Global Leadership on Digital Transformation: Thoughts from Estonia, the UK and Canada

4 minute read

The IOG was very fortunate to host Siim Sikkut, Chief Information Officer for Estonia, and Olivia Neal, Executive Director for Digital Change at the Treasury Board (formerly of the UK’s Government Digital Service), for an interactive session on digital government. This session was attended by cohort 18 of the IOG’s Executive Leadership Program, representing public sector leaders from across the federal government, as well as the IOG’s own team of researchers on digital governance. Together, we asked the tough questions about what makes government work in the digital age, what gets in the way, and how to affect the transformational changes that government needs to stay current in the 21st century.

Lessons from Estonia

Estonia is usually understood to be the world leader in digital government, a development which is often explained by two circumstances; the country’s small size (1.3 million) and the de facto “reset” of government which occurred at Estonian independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. Both explanations ring true. Estonia’s small size means there are fewer potential detractors and vested interests with the potential derail the modernization process. Presumably, designing such a new and novel system of digital government is easier when starting from a blank slate, without having the weight of previous decisions. But if a small population and blank slate was all it took to succeed, then why is Estonia the leader in digital government? Why is it not any one of the other countries that share a similar size and identical timeline for independence from the Soviet Union, like Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Moldova or Armenia. These are all small post-Soviet countries but ones that did not lead the charge in digital government.

Siim graciously explains that while there is some merit to the folk explanations for Estonia’s success, Estonia’s digital government was in large part a product of leadership, persistence, and a drive for efficiency in government. “At the outset of this process, technology was viewed as a tool for supporting the government’s efficiency drive, rather than something that was inherently good for government.” Certainly, Siim explains, the smaller population of Estonia helped to limit the potential number of political battles that needed to be fought early in the adoption process, but digital government, is infinitely scalable, making the total population of the country less important than it might seem at first glance. “At the end of the day, for digital government a variable like population is just another line of code”, Siim explains. Estonia’s platforms are open source permitting easy uptake; both Finland and Latvia (with a combined population of nearly 7 million) to have chosen to adopt elements of Estonia’s model with ease.

Emerging Leadership

Certainly, the success of the UK also provides a stark counter-example to the idea that you must be a small country in the midst of a political reset to successfully modernize government. The UK is roughly twice Canada’s population and is governed by one thousand years of legal precedent through its extensive common law tradition. It’s hard to imagine more different circumstances than the UK and Estonia, but nonetheless, the UK is rapidly emerging as a leader in digital government and one that is challenging Estonia’s coveted position. Olivia Neal thinks that public service culture plays much more of a role than the body of law or the prospective political “reset” as occurred at Estonian independence. “We never found that the UK’s huge body of law or historical continuity was a barrier to government transformation. Success and failure always came down to a willingness of the public service itself to incorporate digital technologies.”

Siim suggests that public trust might be a key ingredient in the process of government modernization, especially since that process that requires such active public support. Indeed, the digital transformation process has immediate implications for the public that uses government services. As citizens are increasingly required to interact with government through digital means, they must trust that these interactions will be a success. “Trust has to be there. Trust in privacy for one, but also trust that data will not be stolen, trust that I will be able to access services when I need them.” In Estonia, this trust comes not just from the white-hot efficiency and reliability of public services, but also the meticulous safeguarding and compartmentalization of citizen data. “We decide who can have access to what. For instance, the police cannot have access to my medical records, but they can look at my driving record. Furthermore, maybe one police officer needs access to my driving record, but not all police can access it all the time or in all circumstances.”

There is no silver bullet for government modernization, nor is there one sole recipe for success. Ultimately, there is little reason to suspect that government modernization has to be limited to a country like Estonia, or the UK. Olivia suggests, “I hear both that Canada is too small (a country) to succeed at digital government, and also that it is too large. Of course, neither is really true.” We at the IOG wholeheartedly agree; Canada has what it takes to become a nimble and agile government of the 21st century. We are doing our part through researching at the cutting edge of this transformation process and sharing with Canada’s future leaders what we find. 

Find out more about the IOG’s Executive Leadership Program and check out our related work, Myths, Values and Digital Transformation: The Exceptional Case of Estonia.

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Mark Robbins

Mark Robbins

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