Open data and e-governance can create new possibilities for political participation as well as inclusive government services, says Robert Krimmer, Professor of e-Governance at Tallinn University of Technology. His current country of residence, Estonia, has emerged as a global leader in digital governance and introduced an innovative national ID card system.
Robert Krimmer, a native of Austria, is Full Professor of e-Governance in the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance at Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia. Robert Krimmer’s research focuses on electronic participation and democracy, e-voting, the transformation of the public sector, and all issues related to the further development of a digital society. Robert Krimmer participated in the BMW Foundation European Table in Estonia.
A lot of people in Europe no longer trust their governments. Can e-government help close the gap?
Robert Krimmer: Technology can play a role in lowering the barriers; it could, for example, make the interaction with government easier through voice recognition, similar to the digital assistants you use in your home or smartphone. But e-government is not only about technology, it is also about transforming and rethinking processes and making them more citizen-friendly. But until we are there, it’s still a long way.
If you use e-government services, you must be ready to give the government a lot of your personal data. Isn’t that a problem if people don’t trust the government to begin with?
Robert Krimmer: Trust is connected to transparency and accountability. Accountability means that you know what is happening with your data. These days we push a button, start a browser, and go to some internet address, but we have no clue how the process really works. So a computer at first obviously takes away transparency. But we don’t need to know how it works, if we have the right use case. It’s just like with your parents when they get to see your kids via a video call. They’re going to want to use the technology, because that way they can see the grandkids and be part of your life, even though they live far away. So the services, the content are actually driving the use of the technology. And the same thing happens with e-government.
What’s the most important application that drives people to e-government?
Robert Krimmer: The problem with e-government is that usually you don’t have to use it very often. People normally use government services on average twice a year. That is not enough to learn a new process. So it has to be as easy as possible or - and that is what we can learn from Estonia - you actually integrate government services with private services. Here we have a collaboration between private banks and the national ID card. In Estonia you use your ID card to log in to online banking. Therefore, you use it on a much more regular basis and you know how the technology works. Estonia’s success model is having this public-private partnership, where people use the technology all the time. Of course that only works if all banks do it.
That’s very difficult to achieve…
Robert Krimmer: It’s a real challenge. Estonia mastered it by bringing everyone together, and they all decided on one solution. After Estonia regained its independence, there was this feeling that now is the time that we can shape our country. That is something that is missing, for example, in my home country of Austria, where I don’t feel like I own the administration. I get what I need, but I don’t feel an obligation to improve the services. And that’s different in Estonia.
If we reclaim the public space through IT or other means, we also feel more part of the state, and that’s where inclusion actually happens.
What are the financial benefits of e-government?
Robert Krimmer: According to Estonian officials, the country saves 2 percent of GDP by using the digital signatures on the national ID card. This is a massive number if you take that to the European level. The only problem is that we have 28 different countries where we need to have these public-private partnerships to create ID cards that function similarly to those we have in Estonia. And every country has to find its own solution.
BMW Foundation European Table
The European Table offers a framework for leaders from EU member states and neighboring societies to reflect on concrete ways to strengthen the European Union. Robert Krimmer participated in the first European Table that took place in Tallinn, Estonia. Participants discussed whether digitization can serve as a growth and job engine for Europe. For global digitization is leading to far-reaching changes in many areas of social life and work.
If you were in charge, what would you do to spread e-government across Europe?
Robert Krimmer: I would take the decision-makers and show them what the solutions are. For example, we have fantastic mobile solutions in Japan and in South Korea. And once we have established what could be sourced elsewhere, we could develop an individual action plan for each member state of the European Union. And then identify the barriers that we have on the European level and bring them down.
Can e-government also help to get people to participate more in the political process?
Robert Krimmer: Of course! But that’s not the area of its biggest strength. Probably the most successful model that we have at the moment is participatory budgeting, where the citizens decide how the money is spent on certain projects. This is an idea from the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, but it has also been tried in Estonia, while other efforts have failed.
Robert Krimmer: We need to invest time, effort, and energy to participate. Just think how many people write letters to newspapers. It’s a very small number, but raising your voice is the first level of participation. Most people don't have the passion for that.
There is a trend called open data, meaning that government information about streets, public services, etc. is available to the public for free. Could that foster participation?
Robert Krimmer: Open data in its very basic form can help you create new tools, but it’s not a participatory element as such. For me it is more a prerequisite, so that we can have certain new tools. And it can help us create new services that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible. Think, for example, of public transport data. It is made public, and then somebody takes that information and builds a new useful app. That’s something that the European Union tries to foster and where we see new services emerging. And so open data and IT can help us come together in a better way. And if we reclaim the public space through IT or other means, we also feel more part of the state, and that’s where inclusion actually happens.