Priit Alamäe, December 7, 2015
The key to Estonia's success as an e-state has been due to smart political choices and the courage to challenge existing ways and legislation.
Lately there is a lot of talk of disruption in business. The word is not really translatable to other languages. Maybe the best explanation of the word is the breaking of existing models and ways of doing things. Skype did it with international calls, Uber is trying to do the same with taxi service, Airbnb with accommodation etc.
The more inertia a system has and the bigger the incentive of the people connected to the system to keep the status quo, the more difficult it is to change a system. Democratic countries have probably the biggest inertia globally as democracy is an art of compromise and one of the main goals of bureaucracy is to ensure sustainability and to prevent errors.
The readiness to break governance dogmas has been the foundation of Estonia’s success as an e-state. However, it has not been technology that has taken Estonia to the top of the world. The key has been smart political choices and the courage to challenge existing ways and legislation.
The decision with the biggest impact has probably been the ”once only law”. In effect it says that government agencies cannot ask for the same data from citizens again if it already exists in a government database. From afar it might sound like a minor technocratic detail but this decision is one of the cornerstones behind the success of our e-state.
This simple decision has forced our bureaucratic structures to re-think their whole modus operandi and has created the base for interdepartmental information exchange and e-services, which greatly improve the life of people. This decision has taken the ability from our bureaucrats to force people to run between ministries with paper documents.
The pre-requisite for the implementation of such a decision has been the existence of our ID-card and X-Road together with the supporting legislation. It has created the technological infrastructure enabling global innovation in governance. Now we have the platform to make the next step to make Estonia even more competitive globally.
Since the olden days governments have been operating on the principle ignorantia juris non excusat. This means a person who is unaware of a law may not escape liability for violating that law merely because he or she was unaware of its content. The state has positioned itself as anonymous legislator and regulator, expecting all private persons and legal entities to know and understand everything.
On an abstract level there are three layers to a state. General legislation (”thou shalt not kill and steal”) that is applicable to everybody. The next level is legislative acts and decrees that define the specific rights and benefits of individuals and organizations based on the characteristics of such subjects. And then there are agencies and organizations that mediate the services provided by the state and exercise control over the fulfillment of one’s obligations defined by laws and decrees.
Countries globally expect that every individual has to both know and understand all the laws and the way that the government is structured in order to be able to act as a law-abiding citizen and to be able to get the full value of the benefits that the individual is entitled to.
Anne – a 35-year-old woman, kids 3 and 10 years old, employed with a salary of 1500 EUR, an apartment with a mortgage, registered in Tartu etc. Based on such characteristics Anne has a finite amount of obligations defined by legislative acts and a similar finite amount of benefits that she is entitled to.
Thanks to our e-government we have all this information available. We can build one-to-one connections between legislative acts and all the individuals influence by such acts because the information already exists in different databases. We have the ability to say exactly how many people are influenced by a planned change in a law and we can count all the laws and decrees that influence the life of Anne.
Considering all of the above, we have a specific proposal for re-thinking our governance. The state (and we should not differentiate between the state and municipal levels, this difference should be seamless for the people) should be obliged to notify everybody of their rights and obligations, provided that the state has the up-to-date data about the person or company. If the state has notified the subject about its obligations then such obligations do not exist.
In addition we should get rid of the obsolete concept of ”application” wherever possible. If a person has the legal right to get child support, pension or any other benefit, why should the person apply for this benefit through an agency?
This may sound like a small change but it requires a total re-think of the way that we perceive governance. It also requires a qualitative jump for the approach to legislation – in effect we would need to write our future legislation in close to machine-readable logical construction and quality.
One of the main drivers in business environment attractiveness is clarity and transparency. The fewer advisors a company needs to ”translate” the local legal peculiarities, the better.
This change would also deliver a new meaning to the concept of participatory democracy. We are able to deliver detailed information about the effect that a new law or change in a law would have on the life of the specific person as well as give instant feedback.
We should not stop half way. The e-state should not mean the automation of 50-year-old processes. When reading legislation, you will find a magical ”30-day rule” everywhere. This means that the state usually has the obligation to reply to incoming requests within 30 days. And when the rule says ”up to 30 days”, it usually takes 30 days.
But ask yourself, where does the number 30 come from? It comes from a time, when we did not have computers, the internet, databases, x-road, ID cards etc. We should reduce this number to 10 within two years. We have the administrative and technological capacity for delivering this change, it is just a matter of getting things done.
Disruption means using a big hammer. It is important to optimize specific processes but in addition we should make major far-fetching decisions that force us to rethink our whole governance model and change the whole system.