Podcast 🎧 & blog: 20 years of e-Governance Academy

04.01.2023 | Federico Plantera

That’s right. e-Governance Academy is turning 20 years old this year! Two decades of digital transformation; of understanding societies through the lens of technology; of advising governments worldwide on how to reap the benefits of digital development.

And who better than Hannes Astok, Executive Director at eGA, to draw a bit of a retrospective. In this episode we take a look back, between personal memories and organizational milestones, to what has been a two-decade journey into the future of our digital societies.

Numbers that speak for themselves

A journey that, according to Hannes Astok, has been characterized certainly by fast growth. “At the beginning, we were a very small organization, with just three staff members and some projects here and there. But look at us now: personnel count is at 70 people, we have worked with more than 140 countries, through over 300 digital transformation projects,” Astok highlights.

The definition of a global reach, pretty much. “I think that the dream founders of e-Governance Academy had 20 years ago has become true – to become a leading, global digital transformation consultancy. I cannot say it has been a roller coaster ride, rather a learning-by-doing process. One that I’m very proud of,” he says.

A look into the past of e-government, then back to the future

20 years back, that was also the time when Estonia made its first significant, practical steps towards creating a digital government. The data exchange system was launched, together with the roll out of electronic ID cards. “Estonia wasn’t as digital as it is today, but still was ahead of time compared to many other governments. Some thought paper-based government would just stay here forever, and that computers were rather some kind of toys.”

“The vision to have a full-scale digital government, to make data run and not people, to create invisible and proactive services, to give people access to services through their phones – all of it, even here, was just in the minds of a very limited number of people. So the evolutionary process that took place, in this sense, it’s no less than huge,” Astok points out.

“Perhaps, governments were slightly ahead of businesses in terms of digital adoption 20 years ago. But today, the private sector is running much faster. A perfect example? If I can buy a ticket to fly around the world in five minutes from my smartphone, why shouldn’t I be able to submit a government form online with the same comfort?”

Role and responsibility of governments in a digital economy

It makes sense that governments, when it comes to taking big risks and walk the path of innovation, take the lead in the very beginning. Some of them, as in Estonia’s case, have a strong pioneering phase and play the role of innovators. “But then, and in parallel with that too, governments’ role is to boost innovation in a digital economy. Create the conditions for such distributed innovation to happen,” Astok says.

Obviously though, when it comes to technology, the public sector is not exempt from responsibilities. A major one among those, is that to be flexible. “With so many technological opportunities available, governments must choose solutions that are easy for users to access, but also secure. Protecting sensitive information and data, as well as the integrity of our systems,” Astok explains.

“When governments implement digital solutions, it’s not like in private companies. Businesses may use one technology for a couple of years, and then switch rather easily to something that fits their needs best. Governments adopt solutions that usually are set to stay for a much longer period of time. So they must be very careful with their evaluations, and the choices they make,” Astok warns.

20 years of shaping a digital world

From training activities, to digital transformation roadmaps and projects focusing on specific and sensitive areas of e-government – eGA has done it all. And all around the world.

“Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine. But also just helping countries of all size to make a change, such as in the Caribbeans, the South Pacific area, or Africa. When it comes to big plans of digital transformation, you need to slice such big challenges into smaller steps, that can be addressed as a sum of single projects,” Astok says. But no country is too small walk this path. “The smaller you are, the faster you can implement changes.”

Lastly, another lesson learned. “That the implementation of a digital government is just partly a technical exercise. It’s much more about change management, perhaps even a cultural exercise – for example in the shift from paper to digital. It’s about linking the opportunities unlocked by technology, with the local customs and traditional values internal to each national culture.”

It is about the way people live, making easier for them to carry out day-to-day tasks. And doing it in a safe, secure way. A mission e-Governance Academy stayed true to throughout these first 20 years of life, and that remains at its core for the more to come.