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trueHUE® Water cooler stories
In Estonia, public administration is completely digitalized. Residents can pay their taxes, register their cars and even set up a company online. It’s not only convenient — the country also saves around 2 percent of its gross domestic product by eliminating bureaucratic costs.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you define innovative governance then?
Kaljulaid: I remember the end of the 1990s when I was a consultant to the then-prime minister. As a small and then still very poor country, we realized that our opportunities lay in two megatrends — IT and genetics. So we set up the Estonian Genome Foundation with startup funding of 3 million euros ($3.3 million) to improve the health of our population and reduce costs. Twenty percent of Estonians will have used our DNA analysis service by the end of this year and know which diseases they are susceptible to and how they can take appropriate precautions. I have an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, as I know from my analysis. So I will avoid being overweight.
DER SPIEGEL: Do Estonians’ digitalized everyday lives have measurable economic effects?
Kaljulaid: The possibility of signing documents and administrative files electronically alone saves us around 2 percent of our gross domestic product every year. That’s roughly equivalent to our defense spending. However, we also invest about 1 percent each year to further develop our government online services. And we must continue to do so.
DER SPIEGEL: Is that still necessary? You advertise with your leading position within Europe.
Kaljulaid: The demands of our citizens are growing. For example, they want the state to actively inform them in advance if their passport or other official documents will expire soon. Many also do not understand why they have to apply for certain benefits at all. A benefit scheme for elderly single people is therefore already available on a trial basis, to automatically be provided without an application. Citizens do not even need to know that they are entitled to it. Our investments are money well spent. We have noticed that small and medium-sized enterprises in particular are benefiting greatly. And digitalization also has desirable social side-effects.
DER SPIEGEL: In what way? Many people fear that it will exacerbate a social divide.
Kaljulaid: When we put our faith in the digitalization of administration in the 1990s, we did so because the Estonians wanted social benefits like in the Nordic countries. We could not afford that. That is why we at least wanted to make it easier and more convenient to access the resources and services available. It is mainly women who benefit from this, because in Estonia, too, it is they who mainly look after children and relatives in need of care. They gain a great deal of time by reducing bureaucracy, so digitalization has a socially harmonizing and balancing effect.
DER SPIEGEL: The Estonian digital ID is mandatory. What about citizens who feel overwhelmed or who reject it?
Kaljulaid: Our experience is that technology does not split our society. But you must take the citizens with you. For example, in the beginning there were special trainings for older citizens to teach them about digital services. Private providers such as banks have also provided free services for ID users.