Estonia has made significant steps towards the information age and several processes initiated earlier are starting to bear fruit. The government has been able to assign about one percent of its budget to information technology development in the public sector for eight consecutive years now. This has brought PCs to the desks of more than 90% of employees of ministries, authorities, inspectorates and other government institutions who need to work with computers.
The Estonian government has replaced paper documentation prepared for its sessions with digital documents and launched an Internet-based system for government sessions. As from of this year all Estonian municipalities are connected to the Internet. A national network of public Internet access points is also taking shape.
Last year, the Digital Signature Act was approved by Parliament. This gives the basic legal framework for the development of e-commerce.
Rapid development of information infrastructure
PeaTee, the backbone network for government institutions started in 1998, has now matured to reach its planned volume. The number of government institutions and their subdivisions to be connected to PeaTee has passed the 550 mark (ie more than 10,000 computers). About 80% of these entities enjoy the benefits of 2 Mbps or even 10 Mbps transfer speeds. Connection costs have steadily decreased at the same time.
The rapid success of PeaTee has driven new developments in information infrastructure. The KülaTee (Village Road) programme of rural data communications, kicked off at the end of 1998 with preliminary studies, yielded the first leased line connections to municipalities last year. Project completion, which meant a minimum of 64 kbps leased line capacity to each of the 245 existing municipalities, was in late 2000. The only obstacle to keeping this schedule may be lack of funding. Although the government has listed KülaTee as one of its priorities, this has not spared the programme from budget cuts.
KülaTee also offers the possibility of providing Internet access to several schools and opening new public Internet access points at the municipalities or libraries. As part of networking the public libraries, leased-line public Internet access points have been opened at more than 60 libraries all over Estonia. They are equipped with new computers and printers acquired through the public procurement process. It is worth mentioning that KülaTee has brought together a number of government institutions, commercial entities and organizations. A national cooperation system has been formed, led by a working party in each county and a central programme council. For libraries, the project partners are the Ministry of Culture, the Estonian Informatics Centre and county governments which are jointly organizing the work.
The end of the year 2000 saw the end of the special monopoly rights of the Estonian Telephone Company.
More attention to support activities
A backdrop for building communications networks is active work in the supporting areas of IT standardization, data security and language technology. During the past three of years, the IT standardization committee has published more than 30 Estonian IT standards.
A new edition of the standard Requirements on Information Technology in the Estonian Language and Cultural Environment was completed in early 2000. This should encourage hardware and software vendors to adapt their products to Estonian requirements. The same goal is served by language technology activities, preparing semi- manufactured language resource products for all software vendors. Software vendors are being encouraged to put more effort into Estonian products, even if this will not promise immediate profit. Many software vendors dealing with Estonian language products actually acknowledge that this business may provide a good return on investment. There is a sufficient number of Estonian computer users already – about 40 per cent of the 1.4 million population.
In the field of data security, a draft document of security classes has been drawn up, complete with a set of the basic measures to be taken. Manuals have been published for top management and IT personnel, to help them secure emerging information systems and increase their reliability.
The Estonian government has devoted serious attention to copyright protection of software, including legalization of programs in use.
Efficiency and service orientation
IT solutions will help government institutions to streamline their work, share information faster and concentrate on producing the information and offering the services that are vital for the citizens of Estonia.
The system of state registers in Estonia is quite complicated – there are many registers, the same data is often gathered over and over again for different needs, quality of data is sometimes low, etc. To improve the situation the register of databases was implemented. This registry of data repositories, implemented last year at the Estonian Informatics Centre, has greatly improved cooperation and cross-use of data between repositories. The register of databases is one part of the main development project called "Registers Service Layer" launched in 2001. Establishment of a joint service layer on the basis of Internet technology has opened the possibility of offering different e-services on the basis of different state databases. The first pilot projects have successfully been completed.
At the same time, government institutions are preparing for a transition to electronic business as prescribed in the document management programme initiated by the State Chancellery. The Digital Signature Act, passed in 2000 by the Parliament, provides a foundation for the use of digital documents with exactly the same legal consequences as their paper counterparts. In addition to the present availability of official forms on the Internet, people also have the option of filling them in and submitting them through the same channel (the Estonian tax authority already accepts tax declarations submitted electronically). This popular service is already used thousands of times every business day. We will soon witness successful remote communication between the government and the citizens, without undue delay or cost, now seems to be within reach.
Information and services of all government institutions are now provided through a single integrated portal - the State Web Centre (http://www.riik.ee), which is a path to the home pages of all government institutions. Through this single window, people should be able to access all institutions and clerks and get solutions to as many problems as possible. The operator of the information server promptly routes user queries to the right clerk.
As the next step, the current institution-centric approach should be made even more problem- and service-centric. This calls for effective cooperation between all government institutions and the emergence of common operating principles and rules. The main obstacle may prove to be the legacy management structure that stems from rigid power hierarchies and favours bureaucracy. The challenge is to develop modern management structures, based on cooperation networks and cross-institutional information processing mechanisms. The planned administration reform will hopefully accommodate that.
Requirements for information publicity are also taking shape. Freedom of Information Act stipulates both requirements for government institutions to inform the public about their performance, as well as methods of how people should be able to access this vital information. Thus, every institution has to create a digital document registry that can be accessed at any time by any computer user via public data communication networks. This act and others like it will fill several serious holes in current legislation and thereby certainly help to open up various aspects of decisions made by the government, including perhaps some that, for some reason or another, have been concealed from the public until now.