets sharing business environment that is ICT-enabled and based on well-defined interfaces and virtualization of infrastructures.

Latter will be powered by eGM model, which supports a promotion of:

  • collaborative mind-set;
  • role of standards;
  • regulations and contracts;
  • measures to strengthen a trust and confidence;
  • and measures of alignment.

As mentioned before, the two key ingredients in the infrastructure of e‑governance are the X-Road (Figure 2) and digital­‑ID (Figure 3). The X-Road data exchange layer is a critical tool that connects all the decentralized components of the different systems together.


Figure 2 Estonian X-Road platform by Estonian Information System´s Authority


Figure 3 Estonian digital identity card

To make the eGM model work efficiently and effectively there is a significant focus on increasing the interoperability of state information systems in Estonia. Valner presents the latest basic concept in 201412. Based on the information provided in Figure 4 below, each public sector institution maintains their data repository (level one). Data repositories are usually databases that contain different datasets within the organisation’s infrastructure.


Figure 4 Conceptual interoperability between systems (Valner, 2014)

Therefore, the interoperability between different systems is a critical success factor for e-governance13.

Environment for implementing the e-government

It’s the environment that allows the nation’s various e-services databases, both in the public and private sector, to link up and operate in harmony no matter what platform they use. Digital ID is the nationally standardized system for verifying a person’s identity in an online environment.

The development and use of e-services requires access to the Internet. In principle, the Internet is accessible nearly everywhere in Estonia — in 2011, fixed broadband coverage in Estonia was 93.9%14. The construction of the Estonian Broadband Infrastructure Network (EstWIN) in recent years has made also fast broadband available in many regions where it was absent until then. In addition, these investments ensure necessary conditions for future applications, which will require huge data volumes, such as telemedicine or real-time virtual learning.

Good Internet coverage boosts also the usage of it. In 2013, the Internet was used by 80% of individuals aged 16 to 74 years. Nearly 100% of young people use it and the number of users is growing steadily also among older generations. While in 2007 the Internet was used by 32% of individuals aged 55 to 64 years, in 2013 the share of Internet users in this age group was 63%15. This means that the majority of Estonians are motivated to use the Internet (i.e. the volume of interesting and useful content is sufficient) and have necessary skills for that. Moreover, good example of using Internet to manage their citizen’s responsibilities is the annual tax declaration. 95% of Estonian residents file their tax returns through the Internet and 90% of the working age population use Internet for bank transactions.16

Links to strategic documents available online

The backbone for further development of e‑Gov is the “Development Program for Estonian Information Society 2020”17 and “Digital Agenda for Estonia 2020”18. The program emphasises the need of working out principles and collaboration models for developing integrated cross-domain solutions of e-Governance, as well as the necessity to analyse and propose changes in the related legislation and work processes. Moreover, the program underlines the importance of big data and advanced data analytics, both of which are covered by the proposed research project. Though latter document does not cover the use of ICT in various areas of life and policy, such as ICT in health care or business. The focus for the future will instead be on creating an environment that facilitates the use of ICT and the development of smart solutions in Estonia in general. The ultimate goal, as stated in the document, is to increase the economic competitiveness, the well-being of people and the efficiency of public administration

Already in 2006 the “Estonian Information Society Strategy 2013”19 determined electronic, service-based, and user-centred objectives. The next Estonian Information Society Strategy20 addresses the same aspects by adding a more service-oriented and citizen-centric approach. It places the citizen in the centre of the service provision process and concentrates more on interoperability between different services. The public, private, and third sector must be able to act in the same secure electronic services environment in which access is made available to all groups of the society, including handicapped people. In addition to a technological (IT) environment, the necessary knowledge and skills must be guaranteed in order to meet the needs of the information society. Last but not least, the information society program prescribes composing inter-disciplinary research works in information society, such as the ones resulting from the proposed research project.

The problems related to Estonian public sector have been reflected in different documents, such as the Annual Report No. OSV-2-6/06/85 “State support for developing information society for local governments” (RISO, 2006)21, the policy analysis by PRAXIS “How to develop local public services in cooperation with local governments and non-profit associations?” (Praxis, 2009)22, and “Overview of the operation of public sector to enhance working with digital documents” (RIA, 2011)23 among others.

Links to the strategic documents and development plans

Needs, requirements, goals and challenges

Historically a state is organized according to management domains so that each ministry or governmental agency is responsible for its own domain. This organization is reflected by e-Governance services provided by IS centred on various management domains. As a result of ICT development in the last decade, the current approach to e-Governance services by management domains does not suffice anymore and a leap in quality would be required, enabling to better utilize the capabilities of ICT. To achieve a new quality, goals and processes for e-Governance should be defined, considering possible developments in governance and regulation during the next two decades. A method for top-down developing of e-Governance services should be more flexible, where e-Governance services directly support state-level cross-domain processes. This approach for e-Governance services across several domains is achievable which allows achieving a qualitative leap in e-Governance. The relating risks and deficiencies can be determined in that process in order to develop proper solutions for different service consumption.

Generally, governance denotes a set of rules for carrying out processes and decisions through the use of laws, norms, power, language, etc., in order to define actions, grant power and verify performance (Bevir, 2013)24. Governance is perceived as a means of controlling people and their behaviour.

The availability of Internet in the 1990s started a transformation of transactions, first in the private and then in the public sector. This transition included challenging patterns, such as the democratic process including the exchange between politicians and citizens, as well as transparency and accountability requirements, which have led to new forms of interactions not deemed possible before. The transformation of the public sector leads to new forms of interactions between its stakeholders – governmental organisations, citizens, businesses, and NGOs – particularly in two areas25:

  • Participation: e-Governance helps to overcome the divide between the politicians and citizens through new forms of communication and decision-making;
  • Transparency and accountability: e-Governance allows for easier access of the public to data that in turn leads to new forms of applications and an expectation of a new increased level of transparency and accountability.

As the concept of e-Governance as such has now reached certain maturity, it is possible to develop optimal total solutions, with the necessary analytical and conceptual basis but also with the needed flexibility to be sustainable in a fast-developing context.

Although, there are many achievements done so far lack in research regarding participatory democracy in decision-making processes, and overcoming the centralization and de-centralization aspects of the governance in public sector, needs further assessment and advancements as it contributes to:

  • Increase of the officials’ awareness by providing a common ground for understanding the benefits of e‑governance;
  • Development of unified descriptions of workflows, processes and list of documents that helps to adapt the functions of the software (pre-described environment)
  • Commonly agreed list of procedures to help smoother implementation of different e-governance solutions

As stated previously, the ICT-enabled economic opportunities, advancing the information society, have not been systematically studied and therefore also used insufficiently to make policy-making smarter. Inadequacy of information society statistics is a factor making knowledge-based policy formulation difficult both for the public and private sector26.

Moreover, ICT related challenges in the public sector in the coming decade will be influenced by other factors like open, inclusive and cooperative provision of services, commoditisation of ICT. The following means that new ICT solutions are first used by consumers and after that by companies and the public sector, focusing on employees, information continuum and the combining of different devices and data sources. Another important factor to be brought out here is the spread of voluntarism. This is expressed, for example, in the increasing willingness of people to have a say in societal affairs and to participate in or even initiate the co-production of services.

Main current and future trends rely on:

  • digitization of processes and interoperability of back-end systems;
  • take-up of electronic identification;
  • personalization of services;
  • use of social media;
  • open data and open platforms;
  • using the opportunities of cloud computing.

Actions to be taken

Societal change depends heavily on the human factor. The different steps of the implementation are strongly associated with various factors such as the software, the partner chosen, the culture of the local government, the financial situation. In order to facilitate and encourage innovative development, education and research should be considered as an important part. Often the reasons for inefficient application of the new systems and failures relate to decentralised and not commonly fixed implementation rules27. Most important actions in order to move into digital society are brought out in Digital agenda 2020 and most prioritised directions should be stressed out here as follows28:

  • Completion of the next generation broadband network. To date, the construction of about one third of the total 6,500 km fibre-optical cable network has been finished. By 2020, the development of the network will be fully completed. This means that all residents of Estonia will have access to fast (30 Mbit/s or faster) Internet with at least 60% of households will be using ultrafast (100 Mbit/s or faster) Internet daily.
  • In the future, e-services will be increasingly cross-border. To support this, it would be practical for countries to join forces and not develop necessary basic service infrastructure on their own. Therefore, Estonia will initiate the creation of a Nordic Digital Infrastructure Institute — an international development centre for the joint development of X-Road, e-identity, digital signature and other components of the basic service infrastructure.
  • 20% of the active population of the European Union (EU) should be using digital signature by 2020 to expedite business operations and facilitate management of personal matters. The take-up of digital signatures in the EU will be one of the primary goals of Estonia’s foreign policy in the field of ICT and one of the priorities of Estonia’s EU presidency in 2018.
  • In the context of growing data volumes and widespread cross-usage of data, greater control over the use of their personal data will help people cope with certain loss of privacy. Both technological and organisational conditions will be developed to ensure that people would always know and be able to decide, who, when and for what purpose is using their personal data in the public sector.
  • Technology, user habits and legislation are in a constant state of change. Therefore, ability to anticipate these changes and flexibility to adapt to these will become increasingly vital. Flexibility, however, means that we cannot get stuck to obsolete technologies. The experience of many countries shows that unless information systems are constantly redesigned, their administration costs will soar and the created “spaghetti architecture” will become impossible to untangle. To avoid getting stuck to old technology, a reform of public e-services and the supporting ICT solutions will be carried out. Estonian public services must be up-to-date with emerging technical possibilities and correspond to common quality requirements. Moreover, the so-called “no legacy principle” will be introduced, i.e. the public sector should not have any important ICT solutions that are older than 13 years.
  • The government has an abundance of data at its disposal through the existing information systems and services. This information, however, is not often used to make better policy decisions or to provide better services. The public sector’s capacity to apply data analytics solutions will be increased significantly over the coming years.
  • Estonia will start offering its secure and convenient services to the citizens of other countries. Virtual residence or e-residence will be launched, meaning that Estonia will issue non-residents with electronic identity in the form of digital ID cards. The aspiration for Estonia is to become as re-known for its e-services as Switzerland is in the field of banking.
  • To ensure the continuity of the Republic of Estonia and of the state information system, a concept of ‘data embassy’ will be introduced. This means that digital copies of all data and information systems critical for the functioning of the state will be securely preserved in ‘virtual embassies’ located in other countries. This will enable Estonia to ensure the continuity of the state ‘in the cloud’, making us more resilient in times of natural or man-made crisis.
  • A reputation of Estonia as a hub for innovation and development on information society will be promoted. This will be done by sharing our experience in e-governance and to promote the underpinning concepts of information society, such as Internet freedom, protection of privacy, etc. For this purpose, a global information society think tank will be established in Estonia.
  • The existence of a competent and innovative partner and service provider, i.e. a competitive ICT sector, is important for the development of public sector ICT solutions and economy in general. By 2020, the number of people employed in the Estonian ICT sector will have doubled. Activities set out in the Estonian Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020 will contribute most to this. However, the current Digital Agenda will complement these actions by promoting ICT careers and studies, plus raising the quality of higher education in the field. 29

While discussing about eGov2.0 in Estonia one tends to talk about it as an open government –re-use of the public information, online public participation, all Web2.0 applications and tools included. Therefore it is important to stress that eGOV2.0 is a citizen-centric bottom-up approach, where citizens are enabled to actively participate in development and revision of the public services to enhance better access and usage of latter, and to efficiently run the public administration. Thus, the design and the establishment of the IT-tools used for the purpose should be supporting the main goal – to engage citizens in every step of the decision-making process.

From the academic point of view there is a need to thoroughly research and analyse following fields30:

  • Map the current situation in e-Governance with governmental registries and services in use;
  • Develop a conceptual model of e-Governance, consisting of the models of cross-domain processes and services;
  • Develop the standard architecture for next eGov, joining e‑Governance services into inter-connected eGov2.0;
  • Support the development of eGov2.0 by data mining, data analysis, and data visualization that provide fast results;
  • Make the research results available for the public sector officials to strengthen the e-Governance services adoption rate;
  • Reflect research results on the legislative aspects in e-Governance, related to data protection, ownership, and interoperability.

In order to make public administration and governance smarter the following actions should be considered:

  • The quality of public services as well as the processes of providing them between different public entities will be harmonised and improved;
  • The needs and interests of end-users will be taken more broadly into consideration while improving and increasing the usage of public services;
  • The impact and cost-effectiveness of public service provision will be increased;
  • More focus on the efficiency of public services developments;
  • The development and implementation of public and private sector ICT‑projects will be supported.

Next steps to towards an open government are strongly prioritized under open government partnership. Open Government Partnership (OGP)31 is a multilateral initiative that aims to promote good governance across the world by harnessing new technologies. Open government means exercising official authority honestly, transparently and in partnership with citizens.

1 Gil-García, J. R. & Pardo, T.A. (2005) E-government success factors: Mapping practical tools to theoretical foundations in Government Information Quarterly 22(2), pp 187-216

2 Fountain, J. E. (2001) Building the virtual state: Information technology and institutional change. Brookings Institution Press

3 Pappel, I. Paperless Management as a Foundation for the Application of e-Governance in Local Governments. Doctoral dissertation, 2014

4 Sirendi, R. The Development of Estonia’s E-Government, MSc (Taught) Programme: Science, Technology and International Development, University of Edinburgh

10 European Commission conducted a contest of projects best supporting the implementation of the European Union’s e-governance strategy within the fifth meeting and conference of e-governance ministers on 19–20 November 2009.

11 Enn Õunapuu. Model of e-government: Estonian experience. In: PROCEEDINGS 4th International Workshop on Software Services, WoSS 2012: 4th International Workshop on Software Services, Bled, Slovenia 25 October 2012. (Toim.)

13 Pappel, I. Paperless Management as a Foundation for the Application of e-Governance in Local Governments. Doctoral dissertation, 2014

15 “Information technology in households 2013” survey, carried out by Statistics Estonia.

16 According to Statistics Estonia, 90% of individuals aged 16 to 74 years used Internet banking in 2013.

21 State support for developing information society for local governments in National Audit Office Annual Report No. OSV-2-6/06/85, Available online in Estonian: “Riigi tugi kohalikele omavalitsustele infoühiskonna arendamisel”

22 How to develop local public services in cooperation with local governments and non-profit associations? in Praxis publication 2/2009, Available online in Estonian: Kuidas arendada kohalike omavalitsuste teenuseid omavalitsuste ja kodanikuühenduste koostöös?

23 Overview of the operation of public sector to enhance working with digital documents, Available online in Estonian: Ülevaade avaliku sektori toimimisest digitaalse dokumenditöö tõhustamiseks

24 Governance: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

25 Taveter, K. Lecture notes 2014. Tallinn University of Technology

27 Pappel, I. Paperless Management as a Foundation for the Application of e-Governance in Local Governments. Doctoral dissertation, 2014

29 Estonian Digital Agenda 2020

30 Taveter, K. Lecture Notes 2014. Tallinn University of Technology