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Implementing the e-governance agenda

Kaja Kallas, the Prime Minister of Estonia speaks on May 30 during the opening ceremony of the e-Governance conference in Tallinn. COURTESY PHOTO/E-GOVERNANCE ACADEMY

Conference of experts shows why citizens should be at the centre

Tallinn, Estonia | RONALD MUSOKE | As governments around the world embark on implementing their digital transformation programmes, they will have to deliver what is best for the average citizen, Kaja Kallas, the Estonian Prime Minister said at this year’s e-Governance conference in Tallinn Estonia’s capital.

While opening the conference on May 30, Kallas noted that the future of government is about personalized and seamless services (and) leveraging artificial intelligence. “E-governance is not just about building technology but also building up democracy,” she said, adding that “When the government is not online it just alienates from the people.”

Organised by the e-Governance Academy (eGA), the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Estonian International Development Cooperation Centre (ESTDEV), this year’s conference which ran from May 30-31 convened over 580 digital development strategists, decision-makers, policy implementers and other high ranking government officials from over 90 countries.

The conference was held under the theme, “Digital Innovation as Catalyst for Social Change” and it focused on how to implement digital innovations more efficiently, prevent digital vulnerability and be ready for the increased use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the public sector.

This year’s conference also coincided with Estonia’s e-Governance Academy’s 20 years of championing digital societies around the world. During this time, while working in cooperation with Estonian and international organisations, the e-Governance Academy has carried out more than 300 cooperation projects, with over 280 organisations, in 141 countries and regions.

The conference’s workshops and presentations delved into the latest digital innovations in Brazil, Costa Rica, the Gambia, Indonesia, Ukraine, Uganda and other African countries. It also showcased Estonia’s contribution to the digital development of these countries. The conference also featured an expo of digital solutions from Estonian and international companies.

Luukas Ilves, Estonia’s Chief Information Officer also noted that the future belongs to the use of artificial intelligence. “In the last six months, it has become clear that the future of how people interact with data and electronic services is going to be through AI and conversational, in one form or another. But the question is how to turn a conversation with a chatbot into a legally binding government decision,” Ilves said.

“Estonia doesn’t have all the answers; we are also struggling with administrative processes and legacy. There’s no point in doing it alone, we are much stronger when doing it together and making use of open-source solutions,” he said.

In one of the highlights of the conference, Mykhailo Fedorov, the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine reminded delegates in a keynote address delivered via a video link that despite the most brutal war, Ukraine is keeping its society resilient and going, and has even managed to launch new public digital services that help the country and its citizens to persist during the war. He pointed out that one of the most fundamental e-services for digital societies is the digital signature.

“Ukrainian electronic signatures and seals on digital documents may be automatically checked in EU member states, and their validity confirmed,” Fedorov said. “We are actually the first non-EU country to get this opportunity. And it’s one more way for the European Union to open its borders to Ukrainians; this time the digital ones,” said Fedorov.

Estonia’s digital expertise

In perhaps a show of Estonia’s ever-growing proclivity to Africa, the 2023 e-Governance Conference featured an all-African panel showcasing case studies from the continent. Both moderator and speakers presented examples of inter-sector cooperation from Namibia, Uganda, and the West African region.

Thanks to the African Union – European Union (AU-EU) Digital for Development (D4D) Hub, which over the last few years has been working with select African countries including Uganda, Namibia, Benin, Togo, and The Gambia to ramp up their digitalization programmes, senior government officials showcased their projects at the conference.

Uganda, which according to Daniel Schaer, Estonia’s Ambassador at Large for Africa is one of his country’s priority African countries, already has its own digital transformation roadmap which is being developed with support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The roadmap is aimed at developing complementary strategies which can accelerate Uganda’s digital revolution. According to the “Digital Uganda Vision,” the government aspires to have a digital and data-driven economy which is inclusive and empowering to Ugandans.

The country also hopes this will improve the country’s competitiveness. Uganda’s digital vision is based upon five pillars including building digital infrastructure and connectivity; promoting digital services, boosting cyber security, data provision and privacy protocols as well as enhancing citizens’ digital skills through deliberate training.

According to Uganda’s grand development blueprint Vision 2040 ICT provides an opportunity to improve national productivity by making the government and business enterprises more efficient and more effective and globally competitive.

Digitalization is a great equalizer

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president who is credited for charting Estonia’s digital transformation journey following the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 recalled how poor the country was back then.

He said Estonia’s GDP per capita in 1938, the year before World War II, was slightly higher than that of neighbouring Finland. In 1992, however, whereas Estonia’s GDP was about US$ 2800, that of Finland had shot up to over US$ 20,000 or eight times higher. Today, Estonia’s GDP is slightly over US$ 20,000 and many credit President Ilves’ digitalization agenda for rapidly turning around the country’s fortunes.

He told the delegates, many of whom were from developing countries in Africa, Asia and South America, that their countries’ digital transformation programmes have the potential to turn around their fortunes. “Digitalization is a great equalizer,” he said, “Do whatever it takes to digitalize because its benefits are enormous.”

e-Governance conference proves worthwhile

Over the last decade, many digital cooperation projects have received a boost from the e-Governance conference in Estonia. For example, the development of a data exchange platform in Djibouti and Benin; the creation of a digital country roadmap for Pacific countries such as Papua New Guinea, and cooperation with the governments of Aruba, Dominica, the Cayman Island in the Caribbean and Namibia in Africa have all been hatched at this conference.

“While championing digital societies during the last 20 years, the e-Governance Academy team has learned that digital innovation is not a thing in itself, but a tool for the benefit of people and society,” said Hannes Astok, the CEO of the e-Governance Academy (eGA), Estonia’s digital transformation centre of excellence. He said the conference’s main focus is on contributing to social change via digital transformation.

“People, not technology, must be at the centre of digital transformation. Therefore, digital development requires a comprehensive and inclusive approach, starting with the development of people’s skills and ending with data governance.”

“With the advent of artificial intelligence, governments must rethink data management, which is the basis of digital innovation, so that people control data, not data control people,” Astok added.

Meanwhile, the e-Governance Academy also unveiled a book at this year’s conference that brings into focus the role that digitalization has played in Estonia, as well as other countries the e-Governance Academy has collaborated with. The book titled, “Twenty Years of Building Digital Societies” talks about the Estonia’s vision, sustainability, people and security.

The book collects and explores all relevant areas governments should keep in mind when moving on the digital transformation journey. Expert essays, accompanied by country case studies, illustrate clearly how to – and how not to make digitalization a reality in the most diverse areas of the world.

“People generally tend to interpret digital transformation in terms of technology, specific services, or gadgets. But the main lesson is – if you really want to make a difference through digital transformation, such change needs to be systemic. Because digitalization profoundly influences the way we interact with the state, in the broadest sense,” says Peeter Vihma, the book’s author and social scientist at the University of Helsinki, in Finland.

“At every step of implementing digital solutions, we must always consider – how does this relate to the values that we cherish in our society? Does it bring about justice, equality? What about improvements in quality of life?” he says. “With all technology come both opportunities and constraints,” Vihma says.

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*Reporting at the e-Governance Conference in Tallinn, Estonia, was made possible thanks to the travel support of the AU-EU Digital for Development (D4D) Hub

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