Estonia’s CIO on how the country remains a digital leader in Europe

4 months ago 152

It’s one thing setting and IT and security strategy for a company but being responsible for an entire country’s digital strategy is a whole different experience.

But Estonia has already been ahead of the game when it comes to digital strategy, so it’s no surprise that it has its own dedicated leader in charge of the country’s IT initiatives as well as all things digital.

Siim Sikkut is the government CIO of Estonia, also known as deputy secretary general for digital development in the ministry of economic affairs and communications, having taken up the role in March 2017.

His role is to set strategy and policies, launch and steer strategic initiatives, and regulate in areas of digital government and cybersecurity in Estonia.

‘Governments should be spending a certain minimum amount of revenues on cybersecurity’
– SIIM SIKKUT

Are you spearheading any major IT initiatives you can tell us about?

We are currently in the midst of a couple of bigger initiatives intended to make the next leap in providing cutting-edge digital services. One of those things is the pro-active government approach and looking to launch the first life-events based services for people and companies.

The aim of those services is to design the whole user experience around events that are relatively common and provide them in one seamless interaction. For example, in the case of the birth of a child, the pursuit of services from several different government agencies is a thing of the past. All the services related to this wonderfully important life event are concentrated on the state portal eesti.ee. Operations related to parental benefits, leave and other services can all be arranged through the state portal in one interaction or in some cases completely automatically.

If we bring the services together, the quality of the service will increase, as well as the user experience. Such solutions save time and money for all parties and completely change the way a citizen interacts with his or her country in the future.

Another initiative intended to improve the interaction of the government is called #bürokratt, a vision on how the interaction between the government and the user should be in the age of AI.

It goes much further than a simple chatbot and will be essentially an interoperable network of AI applications, which enable citizens to use public services with virtual assistants through voice-based interaction.

We have been tirelessly working to make this vision into reality and are now reaching the first tangible milestones. There have been several proofs of concept during the past year and we have launched a roadmap for 2021-2022 to keep the momentum going.

Furthermore, we are moving well ahead in general AI applications with around 100 use cases working or in development in the public sector. We see AI as a great chance to take our existing digital progress to a whole new level and reap the next stage of efficiency benefits for public sector, even with the current stage of AI technology development where the AI applications are ‘narrow’ or for concrete purposes only.

We are also in the process of creating a competence centre for more efficient and high-quality management of the IT infrastructure and basic services of public authorities. The competence centre will organise the provision of the service centrally to all public authorities either by itself or, increasingly, by purchasing from the private sector.

In this way, we avoid fragmented investments and ensure that technology is constantly updated and that the digital state as-a-whole functions better including by switching to cloud solutions, which is another huge task currently in the works.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation?

First, it is the ‘transformation’ word that matters here, not the ‘digital’ one. It is about changing how organisations – in our case, government – work, that makes the impact. Not the technology in itself. As such, the core of CIO or transformation leader or digital leader is to define and deliver the transformation journey. Essentially, we have to manage the change, not only the tech part.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world?

The main thing is not about tech – but service design as a trend is still making waves. In government, the proactive – or as we call – invisible services will take hold. The life-event based proactive services will conveniently contact and request input from citizens only when needed, while at the same time notifying citizens about results of said services and use of their data – at points of significant events in their lives.

With the increasing use of AI, public sectors in the world will have smart virtual assistants up and running with live services, shedding the old complex web forms and replacing them with natural human-centric AI-driven conversation.

With the implementation of personal data management platforms, citizens will have more direct control over their data than ever before. It will be possible to easily, and through trusted and secure solutions, give permissions to share data between government and private sector and vice versa while also limiting said access, if necessary.

These are the ways we build the future of e-Estonia, and we truly believe that future is what you make it to be. Hence, we are betting on these directions to take on wider hold.

In addition, since the beginning of our digital journey in Estonia, we have been supporting the idea of a platform-based approach and using shared solutions in both the public and private sector, instead of duplicating.

These principles have helped us in the development and fast adoption of various building blocks of the digital government like the digital identity or the data exchange layer X-Road. Even with new emerging technologies, the logic behind the digital government has remained the same. Thus, I would suggest all peers to be less focused on the next trends and more on laying the lasting foundations that enable you to take on whatever trends come your way.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

First, by taking careful note that cyber risks are there and second, by investing sufficiently in our capacity to manage these risks. Classic stuff – which many countries and organisations still neglect. That is why the government of Estonia is coming out soon with an initiative to raise a call that governments and industries should be spending a certain minimum amount of revenues on cybersecurity.

However, Estonia’s strength has been that we have always known that the risks are there and decided to manage them, not stay away from digitalisation because of them. So, we are firm believers in the risk management logic and in the notion that cybersecurity is an enabler for digital development. Without a good defence, we cannot keep trust. Without trust, there are no users. Without users, there are no digital dividends for the development.

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