By Federico Plantera
This year’s e-Governance Conference, 8th edition in the series, has come and passed almost in the blink of an eye. As the Executive Director of e-Governance Academy Hannes Astok said, one of the biggest pleasures was definitely to be able to host participants in person again, and literally shake hands with colleagues, partners, guest experts.
Networking event. Photo by Raigo Pajula
Over 300 digital leaders and experts from 75 countries have come to Tallinn for the event – a bit like some e-Government Olympics, so to say. When adding also online participants then 900 people, in total, joined us this year.
Now that the dust has settled, planes have landed, and the daily grind resumes, let’s take a look at the main takeaways from this year’s programme, and re-live the most salient moments of those three wonderful days.
From readiness to resilience: the role of core digital enablers
Serving partly as a manifesto of this edition, in the first day of e-Governance Conference we went back to basics – pillars of a digital government, but with a fresh look. Because, at first unfortunately, the beginning of this year has brought into the spotlight internationally more emergency situations. As if COVID19 had not been enough in the past two years, the first months of 2022 bridged distant countries in facing together the natural disaster that took place in Tonga, and then the war in Ukraine.
The issues and causes can’t be more different between the two events – a calamity the first, an act of outright military aggression the latter. But both instances urged governments to act ultra-swiftly to protect citizens, meet their needs, keep the machine of the state at work despite situations so difficult to imagine for many others of us. But as Hannes Astok already highlighted, crises allow for leaders “To take risks, shortcuts, to experiment and try new methods or processes. Because if you don’t do that, you fail to address the problem at hand anyway.”
Hannes Astok. Photo by Raigo Pajula
Drawing up conclusions of the first day, eGA’s Programme Director for Smart Governance Marit Lani highlighted the experiences of Tonga, Ukraine, and also Poland, in reacting as effectively as possible to tough situations. They were able to do so because the foundations of a digital government, the key enablers, were there – connectivity, standards for interoperability, digital skills, but particularly digital identity and cybersecurity. This allowed flexibility and room for swift adaptation, which are key elements of truly resilient governments. And on the other hand, effectiveness in reaction sheds light on another, perhaps overlooked, core component of digital government: resilience itself, and the possibilities technology provides by design in that direction.
‘Yes’ to Artificial Intelligence. Constructively, not blindly
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone – Artificial Intelligence has been a prominent subject matter in basically most conferences on digital that happened in the past five to seven years. So why are we still talking about it? Our answer would be that, if at first the race to AI seemed definitive and total, governments and digital leaders must look at AI use in a wise and more considerate way than the private sector can afford to do. But they should do it too, don’t let that slip.
Kristina Mänd, Senior Expert on e-Democracy at eGA, points that out concisely in her second-day remarks. “Digital should serve the people, democracies, and society.” And, she continues, it “Requires being responsible too.”
Kristina Mänd. Photo by Raigo Pajula
Both themes fit perfectly in the way AI was framed as a topic during this year’s conference. Ott Velsberg (Government CDO of Estonia) illuminated the audience on Estonia’s plans regarding AI use, proactive services, and the first government virtual assistant to see the light. On services, Vitaly Friedman added key insights into approaches and goals to delivering for the public, while leveraging complex information and systems. Such points coherently fall into the same line of thought – among others – that the Estonian government is pursuing about the future of public services, as we heard from the recently appointed Government CIO Luukas Ilves.
Vitaly Fridman & Ott Velsberg. Photo by Raigo Pajula
And still, does the simple availability of technology push governments towards finding ways to implement it extensively? Not really. In a third-day panel moderated by Katrin Nyman-Metcalf, we asked just that question. Because automating just for the sake of it might be cool and tempting, but “Digital is a matter of efficiency,” then of devices and tech. And first and foremost, digital transformation shall always keep in focus the centricity of users as a fundamental, overarching value.
Katrin Nyman-Metcalf. Photo by Raigo Pajula
Digital sovereignty is a matter of strategic autonomy
With the increased presence of digital tools and components in government, and society at large, it is inevitable to see the rise of new risks and challenges. Some of these raise questions of sovereignty all states need to address – over data protection, use and ownership of tech provided by private companies, trust and legitimacy between the state and the citizen.
Paul Timmers, Michel Paulin, Nele Leosk, Lisa Talia Moretti. Photo by Raigo Pajula
Paul Timmers, academic and former director at the European Commission for e-government, raises all the hottest questions on the table in his keynote and following panel discussion. The issue of digital sovereignty is constantly discussed in Brussels, as he refers. Because it is an issue of strategic autonomy – managing the digital resources that come into the picture when governments’ own room for action and policies fall short of delivering effectively for their citizens. The EU already has policies in place to strike a balance between the public and private sectors in terms of dependence and power resources. So it is fair to talk about a European way to interpret digital sovereignty.
Michel Paulin and Nele Leosk. Photo by Raigo Pajula
This becomes even more important when delving deeper, first, into the technologies that make the digital government of the future. Cloud is one of them, and Michel Paulin (CEO of OVH Cloud) highlights how there is only one cloud actor from the EU in the top 10 industry players worldwide. In such context, Europe – as other geosocial areas in the world too – shall find its own way of being digital. “Cooperating also with countries that might not be like-minded, and with big tech too,” as Nele Leosk highlights, in her capacity of Ambassador at Large for Digital Affairs in Estonia.
Donor organizations have to think outside the box
Digital development is a continuous journey of building, updating, and adapting governmental structures and processes to best deliver services for citizens and businesses. So it only makes sense that our countries’ starting steps, on that path, are each very different. But where plans and political will are solid, other actors can enable and facilitate the realization of such projects by means of funding. And that is where donor organizations come into the picture, a classic feat of the e-Governance Conference. Because strategies are nice, but it is even better to be able to realize them.
Kadi Metsandi, Max Lamesch. Photo by Raigo Pajula
Financing digital transformation is a key concern for governments worldwide, particularly for those lagging behind the digital development ladder, so to say, but extremely willing to leapfrog towards better and more cost-effective service delivery. And the role of donor organizations, of a supportive network composed of these and project managers too, becomes even more important when the challenges are regional or global. In the first case, we may refer to the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis that ensued; in the second, we can look at climate change and environmental sustainability, a topic highlighted by President of Estonia Alar Karis as well in his conference speech.
President of Estonia Mr Alar Karis. Photo by Raigo Pajula
Threats and challenges, from a donor organization’s perspective, require quick action and in-depth knowledge. Kadi Metsandi, Director of Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, highlights these as key values to keep in mind for donor organizations. “Climate change, but the pandemic too, have pushed us to think more outside the box, and find innovative solutions to global crises. The goal is to meet people’s needs in the fields where these manifest more strongly – such as, keeping the pandemic in mind, in healthcare and education. I emphasize this because we want to assist rapidly countries in need, and we must know how to do it in the best way.” To always keep beneficiaries at the centre, as Max Lamesch says, based on the Luxembourg government experience.
Digital leadership and the way forward
Digital transformation does not happen overnight – we have said this before, and we will say it again. But every government that aims to walk the digital way, needs figures that inspire and carry out that change. That is why digital leadership is so important, within the framework of efforts to make digital government a reality. And that is why Siim Sikkut, former CIO of the Estonian Government, went on a little literary quest.
Siim Sikkut, Barry Lowry and Yolanda Martínez. Photo by Raigo Pajula
He spoke to 20 effective digital leaders from all around the world about their experience, and collected insights in a recently published book. Two from this brilliant bunch were present on stage with him – Barry Lowry, Government CIO in Ireland, and, Yolanda Martínez, former National Digital Strategy Coordinator in Mexico.
Obviously, the contexts can’t be more different. And still, there are many determinants of success in common across experiences – and oceans. One of them, is “To build capacity with civil servants. As millions of people go for services, this is the best validation mechanism when you build something for a user,” Martínez points out. At the same time, CIOs should be prepared to ask for the mandate and license to innovate, and carry out that change beyond plans and strategy papers, as Lowry explains while he serves a second term in that position. It is a complex job, digital leaders must be many things at once. But the ultimate goal, across contexts and experiences, remains the same: “Deliver, deliver, deliver. And make changes last,” as Siim Sikkut explains.