“Getting married and divorced were two of the few processes that couldn’t be done online until now,” Minister of the Interior Lauri Läänemets said, explaining how developing new opportunities in addition to existing services helps Estonia, one of the most advanced digital countries in the world, not to fall into the comfort zone.
Since the end of last year, it has been possible to submit a marriage application online in Estonia. And no worries, all the romance still takes place at real weddings! There is no need to let the white dress lay dormant in the cupboard, as the couple still needs to attend in person to make the marriage official. This ensures that both parties really consent to the marriage. However, the couple can choose the time and place that best suits them online.
Estonians being true e-citizens, it is no surprise that this service has been well-received. 97.6 per cent of the Estonian population uses the Internet, according to Internet World Stats. As was said by Estonian President (2016-2021) Kersti Kaljulaid: “Access to the internet is considered a human right in Estonia”.
In Estonia, everything can be done online
Estonians have accepted e-services and touted them as an inseparable and natural part of their lives. This is demonstrated by the fact that an e-citizen is born, both literally and figuratively, in a maternity hospital. Sometimes the babies even receive their national identification number before making it from the maternity room to the postnatal room. With this identification number and in that same ward, the parents can choose a name for their baby, apply for a kindergarten place and say yes to the plentiful social benefits. All of these actions can be done online. Estonians love children and have created a family benefits system that provides a year and a half of benefits equal to their previous salary while at home with their child.
E-services are always available to citizens. One of the more successful inventions is definitely the Tax and Customs Board’s e-service. For example, Estonians can file their tax returns with just a few clicks and no effort, even while hiking in a bog. And if they are not able to do so, they get upset. This service makes Estonian President (2006-2016) Toomas Hendrik Ilves especially proud, as nearly 99 per cent of Estonians file their tax returns online and spend no more than three or five minutes to do so. Everything is so fast because the state has already collected and prepared all the data.
The Tax and Customs Board receives information about working, taxes paid, number of children, training costs, investments and loans through various databases of the X-road systems. The program aggregates all of that and calculates everyone’s personal tax exemptions. In addition, it is possible to pay land tax when filing tax returns with just the click of a button. Businesses can also file returns just as easily.
Thousands of e-services
E-government services have become a part of everyday life in Estonia. Estonians only perceive them as being in use when they are unavailable for some reason; this is how natural and unremarkable they have become. For example, when there is a bureaucratic trap in a foreign country, despite the inconvenience, this makes one proud of their country.
Estonians do not sign documents physically, either. They do so very rarely and mostly when they need to interact with a foreign state or foreign partner. Even before fax machines became globally obsolete, Estonians were amused by business partners from major countries asking to fax a document for signing. It was like time travel, only backwards, into the past.
Digital signatures carry the same weight as ordinary signatures or even greater weight. This is because a digital signature is much more difficult to forge than an ordinary signature. Equally important is the fact that digital signatures can be given from any part of the world as long as there is an Internet connection.
Estonians do not need to waste time on parliamentary elections either, as they can vote wherever they are. The share of electronic voters in the 2019 general election was 43.8%, and the next elections should make up most of the ballots cast already. Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is surprised that other countries still have not adopted electronic voting.
In total, Estonians can use around 3,000 state e-services. Research conducted by the University of Tartu, striving to be among the top 200 universities in the world, indicates that age is no longer a factor in their use. E-services are successfully used by the young, the middle-aged and the elderly.
E-services are not available to just Estonians. Although Estonia is a small country, it sees itself as a global state. Foreigners can become e-residents and have the opportunity to step into the transparent and friendly business environment of an e-state.
New developments in progress
The development of e-services has not stagnated; it is only getting started. The next step is the more widespread adoption of the AI named Kratt. Kratt is a figure in Estonian mythology that was created by people to do their work for them.
Kratt enables the automation of several processes and finds solutions that would be too complicated for people to come up with themselves. At the same time, Kratt needs to be carefully observed so as to ensure that it has the right direction and that the preferences of the person entering the data do not start influencing Kratt’s decisions. “Of course, our kratts need to be made fair and useful. We also need to keep an eye on them to prevent them from causing harm,” says Ott Velsberg, Government Chief Data Officer. “That is the only way we can benefit from kratts and achieve free time, peace of mind and a fairer society.”
State institutions are already widely using Kratt. For example, Kratt transcribes the meetings of the Estonian Parliament and offers unemployed people personalised assistance. A kratt is also used to monitor logging and forest height. In the Agency of Medicines, a kratt offers the least expensive possible drug solutions and many other things. Soon, the Ministry of Justice will be able to automatically reproduce statements given in courtrooms; the Health Insurance Fund to predict the medical needs of those with chronic illnesses; the Ministry of the Environment to identify forest density and clearcutting with satellite pictures; and the Maritime Administration to identify sea ice. A bürokratt is also being developed to help answer the most frequently asked questions from state institutions.
Why do Estonians love e-government? Because it leaves them enough time to deal with the really important matters of life. Like building up unicorns, enjoying raising their children and hiking in bogs.
To summarise, Estonians were happy to welcome e-proposals. Just in the first days of service opening, electronic marriage applications had reached double digits. It is currently unknown how many of them also met online. However, the service does have a temporary bug. Online divorces will be unavailable for a certain amount of time, presumably a year.
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