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Former government CIO: “Estonia used ‘agile’ before ‘agile’ was even invented”

Estonian Government's former CIO Taavi Kotka and Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia’s president from 2006 to 2016, explain how e-Estonia - the digital nation - was built.

“Today, Estonia is the most digitally advanced nation on Earth,” the Spring issue of Chartered Management Institute’s magazine Professional Manager writes, introducing the story of building a digital nation in Estonia.

Development and maintenance by strong private IT ecosystem

Taavi Kotka, the former government CIO of Estonia, explains, how the country’s advanced services were built on a budget, improving slowly. “Estonia used ‘agile’ before ‘agile’ was even invented,” says Kotka. “My own student bachelor’s work was describing prototyping in the year 2000: launch with a barely functional model and then have many iterations a month.”

A golden rule is that no software used by the Estonian government should be more than 13 years old – even if it works fine. In some other countries, old systems are kept alive, never asking if it is optimal. “It’s like comparing Uber with a traditional taxi company. Uber is automated and efficient. The other needs secretaries to take calls,” Kotka explains.

According to Kotka, with its strong IT ecosystem, the government can outsource coding and maintenance of its tech. “Ninety per cent is done by the private sector,” says Kotka.

Ilves stresses transparency of the systems

President Ilves adds that the X-Road system – the backbone of all Estonia’s government e-services – is designed to allay privacy concerns by being totally transparent. All interactions are logged, he explains. Citizens can see immediately who has looked at their data. “We had one famous case where a systems administrator with the police abused her authority. She checked up on her boyfriend. The police are not allowed to do this. She was fired and convicted of a felony.”

So the system is open, but infractions of the rules are severely punished. “Our health records are stored online, and I can grant legal access to medical professionals. If anyone else tries to, it sets off bells and whistles.”

If anything, the system is more trustworthy than Google’s or Apple’s. We entrust our emails, our search history and even our geographic location via our phone to a tech company located abroad. Yet we have little knowledge of how our data is accessed or monetised. In Estonia, all activity is available online for citizens to review.

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