Envisioning a better future for its young democracy and citizens, Estonia has, very early, relied on digital technologies to pursue a distinctive and well-known process of political and administrative modernisation. Therefore, in the intersection of technological and social sciences, the Estonian case offers a unique opportunity to study the role and impact of digital technologies on governance and democracy. Delving into this relationship, this short paper discusses the role of Estonia in the development and promotion of Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) and Digital Public Goods (DPG). This discussion, and the further development of DPI, is of the upmost importance for four main reasons. The first one is the increasing user-friendliness of the whole-of-government services, as a result of a better interoperability between registries and information systems, not only within government but also with private sector partners. The second one is increasing the bonds and cooperation between countries, as a result of the adoption, and adaptation, of existing public solutions for the specific digitalization needs of the countries. This allows countries not only to steepen and shorten the learning curves, but also the pooling of resources and skills for a better development of digital solutions. A third important aspect of DPI is the reduction of the risks for vendor lock-in and, consequentially, increase the countries’ autonomy and control over digital developments. Finally, the fourth important feature of the expansion of DPI is the strengthening of democratic values through the further promotion of the principles of openness, transparency, and inclusiveness. The remaining of the paper will discuss the DPI, and its positive externalities, that were particularly important for the Estonian process of digitalisation.
Being a socio-technical construct, the DPI is a complex concept with diverse interpretations, definitions, and distinctions. Broadly, the DPI refers to the multitude of tools and systems required for letting individuals engage in public and civic life in digital spaces.
Delving into this relationship, this short paper discusses the role of Estonia in the development and promotion of Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) and Digital Public Goods (DPG).
In line with that, for the purpose of this paper, the DPI is understood as the enabling environment, or “ecosystem”, for Digital Public Goods (DPG) and online public/political engagement. This means that, expanding on more exclusive approaches
, in this paper, the DPI does not refer only to a restricted set of DPGs that are considered crucial for digitalisation (e.g., solutions for electronic identification, data sharing and payment). Instead, the understanding of DPI is broader and comprises the whole of standards, technical components and services, as well as institutional framework and organisational structures/processes, which are necessary for DPGs, and public and civic interactions in cyberspace. This includes, under institutional settings, policies such as the interoperability framework and information society strategies, as well as rules and regulations set by legislation (e.g., Access to Public Information Act). Moreover, organisational setups related to management and financing of DPGs, procurement processes and rules, or even the organisations’ online connectivity would fall, as well, within this paper’s understanding of DPI.
Estonia continuing contribution to the development and spread of DPIs can be presented or structured in two dimensions. The first one concerns the concrete development and adoption of DPIs that have been crucial for the Estonia’s successful process of digitalisation. This refers to the developments in the country’s policy and legal framework, organisational and financial set-up and the development of open source digital solutions for government modernisation, made available for others for re-use. One can also highlight here the country’s capacity to innovate and build new digital infrastructure and its openness to commit to, and apply digital solutions developed by others. The second dimension concerns Estonia’s concrete efforts and initiatives to promote the development and use of DPIs around the world. This has been observed in the country’s continuous promotion and support in implementing DPIs globally through bilateral and multilateral partnerships.
Estonia continuing contribution to the development and spread of DPIs can be presented or structured in two dimensions.
The construction of Estonia’s digital public infrastructure
Regarding the first dimension, and looking at policies and legal framework, the Estonian contribution to the development of DPIs was very early laid down in several conditions, or principles
, for building an open digital infrastructure (or ecosystem). Some principles, such as the access to public information,
were set on the very early documents guiding the development of an information society in Estonia. A good example is the Principles for Estonian Information Policy, which was adopted by the Parliament in 1998
. This document identified the technology as a driver for democratic societal change without putting it into a narrow context of government information systems. In addition to its broad scope, the document also stresses the essence of collaboration with private and public sector in digitalisation and points out areas urgent areas for better regulation, including access to public information. Similarly, the principle of “once only”
was established early in the Databases Act (1997) and, since 2008, incorporated in the Public Information Act. This principle, stating that government and public institutions cannot request information that has already been given once, was safeguarded by the interconnectedness of state databases and information systems via the data exchange system in place (i.e., X-Road).
The openness and reusability of data has also been a core principle in the Estonian Interoperability Framework (Interoperability Framework of the State Information System)
. This document, which was open for contributions and suggestions from public, private and third sector institutions, as well as all interested parties, provides decisions regarding open standards to which compliance has been made compulsory for the public sector. The document states that, unless otherwise justified, the principles of openness should guide public institutions in their development of information systems and software procurement. Not only public institutions were encouraged, when creating new free software, to use open source/free software licenses, but also that the reusage of information should not be limited to the public sector, further contributing to a seamless use of public sector information across public services and all the market operators and providers of added value. Overall, the development of information systems by Estonian public institutions has been directed by principles of reusability, technology neutrality and adaptability.
Other relevant contributions to the development of DPIs and proliferation of DPGs were established in the Public Information Act
The PIA gives the right to re-use public information, functioning as the Estonian open data law, regulating the collection, maintenance and sharing of data and, therefore, also public registries.
and Databases Act (later incorporated into the Public Information Act)
by providing, or enforcing, public access to public data. The Public Information Act (PIA), which was passed in 2000, and entered into force on January 1 2001, obliged all public institutions to create and keep websites that provided online content of public interest. Additionally, the PIA gives the right to re-use public information, functioning as the Estonian open data law, regulating the collection, maintenance and sharing of data and, therefore, also public registries. Moreover, the Public Information Act also regulates the management of the national information system (RIHA), the data exchange layer X-Road. Different other documents have supporting organisations with the process of opening their data, such as the Open Data Green Paper.
Overall, Estonia has a strong institutional framework that supports the development and proliferation of DPIs. These essential legal acts include, but are not limited to, the Databases Ac
t (adopted in 1997), Personal Data Protection Act
(adopted 1996), Public Information Act - PIA
(adopted in 2000, entering into force on January 1, 2001), X-Road Regulation
(adopted 2003), and State Assets Act. The State Assets Act
has been amended, in 2021 to introduce a mandatory open-source requirement to the digital public developments, as well as the possibility to make those public sector digital developments open for re-usage. This amendment has further solidified the importance of DPI in the Estonian public sector, which, being present since the 2000s, in the digital society policies and frameworks, has always guided Estonia’s digital transformation. The X-Road regulation lists the main requirements and principles for connecting information systems of both public institutions and private enterprises with X-Road and for the data exchange between the members of X-Road.
In addition to the principles written in its legal and institutional framework, Estonia also has built an important organisational and financial set-up to oversee and guarantee the sustainability of its DPIs and DPGs. A clear example was the creation, together with Finland, of the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS). The NIIS, established in 2017, is responsible for the development and maintenance of DPIs for cross-border data sharing and service delivery. With a budget of 2.5 million EUR in 2021, equally shared by its three members (Estonia, Finland, and Iceland), the NIIS maintains the X-Road software and the e-Delivery Harmony, a gateway to the EU data exchange solution. In Estonia, the Estonian Information System Authority (RIA)
coordinates the development and management of state information systems, including Public Key Infrastructures related operations such as the X-Road but also the state portal, the administration system of the State information system (RIHA), and the electronic document exchange centre (DVK). By better allowing the pooling of financial and human resources across borders, initiatives such as the NIIS are critical for the development and maintenance of digital infrastructure in Estonia.
The State Assets Act has been amended, in 2021 to introduce a mandatory open-source requirement to the digital public developments, as well as the possibility to make those public sector digital developments open for re-usage.
Together with the compulsory national digital ID, the data sharing infrastructure X-Road is a cornerstone of the Estonian e-government infrastructure and one of the best examples of Estonia’s efforts for the development and promotion of DPI. X-Road was released in December 2001 and the first database connected to the X-Road was the Population Registry<1>
. Even though it took some years until government institutions started to connect their information systems and registries into the X-Road, this platform now connects more than 900 public and private organisations, providing more than 3000 services and with more than 11 billion requests made to this date.
Besides the X-Road, Estonia’s commitment to the improvement and spread of DPI is also observed in their continued development of new DPGs, particularly in the area of Artificial Intelligence (AI), under the umbrella of AI GovStack. The recent AI action plan for 2022-2023
foresees, with a budget of 20 million EUR, the development of around 40 reusable building blocks that can be integrated with other digital tools and services. Moreover, a budget of 13 million Euros has been allocated to the development, by 2025, of the all-governmental chatbot ‘Bürokratt’. Some other open-source AI components include a translation engine, speech recognition and synthesis tools, as well as text analytics solutions
Foreign policy and Estonia’s worldwide share of digital goods
Set in the Estonian Foreign Policy Strategy
, digital technologies support, in a transversal/horizontal way, the fulfilment of Estonia’s foreign policy objectives, particularly in the context of bridging security, trade/economic policy and development cooperation. In this area, Estonia supports a holistic approach to digital diplomacy as stipulated in the Council Conclusion of EU Digital Diplomacy
, adopted on July 18, 2022. This document also supports, in line with the Global Gateway strategy
, the promotion of resilient and trusted digital infrastructures and democratic digital societies, beyond EU borders, through the implementation of DPI, DPGs, and digital commons.
This has been tangibly demonstrated in many ways. Estonia is a member of the Digital Commons Working Group. This group was established, in February 2022, to increase Europe’s technological capacity, develop digital solutions, in line with the EU values, and, through open digital infrastructures, decrease external dependencies and strive towards digital sovereignty. Estonia is also a member of the EU D4D Hub
and a co-leader, together with the GIZ<2>
, of the e-government working group, promoting the use of the DPGs and building blocks-based approach in digital transformation. The D4D Hub was launched in December 2020 by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, European Heads of State and D4D Hub partners. The D4D Hub serves as a strategic multi-stakeholder platform that fosters digital cooperation between the Team Europe and its global partners. By now, 12 countries, including Estonia, have joined this Hub.
In October 2020, Estonia together with Germany, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), Estonia co-initiated GovStack
. This initiative aims at contributing to both the development of an information society in line with democratic principles and benefit from the shared development of digital building-blocks or DPI. The latter being crucial to undertake developments that would, otherwise, be restrained by financial and, more so, by human resources. GovStack, entering implementation phase, contributes to global digital cooperation through both multilateral and bilateral partnerships. As to multilateral: ITU Partner 2 Connect, UN Global Digital Agenda, UN Digital Public Goods Alliance. Bilaterally, GovStack is currently working on possible partnerships with several countries such as Ukraine, Egypt and Rwanda.
Estonia has also joined the Digital Public Goods Alliance in June 2022, which is one of the 8 components of the UN digital cooperation report, and has endorsed, as well, the Digital Public Goods Charter
. Through EstDev – Estonian Development Cooperation Agency- Estonia has also been one of the partners in the implementation of the Team Europe Initiative in the Horn of Africa region, in the areas of Digital Government and Cybersecurity. In addition to that, the E-Governance Academy has had, since its creation in 2002, a pivotal role in sharing the experience of Estonia’s digitalisation around the World. This non-profit foundation (a joint initiative of the Government of Estonia, Open Society Institute (OSI) and the United Nations Development Programme) has been fundamental for Estonia’s efforts to promote open digital infrastructure, having supported the implementation of the X-Road in multiple countries.
Estonia has also joined the Digital Public Goods Alliance in June 2022, which is one of the 8 components of the UN digital cooperation report, and has endorsed, as well, the Digital Public Goods Charter.
Indeed, the X-Road is a great example of a widely applied Estonian DPG, being implemented in more than 20 countries by the public and private sectors. In some countries like the Faroe Islands, Palestine, Caiman Islands, Serbia, Djibouti, and Kyrgystan, the X-Road is being implemented with the support of the e-Governance Academy Foundation, a digital governance competence centre based in Tallinn. Moreover, in several other countries, including Ukraine, Namibia, and Benin, a data interoperability solution that follows the X-Road prototype is being implemented together with the e-Governance Academy Foundation and private sector partners, such as Cybernetica. Nortal, Aktors, and many others. Ultimately, Estonia’s experience and practice with X-Road has served as an important base for the European Interoperability Framework. Is also included in the registry of the UN Digital Public Goods Alliance.
Overall, since its independence, Estonia has been both an early adopter and a very vocal advocate of public digital infrastructure and free and open-source solutions for the government and political modernisation. As we can see from the highlighted examples, this vision is deeply rooted in the Estonian institutional framework. It has been developed and sustained with a complex organisational and financial set-up, as well as with several multilateral partnerships. Besides the development and provision of digital infrastructures and goods, Estonia’s support for DPIs can also be observed in this country’s commitment to applying digital public goods developed by others. A good example was the use of an online participation platform in 2012 developed by the Citizens Foundation in Iceland for the crowdsourcing democratic initiative Rahvakogu
(People’s Assembly). This platform has been, since then, used by several Estonian municipalities to promote citizens’ public and civic participation in local affairs. The city of Tallinn is currently conducting, using this same platform, a crowdsourcing initiative with the aim of improving the city’s air quality. This is another great example of the importance of GPIs in promoting citizens’ political engagement and participation and, ultimately, strengthening our democracies.
Pooling resources, nationally and cross-border, and the alignment of actions and investments, have been essential in guaranteeing a sustainable digitalisation, and will continue to be critical in the light of lack of skills and other resources.
To conclude, the Estonian experience has showed us that DPI and DPG are both viable and valuable tools for the process of administrative and political modernisation. They were key determinants for Estonia’s successful process of digitalization and stemmed, as we highlighted, from this country’s early commitment to, through the use of new technologies, strengthen the democratic principles of openness and transparency. Moreover, the DPI were also crucial to bolster Estonia’s security, effectiveness, and efficiency. Pooling resources, nationally and cross-border, and the alignment of actions and investments, have been essential in guaranteeing a sustainable digitalisation, and will continue to be critical in the light of lack of skills and other resources. Those were both lessons and tools that Estonia has been eager and devoted to share with the world, in order to increase, together with other countries, the resilience and strength of our societies. These are objectives that, as the covid crisis and Ukraine’s invasion has shown us, countries now must strive to achieve, making the DPI a cornerstone of our democratic future.
Population register is needed in the case of all services and by being connected to the X-Road, it allows for the exchange of up-to-date data between all insitutions connecetd to the X-Road (and are authorised for the latter, of course). Thus, when a person applies for a study allowance, or a social benefit, or files taxes, all the relevant data is retrieved from the Population Register automatically. This means that there is no need to submit any documents or fill in forms etc. Each person can receive a service and access registries via the national portal www.eesti.ee
with their eID or Mobile ID; citizens can also review and correct their data in the Population Register.
Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit.
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