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Our Digital Destiny: Go East!

Eva Michely
24 November 2017

"Go West – this is our destiny", the Pet Shop Boys sang in 1993. Almost a quarter of a century later, this maxim has been reversed. In digitalisation, East is where we have to go if we wish to catch a glimpse of our destiny. If the supposedly so very innovative West doesn't want to miss the boat, a journey to Eastern Europe is in order. These days, the heart of digitalisation beats in Eastern Europe.

4th Eastern Partnership Business Forum, October 2017 

Organised by the Estonian Centre of Eastern Partnership and Enterprise Estonia, the 4th Eastern Partnership Business Forum took place in Tallinn in October. An integral part of the EU Eastern Partnership Summit, the Business Forum aims at opening up business relationships between the EU and Eastern Partnership states. Under the title "Digital Economy: Innovative Platform for Transparent Borderless Business ", this year's Forum highlighted the latest developments in digitalisation, focussing on e-governance and e-commerce.

Following an invitation by the German Association for Small and Medium-sized Businesses (BVMW), I applied for one of the twenty places available to German entrepreneurs. To my surprise and, frankly, consternation, I was the only German who had cared to apply. I benefitted greatly from participating in the Forum and returned inspired, invigorated and, also, vindicated: Many western European countries such as Germany are lagging behind where the implementation of digitalisation initiatives is concerned. Worse still, the need for such measures isn't even recognised in many government and business quarters. 

Best Practice in Digitalisation – Estonia takes the lead 

In Estonia, the need for such measures was recognised early on. Following its independence in 1991, Estonia faced the challenge of extending its government services to a populace that was scattered across a relatively large country. Estonia invested large sums in digital government services: e-Estonia was born.

Courtesy of e-Estonia, only marriage, divorce and the acquisition of property have to be carried out in person. All other public services can be accessed digitally. Companies can be registered in only a few hours, while the Estonian state has become a hugely efficient tax collector due to e-taxation services. 

Estonia issues electronic IDs, allowing citizens to prove their identity when signing documents, voting or conducting business, banking and healthcare affairs online. e-Estonia saves time on those tasks that don't require human interaction and allows civil servants to attend to those processes that do require personal attention. 99% of all government services in Estonia are available online, saving 800 years of working time per year. Personal data has to be entered once only and is then automatically forwarded across the system. 

Further, Estonia is the first country to have offered virtual residency. Irrespective of nationality or country of residence, people from more than 140 states are entitled to apply for e-Residence in Estonia. Up until now, Estonia has attracted more than 25.000 e-residents from 135 different countries, 2.200 of whom have registered new companies in Estonia. 

Following Suit: Georgia, Finnland and Azerbaijan 

In their own ways, Georgia, Finnland and Azerbaijan have followed Estonia's lead. Georgia, like Estonia, faced administrational challenges upon the USSR's disintegration. In response, Georgia championed digital government solutions from 2006 onwards. Up until the present day, Georgia has introduced, among other things, digital signatures, an e-taxation system, an e-system for VAT refund and is currently developing an e-healthcare system. 

The Finnish digitalisation strategy is based on the principle that public services ought to be tailored according to citizens' life and business events. The state understands itself as a service provider, aiming to implement a digital ecosystem that guarantees individual and economic wellfare. Digitalising the processes between service needs and service provision, the Finnish authorities hope to automate governance and to ease the administrational burden carried by each citizen.

In an attempt to increase cross-border exports to the EU as well as to Asia, Azerbaijan has created the Digital Trade Hub, an e-trade and e-commerce platform which offers digital customs services. As the first ever e-trade platform provided by a government, the Digital Trade Hub provides an infrastructural framework for e-trade enterprises and offers integrated solutions for paramount trading platforms such as Amazon, Alibaba and eBay.

By way of conclusion: The Tallinn Declaration on eGovernment 

During the Ministerial Meeting in Tallinn, all member states of the European Union and the European Free Trade Area committed to a set of shared principles concerning digital public services. These principles are enshrined in the Tallinn Declaration on eGovernment. The Declaration proclaims that "the overall vision remains to strive to be open, efficient and inclusive, providing borderless, interoperable, personalised, user-friendly, end-to-end digital public services to all citizens and businesses" (3). In line with this vision, the Declaration proposes, among other things, the following policy measures 

  • Digital-by-default, inclusiveness and accessibility
  • Once only
  • Openness and transparency
  • Interoperability be default 

The implementation of these measures across European markets seems still a long way off. While countries such as Estonia are creating innovative digital super highways, other Western European countries such as Germany still dawdle along analog hiking trails. Administrational processes here are often slow, paper-based and, at worst, redundant. Miles to go.

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