Would you rather be stuck in line at the post office or the department of motor vehicles? Personally, I’d rather be almost anywhere but at the post office, but to be honest once the wait time exceeds 15 minutes, I start to lose it, whether I’m waiting for a driving test or postage stamps.
I imagine most of you feel the same way, which is probably why government institutions make for easy targets—our experiences of them are so unpleasant that it’s easy to forget the important role they play. That should be a compelling reason to make these services more efficient, and less time-consuming, since their proper functioning is essential to keeping democracy functioning. Because when the experience of government is debased, trust in government is surely weakened as well.
The offices of government provide us with fundamentally important services—the safe regulation of drivers and their vehicles, the free election of representatives in trusted elections, the reliable conveyance of mail, fair collection of taxes, and more—but the demands they make on our time feel increasingly unreasonable in an age of instantaneous messaging and cashless payments. Who hasn’t wondered, while waiting in line to vote, why selecting a government can’t be as easy as online shopping? As paper is being eliminated from so many areas of life and business, why is government still so reliant on paper forms and records?
The reasons may be both institutional and cultural. Government bureaucracies known for their inefficiency seem inherently conservative and dedicated to preserving the status quo, while one imagines that the language of customer experience is never spoken within the walls of city hall.
Nevertheless, it’s somewhat ironic that the question of efficiency should have been asked first, and answered most convincingly, by the government of Estonia, a country that until 1991 was under the control of the former Soviet Union, a regime not known for the elimination of bureaucracy.
Today Estonia’s government digitization program, launched in 1997 and known today as e-Estonia, is proving so successful that it’s getting the attention of governments and experts around the world. How much has changed for citizens? Quite a bit. Residents of the Baltic country of 1.3 million can file their taxes online (95% do), vote online, and procure prescriptions and receive medical test results online, all of which means they can spend less time in line.
Moreover, the system is oriented around ease of use—a “once only” policy means that a citizen never has to enter the same information more than once. Instead, anyone who needs to fill out a new form, say for a building permit, only needs to enter whatever new information is required, with other existing data pulled from the system.
In addition to streamlining processes for its citizenry, the program has had other benefits, most notably in creating jobs for engineers, designers, writers and developers to support the web initiative. Not least of all, the move is saving the country 2 percent of its GDP.
While concerns about privacy are paramount in any system, whether digital or paper-based, Estonians and their officials voice confidence in the system’s security. Each citizen is given a universal ID card that requires not only a secret passcode supplied by the cardholder, but a digital signature that provides state-of-the-art security.
The platform is engineered to safeguard privacy. Each person “owns” their own data, and each time a piece of data is viewed that event is recorded, with unauthorized views punishable as criminal offenses.
Taking note of the government’s success, Estonia’s neighbor Finland, as well as Japan and Cypress, have modeled their digitization initiatives on its platform.
As digital technologies remake global infrastructure and streamline the processes supporting business and life, it seems government is often the last sector to adopt new and innovative technologies. But governments can take the lead as well, as they have in many countries now mandating e-invoicing for companies doing businesses with them. These governments recognize that the gains of digitization will accrue not only to government ledgers, but also to businesses operating within their jurisdiction. As an e-invoicing provider to the US government, Tungsten Network understands the benefits to be earned, as well as the organizational hurdles that governments may face as they try to address the challenges of digital transformation, and we’re committed to helping both parties streamline their invoicing processes to forge better working relationships and deliver more value to their citizens.