Government: Estonia’s Digital Strategy vs New Zealand: How many billions need be wasted before we learn?

estoniaEstonia is considered to be the most digitally connected and tech savvy country on the planet. In two decades it has moved from having no fixed lines to online voting, has the fastest broadband speeds in the world, and 95% of the population file their tax online. How did they manage this, how does it compare to us, and what can we learn?

The vast majority of Government ICT globally is still very confused. ICT is seen as a sunk cost rather than an opportunity, massive projects are very prone to failure, broadband speeds along with backbone networks are growing too slowly, ICT is defined by accountants, lawyers, & commercial people, mandates to use government built products that are outdated before delivery abound, and guidance is lacking.

Estonia started by building it’s infrastructure, fiber. Something that the government directly funded and controlled. This allowed bandwidth across the country to be treated effectively as “essential infrastructure” in the same way that roads, rail, and air are.

In New Zealand we have a fiber programme that is underway, but arguably could be completed a lot faster than the current estimates. It has been fraught with commercial issues, and while it has “passed by” a lot of the country’s homes and businesses, the connection rates remain low due to ongoing contractual issues. Still, its a start in the right direction.

From there, Estonia wrote into it’s constitution the right for all citizens to have free access to the Internet from public libraries. In fact, free access to information is written into the constitution. This allows people who don’t have access to the internet, points where they can access them publicly, through libraries and schools.

In New Zealand, we don’t have such a thing. While some of the parties that didn’t make it to government this year had policies to do just this, the parties that did make it, the right in general, have no ICT policies to speak of at all. The right for citizens to access the internet is fundamental to opening the path toward the Digital Citizen, part of the GCIO’s strategy. After all, there is no point in pouring billions of dollars into government ICT services if the entire swathes of the population can’t access them.

Estonia is already doing what it is that the New Zealand government wants to do. That is that the vast majority of transactions between citizens & government, and businesses & government, is done online. Tax can be done online by the individual in thirty to forty-five seconds, all business tax in a similar way, companies can be established in less than ten minutes online, ninety nine percent of banking is done online, and since 2005 both central and local body elections are done online.

New Zealand arguably has a good online tax system and we can register companies in the same way. However, the processes behind the scene, as most of you know in business, frequently cause issues and while IRD is good at sweeping up the pieces, it could be a lot better.

There has been a lot of debate in New Zealand recently over whether online voting is feasible or not, no doubt costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and consuming many years of productivity. The reality is that it can work, it works in Estonia, and they’ve made all the architecture and information freely available to achieve it. So instead of reinventing the wheel, let’s go borrow it from them and get on with it.

Pretty much everything is online. From television to radio and all the usual social media in between, the vast majority of Estonia’s information is digital. In education, parents can see what is on at school, how their children are performing, when the child actually arrives at school, and what their homework is for that day.

One of the interesting areas that Estonia figured out pretty quickly was that large scale ICT investment in government and project failures had some commonalities. One of which was this; you can’t apply Information Technology to existing bureaucratic processes and structures, that the bureaucratic process must be redesigned and transformed. Because, ICT is just an amplifier, in other words if your processes are complex, messy, inefficient, and nasty, then any ICT system that you build will amplify all of those negative attributes.

Boy does that sound familiar Wellington eh?

Here we sit on the cusp of spending publicly $1 billion (privately now up to $2 billion) to upgrade our IRD systems.  The rumour is that IRD will choose Accenture and Cap Gemini for that work. Meanwhile, gossip on the street says that ACC has chosen Accenture (worst kept secret in town) to rejig their systems, no doubt at the cost of a few hundred million. We know that several multi-hundred millions of dollars of projects are on the cards around town in government ICT.

It’s not just the big boys either. The amount of frustration around town by local ICT companies, multi-nationals, staff over the Wellington City Council’s “Odyssey Project” is very surprising. Another case of ICT being brutalised to fit a bad bureaucratic system as opposed to an organisation that should recognise it needs to join the 21st Century? Most likely.

We also know that in most cases, these projects have NOT been started by the business proper with a look at how they operate, their bureaucratic processes, or business models. What we see instead is the business turning around to ICT and saying “you fix it”, when the actual answer is that they need to fix themselves first. This approach will lead to billions of dollars of projects that sometimes fail, are continuously rewritten and hidden, have poor business cases, are mangled to fit existing bureaucratic processes, and ultimately deliver no new functionality at all. Because we build ICT systems based on the way that our organisation is constructed including her culture.

In other words, ICT isn’t at fault, the government agency is, and you get exactly out, what you put in. This really is ICT 101.

How Estonia did it was to redesign the bureaucratic processes and public administration and then introduced ICT as an amplifier in order to support and boost those new processes and ways of doing things. Then, choosing small, local, agile ICT companies to carry out that work gives a better result as opposed to hiring a multi-national ICT consulting company to do the same.

Got a bit ranty there…

Privacy is treated deceptively simply in Estonia. Estonia introduced digital ID Cards (two or three factor authentication) along with certificates to ensure that people were indeed who they said they were. That coupled with cryptography and certificates effectively creates a very very strong online identify associated to a citizen.

Further, in Estonia businesses, non-government organisations, government organisations, health, education, and pretty much anyone must provide information on who accessed what parts of your digital identity. In other words, you can login to a government portal as a citizen and see exactly who looked at what parts of your records. If you have an issue with that, you can log a complaint with the provider, if that doesn’t work, you can log a complaint with the Privacy Commissioner, who, unlike New Zealand, actually has some teeth.

As we start into another term of National we can be sure of a few things. The National ICT strategy is largely about UFB and not much else. The GCIO will continue to have the same toothless “mandates” that it currently has. Massive ICT projects will continue to fail or deliver the status quo. Agencies will fail to see the fact that a) they must re-engineer themselves for the 21st century and b) look to local New Zealand ICT companies to work along side them to amplify those changes. Prove me wrong.

It would be better if we looked to Estonia, who has open sourced all of their information rather than practicing our silo’d, number eight wire mentality.

One can hope.

PS One last thing. Estonia pretty much built the entire system on Cloud. Before Cloud was cool.

E-Estonia: e-Governance roadmap and frameworks

Radio New Zealand: How Estonia became the world’s leading hi-tech society







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