Op-ed: What Estonia can teach us about trust

Wednesday, July 24, 2019 - 5:44pm

After gaining independence from Russia in 1991, the government of Estonia set out to distinguish itself as a hub for technological innovation. Today, 99 percent of public services are available online to its 1.3 million citizens. However, despite all of the technological innovation evident in the e-Estonia project, its most impressive accomplishment has been maintaining trust with the public.

As we know from our everyday interactions, if we put our faith in someone and they deceive us, we aren’t likely to trust them again. The same is true for people and their governments. Estonia has demonstrated a digital transition where a government consistently delivers on its promise to provide valuable services to its people. This environment of confidence is essential to any healthy democracy.

A good democracy has both elements of trust and distrust. On the one hand, citizens need to keep a close eye on their leaders to prevent abuses of power, which is why in the United States we have frequent elections and consent of the governedHowever, people should also express faith in public institutions when they are found to be fair and legitimate .

The U.S. has a lot to learn from the Estonian model, especially when it comes to residents trust in public institutions. According to the Pew Research Center, only 17 percent of Americans say they trust the federal government to do the right thing always or most of the time. 

This level of distrust can be found across multiple levels of government as well. One of the most egregious examples of government deception is the Flint water crisis, in which the city government diverted contaminated water from the Flint River to cut costs. For much of 2014 and 2015, government officials told residents the water was safe to drink despite the evidence that there were still dangerous contaminant levels. Even now, as officials assure residents the pipes are replaced and the water is safe, many residents still drink only bottled water.

On top of political scandal, inefficient administration can also embitter citizens. American civic activities like voting and paying taxes, for example, are practically designed to be vexing. In order to vote, Americans have to brave a complicated voter registration process, figure out confusing residency and early voting rules and take off work on election day. The U.S. tax system is also notoriously complicated, with people filling out a plethora of forms each year only to send the government information it already has.

So what does Estonia do differently? To start, the voting and taxation processes in Estonia sound utopian. In 2005, Estonia became the first country in the world to facilitate online i-Voting. People can cast their ballots from any device connected to the internet and are even able to change their vote during the pre-election period. Additionally, filing taxes takes only five minutes on average and 98 percent of tax declarations are filed online.

The backbone of this digital society is the e-ID card, which gives residents access to secure digital services. The card is equipped with a chip and two pin codes for security and serves as a legal travel ID, national health insurance card and digital signature.

In addition, residents have agency over their personal data. Using their ID card, they can access a portal with a log of everyone who has viewed their data. They enjoy strong protections on the consent-based use of their sensitive personal information, which creates transparency with the authorities.

Skeptics will be quick to point out that Estonia is relatively small and has a public that already buys into its government acting like an idealistic Silicon Valley startup. If Estonia really is a special case, then it can’t offer much to large countries who can’t afford to start from scratch.

Also, some of the central tenets of e-Estonia, like national ID, are unlikely to gain a footing in the United States. Think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the ACLU have labeled national ID as a dangerous threat to individuals’ rights, giving the government wide-ranging surveillance capability over citizens. The federal government has a history of violating citizens’ privacy, so the public must indeed think critically about any proposed improvements to the current system.

That said, government e-services that make people’s lives easier already exist in the United States. The website USA.gov provides links to a number of online applications, including passports, federal assistance programs and immigration. Smaller state and municipal governments are also experimenting with e-services. For example, in Washington D.C., residents can apply online for a driver’s license, pay parking tickets and explore some of the city’s open data initiatives. Like American tech startups, governments should be more aggressive about providing a better user experience to their constituents.

It is also the job of governments to clearly communicate the value of e-services. Saving time and reducing hassle are great incentives, but if these aren’t properly relayed, then public programs will forever lack legitimacy and adoption. Equally, when things go wrong, the government must act fast to regain trust. Despite discovering a major vulnerability in the e-ID system in 2018, the Estonian government worked closely with experts and the public to turn a potential disaster into an opportunity to bolster its cybersecurity.

The Estonian digital transition started out with a high level of public confidence, and it was able to maintain it by granting the population with transparent, innovative services. Though the most obvious way to keep the trust of the public involves avoiding activities that prompt distrust, U.S. policymakers should also further consider the merits of bringing traditional public services into the digital age.

Alexander Satola is a rising junior and Senior Opinion Editor at the Daily.