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Regional case study: e-Estonia

e-Estonia: how Estonia’s national digital strategy could open up more opportunities for digital social innovation in the region


At the point of its independence in 1991, less than half of Estonia’s population had a telephone line. What followed was a remarkable relaunch of the country through the pioneering use of digital technologies. Without being burdened by legacy systems, the small country was able to leapfrog into the digital age - choosing, for instance, to upgrade old analogue phone system with digital ones. The use of ICT solutions to facilitate dialogue between the government and citizens began early on in that process. Early examples of initiatives included the TOM (Today I Decide) system developed in 2001, which enabled citizens to submit policy proposals, the introduction of e-voting in 2005 - through the use of an ID-card based system - that allowed citizens to vote online in local, national and European Union elections and the platform in 2007. This enabled public consultations with individuals and interest groups to inform draft policy documents.


e-Estonia - a key mechanism to drive Estonia’s Digital Strategy 2020 - illustrates Estonia’s ongoing and optimistic embrace of digital technologies, and has laid the foundation for a supportive digital social innovation environment. Estonia’s Digital Agenda 2020 ultimately seeks to support the use of ICT to help Estonia achieve three core objectives: 1) economic competitiveness, 2) the well-being of people and 3) the efficiency of public administration.

Led by the government, e-Estonia supports the creation of electronic solutions that can facilitate online citizen interaction with the State - and has resulted in specific e-services, such as I-voting and E-ID. “E- ID” is an online verification system that allows citizens to access the state portal. It functions as a one- stop-shop of government e-services ranging from public healthcare to education. The data from all these e-services is linked by an interoperability platform called X-Road, which makes safe and secure information collection and exchange possible between different public offices with a handful of clicks.

Examples of e-services include:

  • e-services for citizens e.g. citizen engagement and e-voting;
  • E-services in health care e.g. online prescriptions and health records;
  • E-services in education e.g. e-school;

e-Estonia is underpinned by a number of principles which are broadly in line with those of digital social innovation:

  1. Decentralisation. e-Estonia has no central database, and every stakeholder, be it a government department, a ministry or a business, gets to choose its own system in its own time.

  2. Interconnectivity. All the elements in the system have to be able to work together smoothly.

  3. Open platform. Any institution can use the public key infrastructure.

  4. Open-ended process. e-Estonia acts as a continuous project to keep growing and

    improving organically.

  5. Respecting citizens’ data privacy. Estonia has set out to use smart solutions to ensure

    that people have control over the privacy of their lives and data. Recognising the need for technological products and platforms that are “private by design” has created greater public trust in Estonia’s e-government initiatives.


Estonia’s effort to develop and use e-services has been accompanied by a concerted campaign to ensure all citizens have access to the internet — in 2011, fixed broadband coverage in Estonia was at 93.9%. And Estonia’s Broadband Infrastructure Network (EstWIN) has focused on rolling out fast broadband to regions where it had been previously unavailable, allowing for future applications such as telemedicine or online learning. Estonia’s president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, credits the success of Estonia’s Digital Society vision as not so much about ditching legacy technology as shedding “legacy thinking”. The country has wholly embraced this “no legacy principle”: no important ICT solutions older than 13 years are permitted in the public sector to ensure public services remain up-to-date with emerging technologies.

This success in pioneering e-services and online citizen engagement could open opportunities for Estonia’s public sector to make greater use of socially innovative policymaking approaches to address some of the country’s most complex challenges – an area that the government has not yet fully

“The country's success in pioneering e-services and online citizen

engagement could open opportunities for Estonia’s public sector to make greater use of socially innovative policymaking approaches...”

explored. The Estonian Civil Society Development Concept (EKAK) and the Digital Strategy 2020 set out an intention to create more formalised partnerships between the public sector and civil society. However, few Estonian policies so far explicitly acknowledge or set out to support social innovation. Furthermore, the digital social innovation community seems surprisingly underdeveloped - as of mid- 2016, no Estonian organisations or projects existed on the map. Although efforts have been taken to introduce Social Impact Bonds in the Estonian setting, some local stakeholders argue that Estonia needs to create a more supportive environment for the various kinds of organisations that seek to create social impact - whether they do this using tech-enabled methods or simply work alongside others who do. Jaan Aps, chairman of the management board of ESEN (Estonian Social Enterprise Network), has noted a need for legislative modifications to support socially-oriented organisations, to remove unfair (and/or misguided) barriers to support (especially in relation to ineligibility of civil society organisations to business support) and to promote consideration of social and environmental impact in public procurement. However, Aps has added, “the prerequisite for both of those developments is better understanding of the concept of societal impact by public sector decision makers.”