Podcast 🎧 & blog: Where to start the public e-service development

10.02.2021 | Adhele Tuulas


The growing adoption of digital technology places greater demands and expectations on the provision of public services. With the proven benefits of digitalisation ranging from increased efficiency to transparency, this has pushed governments into an ongoing game of catch-up to maximise the value of going digital.

The sudden onset of COVID-19 immediately moved the provision of remote services in many areas from a nice to have to a must have category. But an endeavour as big as the digitalisation of the public sector inevitably leads to the question – how should governments begin to tackle this?

Janek Rozov, Strategy Director at the Information Technology and Development Center of the Ministry of Interior and the former Chief Digital Officer of the Estonian Government, shares his insights from decades of experience in helping develop e-services in Estonia. In this podcast, we clarify the questions that should be answered before going digital with public services.


Reasons for going down the path of digitalisation

As with most problem-solving, it is necessary to start by distinguishing the means from the ends. Before turning to digitalisation, the public sector needs to identify “the real problem in the real world,” Rozov suggests. The question, then, is whether digitalisation can help resolve the challenge. “If we see that the digital world can make existing procedures faster, easier or more convenient for stakeholders, then we can adopt the digital approach,” Rozov explains.

The good news is that states do not need to look far to find answers to these questions. “The public sector knows how they serve citizens, so we need to understand where the value for them lies and start fixing problems from that angle,” Rozov notes. For example, digitalisation can help cut bureaucracy by excluding steps essential today in the physical world, but that do not have to be transferred to the digital realm.

The underlying criteria is that “the digital world has to always be simpler than the physical world,” Rozov asserts. To ensure widescale adoption of digital services, governments need to refrain from replicating complicated procedures that hinder this.


Assessing prerequisites for digitalisation

Once the digital path has been identified as the right solution to the problems at hand, attention must be turned to evaluating options for digital transformation within the existing legal framework.

“We started by looking at the processes and legislation to understand whether we are able to take some shortcuts if we digitalise,” Rozov says, recalling his experience of designing e-services for the Estonian Government. In other words, it is first necessary to figure out whether the legal framework enables digitalisation. “Perhaps in the law there is a rule that certain steps have to be taken physically and, in that case, we can’t start from digitalisation but have to deal with the regulation first,” Rozov unpacks.

The further success of digital services requires both their provision by the state and their adoption by the public. For the two sides to meet, considerations on the available resources for both parties are important. Lacking internet connection, for example, would significantly hinder designing digital services for farmers in remote villages.

Connectivity is a good example of a crucial question of capacity for the state – whether we can cover the whole country with sufficient internet. “If the answer is yes, then we are able to provide services on top of that. If not, then it is pointless to start with digitalisation if we don’t have the conditions for the provision of high-quality services,” Rozov suggests.


Designing e-services for unique local contexts

Beyond the technical question of resources, the adoption of digital services also depends on social conditions unique to every country. In recognition of this, Rozov stresses the importance of understanding the cultural context and behaviour of the people.

In some countries, people may value the process of face-to-face communication or lack trust towards digital solutions. “In this case we may need another model to serve people,” Rozov notes. “But if we identify that our client values the time saved, and is ready to adopt remote services, enabling this through digitalisation is a very good solution,” he adds.

Most importantly, for governments to be successful under the climate of fast-paced digital transformation, Rozov believes important to remember that “we cannot copy digital processes, but we can copy the principles of how we can make public procedures and life better for civil servants and citizens.”

Governments need to identify how different processes take place and are connected in their society. Once the existing state of public service provision, the institutional framework, and the cultural context have been mapped out, additional benefits could be developed on top of that through digitalisation.