For one corner of the world, life during the coronavirus pandemic has stayed shockingly the same. Like much of the globe, people there are dealing with cabin fever, a lack of physical contact, and collective grief, for both the loved ones they’ve lost and a way of life they may never see again. But they’re exempt from the crashing halt of state services, the bumbling distribution of relief funds, the pillars of government groaning under the weight of performing their basic business amid the pandemic.
This is not a faraway digital superstate or an isolated cooperative. Geographically, it is not even located in the proverbial West. This is reality in Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million on the coast of the Baltic Sea that traded its post-Soviet identity for one of technological innovation and digital democracy.
The continuity of life there despite the pandemic isn’t a result of a macabre decision to sacrifice the elderly, or a convoluted idea to build “herd immunity.” No, citizens are staying home, and doing so fairly happily. In part, that’s because they don’t really need to leave; thanks to an infrastructure that has been in place for 20 years, many of life’s basic tasks can be done online.
Estonia recorded its first case of COVID-19 on February 27, and by March 12, the government approved emergency measures to combat its spread. The next day, the government began conducting most of its business digitally, and instructed schools to transition from in-person to distance learning. If they weren’t already using digital tools (and many were), municipal councils quickly shifted to online operations.
None of this is much of a departure from normal life. Using a digital identification card and a secure electronic signature, people in Estonia can bank, apply for government assistance, file for sick leave, order prescriptions, and get medical care online—no mask or hand sanitizer required. If an election were scheduled to take place while the country was under lockdown, citizens would simply use their ID cards to vote securely from the comfort and safety of their homes, as they have done since 2005. In the most recent parliamentary elections in 2019, 43 percent of voters cast ballots online.
The United States, meanwhile, is experiencing a carnival fun-house version of attempted technological innovation, running into trick walls and watching as tasks that could be much simpler contort into nightmarish versions of themselves. In April, the website through which small-business owners apply for a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program crashed due to the unanticipated load. The Senate, without provisions to work remotely, has returned to Capitol Hill, despite warnings from health-care professionals.
These are shortcomings that the U.S. and other Western countries (Britain began allowing lawmakers to videoconference into Parliament only once the pandemic began) have created and perpetuated. If the coronavirus has one positive effect, it’s the opportunity to begin a technological revolution that could leave our governments better functioning, more accessible, and more representative.
“We have this expression that [Estonia] is ‘digital Narnia,’” Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia’s president from 2006 to 2016, told me over the phone from Palo Alto, California. “It’s a lot better than other places, but we’re not digital Narnia. We don’t fax our pizzas!”
Now a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Stanford University, Ilves said the secret of what made “e-Estonia” tick—leaving the country well prepared for the pandemic, from a governing point of view—is not magic, but the secure, microchip-emblazoned ID card issued to every citizen. The document is residents’ bridge between the physical and digital worlds, allowing them an extremely secure way to sign documents, pay taxes, and access their bank accounts and public records online. People in Estonia need to show up in person for only three reasons: marriage, divorce, and the sale or transfer of real estate. “For 20 years, we haven’t had to go anywhere, to any office, to stand in line,” Ilves said.
To access any basic government service or complete a transaction that requires a signature, they have to insert their physical ID card into a reader connected to their computer, or use their smartphone, equipped with a special SIM card, to punch in a PIN code. Once they’re in the system, Estonians don’t need to fill out forms, thanks to the country’s “once-only” rule, which mandates that the government is allowed to ask for any given piece of information only one time. Authenticated digital signatures are also more secure than their handwritten counterparts, a source of bemusement to Estonians, who “think it’s crazy that much of the world still signs with a pen,” Taavi Rõivas, the former prime minister who is now a member of Parliament, told me.
Rõivas underscores the importance of the ID card, not only for individual citizens, but also for the functioning of government. “Having a proper digital ID, and having a digital signature very widely used in society … helps us a lot in this crisis,” he tells me from Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. “It gives certainty.” That could be certainty that the person is indeed a member of Parliament casting a vote on legislation or calling in to a committee meeting; or is indeed an individual requesting their own tax returns.
Though the ID card and signature are central to the functioning of government, innovation permeates all aspects of society, according to Kristina Reinsalu, a municipal-governance expert at the e-Governance Academy, an NGO that assists governments around the world as they undergo digital transformations. Over Skype—invented in Estonia—from her home in Tartu, the country’s second-largest city, she told me that many of Estonia’s municipal councils “have found thousands of digital ways to do their work using digital tools.” They can make their business entirely paperless, webcast and archive all their events, and seek feedback from constituents on budgets and other consultative measures. For the municipalities that have been slow adopters, the pandemic “has been a really good driving force, or boost, to make them use the tools that are already available,” all of which function with the digital ID card and signature at their core. “The country functions perfectly on ‘digital mode,’” Reinsalu said.
Can something similar be built in the U.S. and other countries struggling to govern at a distance? Maybe, but it won’t happen overnight. Rõivas said he’s seen an understandable interest in Estonia’s digital voting system as pandemic-stricken countries prepare for elections, but both he and Ilves warned that the infrastructure first needs to be built up and has to have time to mature. “You need the ecosystem,” Ilves told me, “and even with the ecosystem, we only tried it after five years.”
Even on a smaller scale, such as Capitol Hill, digital voting for members of Congress would be difficult without a secure form of verification, Ilves said. As the 2016 election and subsequent revelations of foreign interference proved, the security situation is dire—malicious actors regularly probe the professional and personal email and social-media accounts of elected officials and their staff, yet digital security systems vary across Washington. Though practices such as two-factor authentication and encrypted messaging are widely used by the federal government and recommended by cybersecurity experts employed by Congress, individual members and their offices typically do not adopt them.
To those who suggest that tiny Estonia isn’t an appropriate comparison to the mammoth U.S. government: In 2007, the country was the victim of a digital offensive, known as a “distributed denial-of-service attack,” that originated in Russia. Some media and banking sites were overwhelmed, but Estonians’ personal data was not compromised. Awareness of what is perceived as an ever-present threat from its much larger and more powerful neighbor is part of the reason that Estonia is so far ahead of the U.S., Lorelei Kelly, who studies congressional modernization at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, told me. Estonians “see democracy as a defense issue,” she said. “Their creativity and courage is remarkable, but it’s for a reason. It’s not inexplicable. American inaction is inexplicable, and it’s inexcusable.”
In an October 2019 memo, Kelly and her colleagues issued a prescient warning that “a number of scenarios—from electro-magnetic disruptions, pandemics, or bio attack—might imperil the ability of Congress to physically convene.” In part, these congressional shortcomings are a result of tradition, Kelly said; the 18th-century institution “needs a change of heart” when it comes to its approach to e-governance. “I get needing to show up in person” to debate under most circumstances, she conceded. “That’s the beautiful part of Congress.” But most congressional business, including information gathering and oversight conducted through hearings and briefings, can be done remotely—if Congress decides to invest in the necessary infrastructure, and ultimately in itself. In recent congressional testimony, she noted that, since 2015, Americans have spent more than $640 million to “sing the praises of democracy” at performances of the Broadway musical Hamilton, a figure nearly five times as much as committees in the House of Representatives spend on operations, and more than twice as much as the House spends on critical systems-maintenance employees. “The money Congress does have,” Kelly lamented to me, “goes to policing and literally keeping the lights on.”
There are signs that congressional leadership recognizes that the institution has fallen behind. Last year, the House established the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. As stay-at-home measures persist and the virus continues to spread, committees are beginning to conduct remote roundtables to test the systems that might be used to hold hearings and markups in the future. Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois have introduced a resolution that would allow the chamber to vote remotely during times of crisis. On May 15, the House passed a similar measure, though it failed to gain broad Republican support.
These are temporary, patchwork solutions, not a reimagining of the institution’s—let alone the entire country’s—identification and information systems, a journey Estonia began 20 years ago. But they are a start. It’s just a shame that they have taken this long.
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