The population size of T&T and Estonia (1.3 million) is approximately the same, but the two countries differ when it comes to the ease of doing business—with T&T being ranked 105th and Estonia at 18th.
What is the difference? Digital transformation.
The T&T Government has outlined its intention to take digitalisation seriously in keeping with the Roadmap to T&T Post COVID-19 Pandemic Report.
It noted that the deadly coronavirus “has forced the Government, private sector and CSOs to rethink how technology can be leveraged to effectively navigate the crisis and accelerate the recovery process.”
It also highlighted this digital transformation would require an execution team working in partnership with the private sector and civil society in several key areas—restructured business processes, digital capabilities/training, technology, flexible IT architecture, and innovation/experimentation.
But how long would it take before tangible results are seen? Estonia’s digital transformation started in 1994, where the country earmarked one per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to invest in Information Technology (IT). If T&T were to adopt a policy like this, it would mean US$238.1 million or ($1.6 billion) for IT investment.
Responding to questions from Guardian Media, Florian Marcus, digital transformation adviser at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre said: “The first service came online in 1999, namely the tax declaration. This was a huge solution affecting a big chunk of the population and, bit by bit, it became the norm. These days, 96 per cent of all income tax declarations are submitted online in Estonia, typically taking around three minutes.”
The e-Estonia Briefing Centre is an executive centre and an innovation hub in Tallinn, Estonia, specially designed for experiencing the e-state of mind. It has an integral role in e-Estonia brand and country promotion.
Marcus said that by 2002, people started using digital signatures, which currently save around two per cent of GDP every single year. Additionally, he remarked that in 2005, i-Voting started being available for political elections (local, national and even European Parliamentary.)
According to Marcus, last year, 46.7 per cent of all votes were cast online. He highlighted that online voting is cheaper for the government, more convenient for the citizens, and more secure.
Meanwhile, the roadmap report indicated that the impact of COVID-19 has revealed many of the inefficiencies and poor execution capabilities of the country’s social services and, by extension, the public service. The report noted that the coronavirus’ effect has also shown the high reliance on Government in keeping the economy afloat even with these inefficiencies.
It said: “The modernisation of the public service around an architecture supported by digital technology and e-identity is inescapable and must be addressed. Appropriate financial resources and structures need to be put in place immediately to facilitate the timely execution of this objective.”
When asked about digital transformation could be implemented for citizens that are not technologically savvy or curious, Marcus said: “Do it like Estonia.” He note the process entailed firstly offering free IT education, be it through programming classes in primary school or Computer courses for the adult population in vocational schools.
Secondly, he said: “Never force people online—even in Estonia you can still conduct all of your business with the state completely on paper.” Marcus continued to note that most people just don’t want to endure processes on paper because of point three: “If you create solutions that are not mere digital copies of offline processes, but genuinely save time, money and nerves, people will want to use these online services.”
He emphasised that Estonia never forced anyone to vote, declare their taxes or sell their car online—people do it because it’s easier.
The roadmap report articulated that work would now be accelerated towards creating a ‘Digital First Government.’ It noted that the first feature would be the creation of an e-identity for each citizen and legal resident that will be mandatory to access government services, will be managed by the Government in a state-run or approved private data centre, will supersede all existing identifiers and aligns with the electronic processing of all government services and digital commerce activities.
Meanwhile, when Marcus was asked about how the transformation to e-government and digital transformation can impact the country’s GDP, he said it was hard to measure.
“If you submit your taxes online in three minutes it’s hard to know how long you would have taken on paper. If you sign a contract to add a new board member to your business, it is hard to estimate how expensive it would have been to sign a physical contract because perhaps this board member actually lives on the other side of the world,” he explained.
Marcus said e-Estonia estimates that the digital signature alone saves two per cent of the countries GDP per year (US$614.6 million). He said that the country’s X-Road data exchange platform which helps government authorities (and private companies, if they wish to join the network) save around 1,134 working years each year because of all the requests that are made by machines rather than humans.
Marcus noted that because e-government is the norm in Estonia, people already used digital solutions years before the crisis and thus, COVID-19 didn’t change much for them.
He said that pupils continued to do their homework online, doctors continued to review digital patient records, and ministers continued to suggest and vote on topics on the agenda through their mobile phones.
According to Marcus: “Of course, every country has suffered from COVID-19 but in Estonia, society has been a lot more resilient thanks to its digital solutions.”