Big Brother does “just want to help” – in Estonia, at least. In this small nation of 1.3 million people, citizens have overcome fears of an Orwellian dystopia with ubiquitous surveillance to become a highly digital society.
The government took nearly all its services online in 2003 with the e-Estonia State Portal. The country’s innovative digital governance was not the result of a carefully crafted master plan, it was a pragmatic and cost-efficient response to budget limitations.
It helped that citizens trusted their politicians after Estonia regained independence in 1991. And, in turn, politicians trusted the country’s engineers, who had no commitment to legacy hardware or software systems, to build something new.
This proved to be a winning formula that can now benefit all the European countries.
The once-only principle
With its digital governance, Estonia introduced the “once-only” principle, mandating that the state is not allowed to ask citizens for the same information twice.
In other words, if you give your address or a family member’s name to the census bureau, the health insurance provider will not later ask you for it again. No department of any government agency can make citizens repeat information already stored in their database or that of some other agency.
Tech-savvy former prime minister and current Vice President of the European Commission Andrus Ansip oversaw the transformation.
The once-only principle has been such a big success that, based on Estonia’s common-sense innovation, the EU enacted a digital Once Only Principle and Initiative early this year. It ensures that “citizens and businesses supply certain standard information only once, because public administration offices take action to internally share this data, so that no additional burden falls on citizens and businesses.”