Imagine being able to complete your taxes in around three minutes. Or having the ability to register a company start-to-finish in 18 minutes.

These bureaucratic fantasies are a reality in the small European nation of Estonia, where the government’s ‘e-Estonia’ platform delivers 24/7 end-to-end services for 99% of public services.

The only things you can’t do online are get married, divorced or purchase property.

Speaking to a crowd at the Technology in Government conference in Canberra, Global Affairs Officer at the Estonian Government CIO Office, Sandra Särav, explained that far-reaching digitisation isn’t an overnight process.

“How did we do this?” she asked. “It owes a lot to digital leadership.”

“Even though most countries have now realized they need to digitize, you shouldn’t digitalise for the sake of digitalisation.

“You really need to work on user-centricity – you’re going to have to do the things that will make life easier for your citizens.”

“It has to be innovation with a purpose.”

Truly digital

About half the size of Tasmania and with a population of 1.3 million, Estonia is now one of the most digitally-advanced countries in the world, with the ICT sector currently making up around 7% of GDP.

Estonia’s first digital service was delivered in 2000, when e-tax declarations were introduced.

Since then, the government has established more and more of these digital services through close collaboration with the private sector.

Särav explained that much of this success can be owed to delivering services that are entirely online, not partially.

“A digital service is not something where you go online, download a PDF form, fill it in, then upload it again,” she said. “That’s not a digital service.”

“A digital service is an end-to-end fully digital transaction.”

The Estonian identity card, which incorporates a SIM card and can be plugged in to computers, is at the heart of each of these services.

The card has a biometrically validated digital signature which identifies the citizen instantly.

Become Estonian today

Perhaps most remarkably, you don’t even need to be from Estonia to access e-Estonia’s services.

In 2014, the Estonian government enacted new laws that allow foreign nationals to apply for digital residency.

Estonia now has 40,000 e-residents from more than 150 countries, who have established more than 6,000 companies.

“As an e-resident you can access European Union markets, because in the European Union when you have a company in one of the member states you can easily operate in any other member state,” Särav said.

“You can provide digital signatures – meaning you can manage a company fully online without ever showing physical presence.”

Securing the system

Like any large-scale digital transformation, questions around security are synonymous with innovation.

Estonia operates its e-governance platform on ‘X-Road’ – a cheap and decentralised system that utilises multiple databases.

“We came up with this by accident,” said Särav. “In 2001 we were too poor to afford a centralised database, so we decided that we needed to connect different databases of public and private sector providers and make them talk to each other.”

“Now different countries realise this is the safest way to go – you shouldn’t have a centralised database because otherwise it’s very vulnerable.”

If one database is compromised, it can easily be disconnected from the system.

To further protect systems, Estonia is opening a ‘data embassy’ in Luxemburg – a foreign database with critical information that is Estonian sovereign territory.

As well as exploring new ways to secure data, Särav explains that public trust in digital governance has been built through simple transparency.

“We have approximately 350 cyber threats to us every month. We manage them, we talk about them openly and we raise the level of cyber hygiene.”