E-governance is indisputably one of the main business cards of Estonia today. Smart information technology solutions have come to stay and make our lives simpler. In the light of this, a new curriculum of E-Governance Technologies and Services has been established at TalTech, which covers services and software products, legal regulations and administrative processes of the state. The curriculum also provides possible research topics and projects, such as the research needed by the private sector in the e-governance domain.
Research and practical projects in the field of e-governance are carried out in cooperation with the Next Gen Digital State (NGDS) research group and the e-governance leaders of the public and private sector, where students are involved as well.
The alumni of TalTech’s e-Governance Technologies and Services curriculum both in Estonia and abroad work in organisations that develop e-services. “Estonia has been the best place in the world to learn e-governance and to develop into one of the future leaders of e-governance. The diverse and interdisciplinary programme has shaped not only my career. It has shaped my personality and my life," says alumnus Florian Lemke from Germany, who has graduated from the Master’s programme.
During the studies, an overview is given of the best practices in Estonia and other countries. Studies in English language provide the opportunity for internationalisation and work in fields that require specific e-governance related qualifications, regardless of the territory.
In addition, the curriculum aims to provide an overview of the knowledge and skills needed to develop e-governance and e-government, manage the developments and share knowledge for implementing and managing digital change, while also identifying the links between IT, law and the organisational/national administrative models.
Based on this background, a legitimate question is – how much does the e-government know about our activities and is it not going to use this power against us? Ingrid Pappel, head of the e-Governance Technologies and Services curriculum at TalTech, and lecturer Regina Erlenheim help find answers to these questions.
The use of data could be more efficient than it is now
It is often believed that the “big brother” is actually there ruling behind the e-government. Of course, this is not the case because e-government can be considered as a „picture“ formed out of data collected through different channels. “The people of Estonia have actually always been very open towards the data use policies and the state is trying to respond the same way, using information as efficiently as possible and to the benefit of the people," said Ingrid Pappel, head of the curriculum.
She goes on to say that in terms of analysis and statistics, the state is rather acting cognitively. The data are always there, but often, it is not known, for example, when they were accessed. If you log in to the e-government services within a year, you are usually asked whether your data is current and correct. And this is the one of the only benchmarks verifying the accuracy of the data. Pappel also states that the state’s picture of citizens’ data is more imprecise than than many would expect.
To ensure more efficient functioning of e-governance, more data that are more frequently updated is needed, so it could be used as necessary. One example is local governments, where information collection, when dealing with young people, for example, is currently rather poor. If we could solve this problem, we could contribute to the development of the activities targeted at young people much better.
Today, proactive services and choices made based on personalisation are also often spoken about. These would be realised, for example, by the means of a personal timeline in person’s data sets and information registries, which would include some of the most important life stages – starting school, buying a flat or getting married. “The ultimate goal is still to provide one coherent user experience,” says lecturer Regina Erlenheim.
However, it must all fall within legal frameworks and be well structured. Tracking and mapping people for no reason is unacceptable, every step must be justified.
So who is guarding the guards?
The rules prescribe that people's data must not be misused. This is made sure and monitored by the appropriate mechanisms and the persons engaged in data protection. But can we be sure of them all the way?
According to Erlenheim, the malicious occurences have rarely come to light. In those cases where malicious intent of a public official is brought to light and where consequences are felt have an important role to play. Such occurrences are scaring away the mere thought of doing something. “It must be said that our investigative journalism is also doing a good job,” she adds.
The supervisory authorities are competent, and the verification is a success. A clear conscience is indicated also when officials notice errors in security features and notify the system and the public as soon as possible. Open and fair communication is the foundation of the state.
Will e-government be taken to a new level in the near future?
According to Ingrid Pappel, head of the E-Governance Services curriculum, first of all, the double and cross-use of data needs to be reduced to make the e-government services function even better. The next leap in information technology, however, must be to ensure that all procedures are redesigned with as few contact points as possible, and without bothering and involving people in the process too much
“The data must be easily understood by artificial intelligence. However, automation and the implementation of artificial intelligence are not as easy yet as they are thought to be,” Ingrid Pappel states and adds that the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications should be praised for taking on an active role of a visionary and leader on the topic.
Technology keeps changing, but we also need to think about the attitude of the citizens and the processes for implementing necessary changes. The way citizens interact with the public sector will certainly change in the near future.
In addition, the e-Governance Technologies and Services curriculum at TalTech also teaches the future leaders to monitor and drive the future changes. “Technologies can be built up, but how the state and the society will manage – that is indeed what we are teaching," Pappel says.
The development of the digital state, including the development of new services, the updating of the existing ones, and the technical sustainability of the e-government are necessary both for Estonia and foreign partners in creating a platform that would help as much as possible in the intelligent use of technological solutions.
The curriculum is closely cooperating with public authorities, which will propose topical and important themes. These are often related to various state services and programmes, the most successful of which can be exported from Estonia in the future.