Canada’s New Partnership with Estonia is a Major Digital Government Milestone

Canada has entered into an unlikely digital agreement with Estonia—but it’s only unlikely because many people don’t understand the important history of Estonia’s digital advancements.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with the Prime Minister of Estonia, Jüri Ratas, yesterday to enter into a memorandum of understanding designed to strengthen cooperation between the two countries when it comes to digital government and economy. The overall goal of this agreement—which is nonbinding and only refers to what kinds of help the two sides may offer one another—is to create well-paying middle-class jobs and build the economy.

“Canada’s relationship with Estonia is flourishing, and we congratulate Estonia on the centenary of its independence,” said Trudeau. “Estonia has long been a global leader in digital governance, harnessing the latest technologies to better serve its citizens. We look forward to working more closely with Estonia on digital projects that will create good, middle-class jobs and improve the lives of people in both our countries.”

Canada can learn a lot about how to digitize aspects of their government from Estonia, and this is where the new agreement becomes an exciting aspect in the country’s goal to open source data and grow their digital accessibility.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas.

Why Estonia though?

As a small country with just 1.3 million citizens, one might think Canada could find other countries with more cutting-edge tech to work with, especially when it comes to the pure size of government. But the country has been referred to as the “the most advanced digital society in the world” by Wired, and a collection of Estonia’s advancements in the space can be found at the E-Estonia (a play off of E-stonia) site.

Estonia boasts digital government solutions in a number of areas, including identity, education, healthcare and business. Some of the country’s most comprehensive digital offerings showcase e-identity, as more digital signatures have been used in Estonia than the rest of the EU combined. 98 per cent of Estonians have a digital identity they can use to digitally sign documents or verify themselves with.

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Canada can learn from just this base of knowledge, as digital identity is becoming incredibly valuable. Various levels of government have toyed with the idea, but nothing has fully scaled. Ontario’s Small Business Innovation Challenge gave Bluink a grant to develop a digital identity on smartphones, while the federal government is experimenting with blockchain to develop a Known Traveller Identity Program to better serve citizens entering and exiting the country. Not to mention the various ways a secure e-identity could help citizens protect themselves and even access “the right to be forgotten.

And that’s just one feature of digital government Estonia excels at that can help Canada scale their own solutions.

Estonia’s X-Road is the backbone of e-Estonia, as it serves to help public and private sectors link and share information. Data only needs to be requested form a citizen once, then it can be shared to make their lives easier. This is done by providing the information that citizens typically have to repeatedly fill out on a form or tell a clerk. X-Road saves over 800 years of working time for Estonia annually—if that system is extrapolated for Canada’s population, that’s over 21,500 years of time saved annually.

Blockchain is also used to secure healthcare information in Estonia. This includes health records and prescription details. Medtech in Canada is impressive as is, but learning from Estonian practitioners would help set Canada up to combine innovative advancements in the field with cutting-edge recordkeeping.

IoT

Finally, the idea of conducting all government-related tasks in a digital setting is an idea that Canada has embraced a bit and is currently working to expand. The GCDigital team led by Canada’s chief information officer Alex Benay is exploring new ways to bring services to Canadians where they live most: online. Estonia already offers a government cloud, internet voting, a digital portal of government services and more. These are a few of Estonia’s digital services—the rest can be found on the e-Estonia site.

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Instituting all of these digital services is a lot to undertake, and Canada’s government recognizes this—that’s why this agreement with Estonia is simply a memorandum of understanding. It is meant to organize joint events, public official exchanges, knowledge sharing, digital consulting and more.

“With this memorandum of understanding, our two governments further commit to working together to grow our digital economies and deliver improved government services to those we serve,” said Scott Brison, president of the Treasury Board of Canada.

This is the right kind of move for Canada to make though—sharing digital expertise can only mean good things for both nations.

“We are at an age where there’s an opportunity to change the dynamics and relationship between government and citizens because of digital advances,” Alex Benay told Techvibes last month in a discussion about bringing more government services online.

“We also have to be very careful to not forge ahead in a disruptive way. We’re not the expert in these fields. We’re actively funding people to know more than us, so we should learn from these people and companies.”

Though Benay is referring to some of the tech companies the Canadian government funds, the ideology of working with experts to learn what works best remains the same.

As Canada learns more about what a well-functioning digital government looks like, Estonia also has a clear goal as to what they want out of the partnership: AI leadership. The growing technology field is deliberately mentioned in the text of the memorandum (while other growing tech sectors like blockchain, quantum computing and others are not), and it makes sense considering Canada’s expertise in the sector. As the two countries continue to explore tech in meaningful ways, this new partnership could flourish into something that creates meaningful change in how Canada grows as a digital entity.

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