When writing about govtech, as the digital activities of states across the world have inevitably been labelled, it’s traditional to start with Estonia. So let’s do that.
After the country became independent from the USSR, in 1991, it decided to pursue technological innovation as a way of carving out a distinct identity. The results have been remarkable. e-Estonia, the government’s tech arm, boasts today that 99% of public services are available to citizens in digital form, with only marriages, divorces and real-estate transactions requiring you to leave the house. Online voting for parliamentary elections arrived in 2007. The country’s tax returns are done online, with most of the data pre-completed thanks to links between the tax office and local banks.
Around 97 per cent of patients have a digital health record, to which doctors have quick and easy access: in emergencies, they can use a person’s ID code to find out potentially life-saving information such as blood type, allergies, recent treatments, and on-going medication. Patients can browse through their own health records and those of their children, and see who else has looked at them. More than 95 per cent of prescriptions are issued digitally.
Cabinet meetings are paperless, with non-contentious matters agreed online in advance, and as a result have been cut from five hours to as little as half an hour. Absent ministers can take part remotely. Most parliamentary activity is also done digitally. In total, e-Estonia reckons the country’s embrace of cyber saves it 800 years of working time every year. Little wonder Wired magazine describes it as “the most advanced digital society in the world’.
There is a commercial as well as a democratic point to all this. Estonia has been able to flog its smarts to other countries, including Finland, Azerbaijan, Namibia and the Faroe Islands.
And of course, where Estonia has blazed a trail, a stampede of fellow nations has quickly followed. Govtech is proving a majorly disruptive force to the way services have traditionally been delivered across the world. In the new era there is, simply, no longer any need to do things the old, slow, frustrating way.
The government’s Department of Science and Technology has worked with IBM to create an AI-driven operations centre for dealing with disaster management. This provides emergency managers with a raft of information including advance warning of extreme weather events, feedback from first responders on the number of casualties and affected families, and the condition of buildings, roads and infrastructure.
Never far from the frontline when it comes to innovation, Singapore has created a Government Technology Agency, where more than 1,800 tech whizzes, including software developers, data scientists, user-experience experts and geospatial engineers operate like a Silicon Valley start-up, experimenting, tweaking and tackling problems brought to them by various government agencies. The Hive focused initially on establishing the Business Grants Portal, which brings the government’s various grants together in one destination so companies can more easily apply for them. It has also done work on healthcare, an app for reporting non-emergency issues to agencies, and created chatbots that answer citizens’ questions and help them to complete forms. Its leaders are now installing crack teams of around 50 people into each government department.
The Scandinavian state is a frontrunner in the use of telehealth, which enables remote contact between patients and doctors, plus digital advice, reminders, education, intervention and monitoring. This has been adopted in areas such as home rehabilitation and physiotherapy in Copenhagen, aiming to reduce hospital readmissions; in connecting diabetes patients and those with heart conditions with healthcare staff; and in home monitoring of older Danes, including video consultations and blood pressure monitoring.
Previously, reliance on the road network could mean the delivery of blood supplies to hospitals took five hours by ambulance. Now hospitals simply text a request, and drones parachute the blood in within around 15 mins. This avoids the need for refrigeration and dramatically cuts emergency response times.
Amsterdam is one of the world’s leading Smart Cities. It has cut living costs for homeowners by using a smart grid to reduce their CO2 emissions, brought in smart lampposts that save €10 billion per year, and automated bridge opening and closing to reduce waiting times for cars and ships, which has dramatically cut costs. It also uses an intelligent traffic management system, which has slashed the number of hours spent in vehicles.
These advances are important. Citizens around the world see the explosion in digital capability and potential and want governments to deploy technology for the public good. As the rest of their lives become more streamlined and convenient, they expect the same from the state. Slo-mo policians and civil servants look increasingly undynamic and out-of-touch with the modern world. A firm grasp of tech is vital – with alarming forecasts being made about the impact AI and robots will have on the workplace, the public is looking for reassurance that the state is alert to and managing this shift.
There’s a lot going on behind the scenes in the British government. The DWP is using natural language processing, machine learning and intelligent automation to read and categorise incoming correspondence, which is then sent to relevant staff. This liberates workers from the more mundane aspects of the job and, in theory at least, allows them to make a difference in more essential areas. Local authorities are going down the same path: Enfield Council, in North London, uses Amelia, robot technology that deals with frontline issues such as resident queries or authenticating licenses.
There is also a conversation to be had about the vast increase in storage and use of personal data and how this threat to individual privacy is best managed. It was public unease over state snooping that saw Tony Blair’s plans to introduce ID cards in the UK come to nothing in the 2000s. However, as we live more of our lives online, and willingly share more of our data with private companies, as biometrics and other identity analytics become commonplace, it seems likely we will return to the debate, and under different terms.
For example, future generations, raised in a different, more open and connected world, are likely to be less instinctively protective of their privacy. Arguments about convenience and inevitability will hold more sway, too. Estonia’s enthusiastic embrace of the new has seen the country introduce an overarching ID card, which, because all the government’s tech innovations speak to each other, has massively simplified the interface between citizen and the state.
As Siret Schutting of e-Estonia told Wired: “When you introduce an ID card, you get a lot of people asking, ‘Why do I need that?’ But then you add all of these services, and you can purchase a car from your living room, or vote from your living room or, when it’s like minus 40 outside and you have a newborn baby, you probably don’t want to go to the family office to name her: you do that online. Very small, pragmatic things.”
When you put it like that…