Estonia president discusses digital-first government

Kersti Kaljulaid, president of Estonia, discussed how being the world’s only digital society increased participation from marginalized groups, like female, rural and disabled citizens, in the job market. (Thomas Forman | Daily Trojan)

Estonia President Kersti Kaljulaid discussed her country’s use of cyber knowledge to achieve security and welfare Wednesday at Town and Gown.

The discussion, hosted by the School of International Relations, marked the two-year anniversary of her election in 2016.

“I’m very happy to be here in front of you representing the world’s only digital society,” Kaljulaid said. “We have gone through a societal disruption to make sure that our citizens and businesses have a totally digital environment to deal with the state and to deal with the private partners.”

Kaljulaid said that while Estonia is not necessarily a country that develops technology, it has found innovative ways to utilize digital tools.

“The difference in Estonian society compared to the other developed societies … is not technology itself,” she said. “The innovation lies elsewhere. It is in the process of bringing businesses and government together to help all people, young and old … In other words, we are the quick followers, not creators, of technology.”

During her speech, Kaljulaid championed Estonia’s commitment to e-identity, a mandatory document for all citizens meant to authenticate digital identity, grant access to public services and pay taxes online.

One of the challenges that Estonia faced, however, was incorporating technology into the lives of citizens of all ages.

“It took some special effort to get all people in,” Kaljulaid said. “All generations, of course, need to use it, because otherwise, [there would] be division in society, not social cohesion … [older people] are normally those who are most reluctant.”

Estonia’s digital advances have also led to increased opportunities for marginalized groups to participate in the job market. Kaljulaid championed the fact that women, rural citizens and the disabled are able to enter into the labor force by participating in e-commerce and digital markets.

“Very often people say that digital takes jobs away and we should be scared, but it’s quite the contrary,” she said. “Digital makes job markets more equal, more accessible … and much bigger.”

Kaljulaid also discussed Estonia’s commitment to national security and cyber safety, encouraging the audience to engage in what she has coined as “cyber-hygiene,” or the awareness of one’s digital presence.  

“Everybody can do one thing: You can train yourself,” Kaljulaid said. “Governments, if they want to teach people cyber-hygiene, have to offer them safe identification means.”

At the end of her speech, Kaljulaid mentioned Estonia’s bid to gain a seat on the United Nations Security Council. One week ago, Kaljulaid addressed the United Nations General Assembly and announced Estonia’s intent to run for the non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council in 2020.

Kaljulaid also noted that she is not considering expanding digital platforms to currency. She said it would be too expensive to implement and may ruin the reputation of successful technology.

She also addressed concerns about preventing authoritarian states and actors from taking advantage of the technology.  

“Sorry to say, but technology does not solve humankind,” Kaljulaid said. “Whatever you do with technology, it will only reflect your society. Every e-state is a reflection of the state, you have nothing different.”