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Podcast: The next state of digital public services: Experiences from Estonia

Estonian govt CIO Siim Sikkut and Gerhard Hammerschmid discuss Estonia’s digital transformation.

Siim Sikkut, the Republic of Estonia's Chief Information Officer and Gerhard Hammerschmid, Professor of Public and Financial Management and Director of the Hertie School Centre for Digital Governance discussed on 11 March what lessons Germany and other countries might draw from Estonia's digital transformation of its public administration.

After a series of extensive reforms over the last decade, Estonia has become one of the most advanced digital societies in the world. Recently, Estonia also presented its vision of how public services should work digitally in the age of artificial intelligence.

Sikkut and Hammerschmid debated the future of digital government from the Estonian viewpoint and the opportunities artificial intelligence (AI) offers to substantially improve public sector services. The audience discussion in particular focused on what could be gleaned from Estonia's experience. According to Sikkut, the key is a combination of fostering an internal innovation culture while also enabling governments to collaborate with private sector companies. 

Estonia's biggest strengths are speed and a focus on building small-scale and customer-ready solutions, Sikkut said. He explained that a crucial factor for establishing the “government as a platform” principle was sharing data securely throughout all government services, and even beyond. In this respect, he stressed the importance of improving the user experience and aiming for “invisible services” and zero bureaucracy.

For example, he noted, it is possible to systematically automate all the many administrative steps required after the birth of a child, with the government proactively approaching new parent(s) for information, instead of the other way around. Child benefits are a case in point: “We know for a fact that everybody will apply. Why do they need to apply?,” he said.

Given Estonia’s limited resources and shrinking population, Sikkut stressed the importance of AI. In terms of current trends, the government as a platform approach is currently being transformed to make best use of AI. Estonia is focusing on developing core components such as chatbots, voice to text, content classification or sentiment analysis to be reused for different applications in different areas of government.

Sikkut also pointed out that the digital transformation requires change management with not only carrots (incentives such as financial support or coaching) but also sticks (as in regulation or conditions attached to additional funding). “It’s not about tech, it’s not about money, it’s about change,” he said. He also underscored the importance of cooperation with the private sector, as the government relies heavily on access to the best resources, technologies and people.

The event was hosted by the Centre for Digital Governance and the TROPICO research project. It is part of the "Future of Government" event series addressing transformative trends that challenge governments around the globe and exploring possible responses to bolster state capacity and legitimacy in ever more turbulent political environments.

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This event was hosted by the Hertie School Centre for Digital Governance in cooperation with the TROPICO project.