I recently spoke at Angotic, Angola’s most reputable innovation forum. I explained that today, technology had advanced so much that a farmer in Angola has as much access to information as the President does. But the challenge is, if and how quickly it can leverage technological advancements — enabling it to radically increase the efficiency and effectiveness of its programs and services. History has demonstrated that new technologies can fundamentally affect how governments operate. Advances in technology can enhance or streamline administrative tasks and service delivery.
A good starting point for governments wanting to embark on digital transformation is to view citizens as customers. The public sector needs to make the citizen experience more user-friendly. Similar to how the private sector puts a focus on customer experience and satisfaction. Getting a licence, applying for an ID or a passport could be as easy as using your phone and downloading an app.
Estonians have built an efficient, secure and transparent ecosystem that saves time and money. The statistics speak for themselves; 46.7% of Estonians use internet voting, 98% have ID cards, and 99% of all services are online.
When Estonia started its digital transformation about two decades ago, there was no collection of digital data. The general population did not have the internet or even devices with which to use it. But the Government at the time decided to invest heavily into IT solutions and was prepared to experiment. Building e-Estonia as one of the most advanced e-societies in the world involved continuous experimentation and learning from mistakes.
The advice Estonia gives governments, based on the lesson it has leant, is firstly to create a digital infrastructure that makes services accessible and user-friendly. Secondly, digital literacy is critical. Utilising the media, education in schools and state-funded courses for necessary computer skills are crucial as this makes sure that the transition to digital is a smooth process. The latter is particularly true for the older generations that need more support than the digital natives of the younger generations. The result in Estonia is convincing – 95% of people declare their taxes online, 97% of retired people apply for their pension payments online.
It is undoubtedly possible for governments around the world to follow Estonia’s lead. However, I would add two additional elements. Firstly fostering public-private partnership as we see in the Caribbean. No single player—government, business, civil society, academia or individuals—can implement digital transformation projects alone. Multiple partners can pool resources, skills and knowledge, that is key. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, sums it up perfectly: “Governments, business and civil society can’t alone address the multifold challenges we have on the global agenda. We need collaboration.”
The second element is the ability to fund these projects. It’s not cheap, and these projects are often long-term, lasting many years. When it comes to financing, if a country cannot find the additional revenue through its tax-base, it may look towards securing a loan. The most common solution is to approach multi-lateral organisations, the World Bank, the IMF and other development banks. However, this means increasing a country’s debt levels, and it might not be enough. Innovative Financing is an alternative solution, which allows governments to fill the development finance gap.
The power of digital technology is profound. Having the political will, incorporating a collaborative approach and innovative thinking will bring many countries much closer to the lived reality of Estonians.