Siim SIKKUT: "More e-Residents are joining than our babies are born in the country" (read or watch video)

11.05.2022 (Caucasian Journal). Our guest is Siim SIKKUT, co-founder of the famous Estonian e-Residency program and the former Chief Information Officer of Estonian government. He is considered one of the pioneers of “e-Estonia” – one of the most advanced digital nations. You may view the video discussion below, and read the text version - further below.  This interview is also available in Georgian and Armenian versions:

 ქართულად: Video subtitled in Georgian is here. Georgian text version is here.
 Հայերեն: Video subtitled in Armenian is here. Armenian text is here.

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The text version of interview is below: 

Siim SIKKUT: "More e-Residents are joining than our babies are born in the country"

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ: Hello and welcome to Caucasian Journal video interviews! Our guest today is Siim SIKKUT, co-founder of the famous Estonian e-Residency program and the former Chief Information Officer of Estonian government. He is considered one of the pioneers of “e-Estonia” – one of the most advanced digital nations.

Siim Sikkut: Hi, my name is Siim Sikkut from Estonia. I'm happy to do this interview for Caucasian Journal.

AK: In connection with your professional achievements in digital government, you are often referred to as a pioneer of digital nations. Do you see that the world in moving in the direction(s) you had once predicted? 

SS: Estonia has been on the journey of digital country for the last 25 years so it's very easy to say it was like that. But it’s hard long work actually. Obviously we are very glad that more and more governments are strongly going in digital way, because in Estonia we have seen the benefits it brings for better services, less corruption (or no corruption in Estonian case), for the efficiency of government, and also as a growth boost for the economy and the tech industry of course.

So to reap these benefits all the governments around the world should be doing more in digital. And it's not like they don't have plans or rhetoric, but the delivery is not happening enough, and more of it hopefully is coming. 

So, countries, especially after COVID, want to go more digital, but often they can't get their act together enough.

AK: E-Residency is a part of e-Estonia, is that correct? Estonians can electronically vote, pay tax, check health records. E-Residents can remotely register an EU company and manage business from anywhere. Can you tell a bit about both concepts, and how do they relate to each other? 

SS: Estonia as a country has become mockingly called “e-Estonia” because of the extent to which digital services have become part of our lives as citizens, government officials, and entrepreneurs.

So “e-Estonia” is really like a brand and a common name for living in the digital lifestyle in our country, enabled by government, and offering digital public services. 

About eight years ago we started with e-Residency on top of this all. So previously all the services were digitally available for people and residents in Estonia, and to the companies physically here. But we figured out, why can't we keep it in a way that you can access digital things from abroad?  Why don't we open up our services to the wide world? And that became e-Residency.

More e-Residents are joining than our babies born in the country, and every third new company in our economy now is being registered by e-Residents.

E-Residency means that anyone in the world can apply and get our digital identity, and through that start using Estonian digital services offered by government and our private sector partners. 

This is really the next stage of our digital government; it's an extension of that to the wide world. And through the eight years we've been glad to get 90 000 e-Residents, so every month we have been growing in a virtual space more than physically. For example, more e-Residents are joining than our babies born in the country, and every third new company in our economy now is being registered by e-Residents. 

So we've really seen the growth benefit and dividend of that.

AK: How can you summarize your experience working as the Chief Information Officer of Estonian government?

SS: Well, my own term as government Chief Information Officer in Estonia was five years. I left office this January 2022. In my job I’m already the fourth or fifth generation along the lines of people leading digital government work in Estonia. So my challenge was first of all to make sure that what has been built would last, become stronger, and is updated; and to do the new things.  

I think we managed to improve in both fields, even if there's always more to do, and several challenges still remain. 

It was a humbling experience because it was a chance to serve your country, which has always been very thrilling for me, and that's why I joined the government in the first place.  A chance to stand on the shoulders of many people before me, who really have built up digital government is even more humbling because you build on their stuff and really preserve what they have done. 

I think I left office saying “Yeah, we managed to get new things going”, like bringing artificial intelligence to our government, getting service redesign, going to make services more invisible, etc. And there is always more to do.

AK: When you worked as a Chief Information Officer of the government, did you have a chance to cooperate with other governments, from our region in particular? 

SS: Estonia has always been eager and glad to share our solutions and our lessons learned, especially because through our journey we learned a lot from others – like, for example, our digital identity was a concept born in Finland.  We took it, made it work, and made it bigger. So we've seen the benefits of such sharing and learning, and that we have always done with friends - from Georgia and elsewhere as well.  This sort of peer-to-peer networks really span globally, and Estonia is a member of several networks for digital government sharing. 

But even more importantly, based on the experience of building up the Estonian government, our experts and our private industries are taking these lessons abroad – the concrete know-how and solutions. They've been doing work in over 100 countries around the world: advising, training, building new solutions.  And that includes, by the way, the Caucasus. 

AK: Would you like work as Chief Information Officer for another country?

SS: As I said before, it's an honor and humbling experience to serve my country. Obviously nothing beats serving Estonian government in that sense, having been a government CIO there. At the same time, personally speaking, a professional challenge of trying to take digital innovation off the ground or to a next level in some other country is fascinating, especially trying to take some of the lessons learned in the CIO role in Estonia along with me. So I definitely won't say no, but obviously nothing beats serving your own fatherland.

We are not bound by location - we can put together a package of services we need for our lives from the best places in the world.

AK:  Is it correct that you were also involved in concepts such as “data embassy”, and “country-as-a-service”? If yes, can you briefly introduce them?  

SS: “Country-as-a-service” is really an idea related to e-Residency. I want to start my company in Estonia, but I want to live in, for example, Georgia, or I might want to get my health care from London, or I might want my children to go digitally to school in Singapore…  As more and more services become digital, especially the public services, more we can actually choose. We are not bound by location - we can put together a package of services we need for our lives from the best places in the world.

Data embassy is an initiative to make sure that, whatever happens in Estonia, we always keep functioning as a government. So, in Estonia we have built a digital government that's fully digital - there's no paper way back for us, there's no analog process to fall back to. If there's a natural disaster, a big cyber attack against Estonian systems, if there's a war going on for example, should we lose the sites in Estonia where we keep the data and the systems?  Well, we would lose a government and ability to function as a country. So we have to have backups abroad that we control - we don't want to just put them into any cloud. 

That led us to thinking: “Hey, how can we really have an ability to keep functioning digitally from abroad?” We also needed to make sure that it would be also legal and technical control. That led us to the concept of an embassy.  Embassies in the international law are our territory abroad.  You go to Estonian embassy in Tbilisi or elsewhere - that's our territory there. So we just brought the same thing to data center cloud space, together with our partners in Luxembourg.  We have part of their national data center as Estonian data center – an extension of our government’s cloud.  

So that's the data embassy - it's our data corner there, where we just keep all sort of most critical things backed up for ultimate contingency.

AK: E-Estonia started about a decade ago, so you can clearly see its results. Is there anything that you wish was done differently?

SS: There are  two main things we think we have learned along the way: First, keep things simple. If you make systems and projects and reforms too big they were prone to fail, because of  complexity. Start small, build it out, scale if it works, iterate along the way. That's really just like how all the startups are built, how e-Residency was built.  I think that's really what we have learned, it works the best in many ways, not like a “big bang” approach.  

And the second thing we have learned is that you have to keep things you build in a good condition. That's like in your house you have to keep it constantly, and then it preserves its value. It's the same with information systems and digital solutions. If you don't constantly work on them, bugs will come out, security holes might pop out. So you have to maintain what you build, or all will fall technologically behind. If you build something five years ago and it's not cloud compatible, you're losing out. 

AK: Other countries try to follow Estonian example – in particular our region’s countries Georgia and Azerbaijan have launched e-Residency in 2018. But obviously it is not as easy as it seems. What are the hidden obstacles?

SS: The fundamental difference between countries that I see is whether they deliver or not. Are they bold enough and willing enough to make decisions – not just talk and constantly ponder pros and cons – but to make decisions and try stuff out, to experiment? 

And the second differentiator is how complicated it is to get stuff done, once decisions are made.  So, what's the governance structure, are they building up enough capability, are they putting money where the mouth is – that’s investing into these things.  

This is where the difference comes in terms of why some countries go deeper in the digital direction and some countries less. At the same time these are all the factors that are in every country's control - if you keep talking or you decide and act upon, and deliver on your decisions. These are things that are in our hands as people in our daily lives as governments in our work. So the decisiveness and the ability to manage for delivery is what makes a difference, and that's the fundamental determinant of who achieves more on a digital front, and who does less.  

AK: On the other hand, despite huge success of your program – so far almost 100,000 e-Residents, the goal of 10 million e-Residents by 2025 seems too ambitious. What is restricting the projected growth?

SS: First of all I have to say that it was never our government’s objective or official goal to have 10 million e-Residents by 2025. This was more of us saying back in the day that “Hey, what can we do to perhaps have millions of e-Residents come, as opposed to thousands? What should we do differently to grow exponentially, why we have been growing slower than that?”

A few things in Estonian case take time, and we've been dealing with COVID crisis and the war stuff, so the focus has been elsewhere for the government.  But even more importantly we haven't been able to get rid of a few barriers yet that exist. For example, to get to become Estonian resident you still have to physically see your embassy.  The technology for that, the safe options to do it fully digitally have not evolved in the world fast enough, as we thought they would. 

AK: What makes Estonia so special and “e-friendly”? Is it because high digital literacy, people’s trust in government, or just a lucky combination of competent leaders?

SS: Estonia has been strongly going digital for a combination of several things at once. That's been the fact that we had competence base in digital and computer science, from where the specialists came, and visionaries who built the beginnings of digital government.  

There's been overall trust in government, but that's been fundamentally because Estonia went strongly to install rule of law and fairness, so you can trust government decisions and government act essentially, and that's been a cornerstone for it.

Third we've really pushed things through also like carefully managing for change and bigger reform. So, moving payment of taxes online is not just a technology project – it’s basically a change project, involving law and everything. So we really managed to care for that.

The difference between countries is whether you choose to make decisions, or whether you actually act on them.

We were lucky to have leaders who've been willing to take risks and try new things out, and to take initiative. 

It's a combination of these several things, but fundamentally I still go back to what I was saying before: The difference between countries is whether you choose to make decisions, or whether you actually act on them.  

We are not perfect in Estonia, but I think this is where we've been able to do a bit more than several other countries.

AK: Digital instruments make our life easier, but what about safety and security, if we put all the eggs in the same “digital basket”? 

SS: Estonian digital government and country’s story should hopefully assure that you can manage these risks.  We can manage them by building the proper legal frameworks, for example for protection of privacy and data; putting in place proper processing and safeguards (for example, what happens if somebody looks into stuff they should not, and you can get the fine, and there are deterrents like that); or for cyber security putting in place the processes where nobody has access to everything.  

That's technology you can employ. For example, we use very advanced cryptography to protect our identity and databases, or to protect privacy we have built the feature into our systems whereby you see what happens with the data. 

So there are many things we can do - from design of systems, processes, and legal frameworks to daily defense, to being able to act quickly if bad things happen.  And that's the necessary investment for being digital.

AK:  I can’t help asking you to share your vision of the future.

SS: First of all, technological progress will only continue and speed up, right?  It means there are constantly more and more opportunities to grasp in governments, for example that is why Estonia is going strongly with artificial intelligence now. 

We see that even with simple artificial intelligence applications we can make the government more and more effective again. 

So technology opens opportunities, and at the same time it brings new risks, so we have to manage them as well. That is why part of the Estonian digital strategy is obviously to build up next level of cyber security capability, especially the ability to understand where technology is going, and how to preemptively get ready for and manage the risks that might come. 

Most fundamentally, the Estonian – and my own – vision for digital future is that government and public services,  so-called bureaucracy, will have to become invisible.  

If it is online to get taxes done, or to submit an application for some benefit, that doesn't mean it's convenient. Digitally we could actually make it go away. We can get stuff done more and more automatically, invisibly.  

If my child is born, I don't need any more to apply to name the baby and get some benefits and stuff like that. To start a company all happens in one interaction only. So, redesigning services to work in bundles around things happening in our life is a big part of it, making stuff happen proactively, so I don't have to approach my government.

Actually I could offer the service making stuff happen more and more automatically.  For example why do I have to submit annual reports as a company, if government would have access to my data, so automatic reporting would be done. 

That is why we made the Estonian digital strategy objective “the best experience”, and everything should go into making digital public services the best experience for people, as they exactly need. 

In Estonia we really believe the future is what we make it to be.

In the future, not very far future, we won't be getting government information through websites or apps.  It will be through our voice: Saying to Siri or Google Assistant or something on your fridge, or to governmental bot: “Hey, what's happening today?”  Or to get a new passport Siri asks me: “Hey, it seems you want to get a new passport? Your current one is expiring”. 

The virtual assistants like that will unlock the whole better experience of digital government, making things more proactive and easier to use.

So, invisible services that happen proactively around live events, more and more automatically, and through virtual assistants helping us - that’s really the future that Estonia is building.  And in Estonia we really believe the future is what we make it to be.

AK: Thank you very much.

SS: Thank you for that, and good luck with your digital initiatives. Estonia is always happy to share our lessons learned. 

Caucasian Journal appreciates kind support of Estonian Embassy in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

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