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Image of ‘digital Baltics’ cracks under weight of pandemic

Despite being lauded as a digital posterchild, Estonia’s e-governance fell short during the COVID-19 crisis. Its Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania, fared no better.

March 11, 2021 - Keegan McBride - Articles and Commentary

Medics in Lithuania. Photo: J. Stacevičius/LRT

The digital governance excellence, combined with low rates of COVID-19 infections in the “Baltic Bubble” during the first wave of the pandemic, created an international story that if only governments were digital, then they too could handle and manage the pandemic better.

While Estonia was the most active in marketing this idea abroad, both Latvia and Lithuania have also proudly advertised their digital response to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, as the pandemic progressed in all the three countries, infection rates went up and it was clear that digital governance was not enough. In Estonia especially, where digital has become part of the country’s identity, shortcomings in their digital governance ecosystem quickly became clear.

Latvia and Lithuania, whose digital governance is still less developed than in Estonia, provide critical examples about how to design and build better digital systems at an earlier stage.

When it came to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two most critical digital governance systems were that of e-Schooling and e-Health. In Estonia, neither were fully prepared for this crisis.

With Estonia’s e-School systems, it quickly became apparent that they were not up for the task nor had the needed services for a complete switch to online distance learning. Teachers and schools were left on their own to decide which systems and services to use.

This created a scenario in which each student often needed a number of different accounts, passwords and software for their daily schooling needs. Parents with multiple school-aged children, in addition to managing different accounts and services, also needed to obtain laptops or tablets for all of their children.

In some instances, these were provided by schools themselves, were donated by private businesses or parents were able to purchase new equipment. This stress was further compounded by service failures and distributed denial of service attack attacks that rendered many e-School environments and services unavailable.

While Estonia was able to quickly move to a distance learning system, it had less to do with the “E” system, and more with the perseverance, skill and innovation of Estonia’s teachers, students and parents.

Estonia’s e-Health system is a core part of Estonia’s “E” narrative and has existed in its current form since roughly 2008. Similar to e-School, however, it faltered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first shortcoming was the lack of any telemedicine capability. As medical institutions were required to stop their services, it was not possible to engage in any sort of video-based remote consultations, and these were rather done over the phone. As with e-School, it was not the “E” system that enabled the health sector to continue its operations, but the commitment, skill and innovation of healthcare professionals.

A second shortcoming was related to the creation and dissemination of accurate statistical information. At the beginning of the crisis, publicly accesible data was often unavailable, unclear and in many instances misleading.

The databases and registers in place should have led to data-supported situational awareness. Yet this did not occur, as different organisations within the same ministry did not have access to the same data due to regulatory and privacy reasons.

While this has now been fixed and accurate and reliable data is public and easily accessible, the early dissemination of misleading information further damaged the credibility of Estonia’s Health Board (the organisation responsible for managing the COVID-19 pandemic), which was already at a low point due to a long history of failing crisis simulations and exercises.

For contact tracing, Estonia did not have a database, register nor service in place and was completely reliant on excel spreadsheets — similar to Lithuania. This introduced a number of errors and slowed down the contact tracing process, leading the Health Board to develop a new service based on LimeSurvey as a temporary solution.

Due to its server being misconfigured, however, it fell victim to a cyberattack and the personal data of thousands of Estonians were leaked.

In order to assist the authorities with contact tracing, an application was built by a consortium of local software companies for no cost. While a good idea in theory, it has become increasingly clear that it does not work well, does not provide meaningful statistical information for the government, is not part of the EU interoperability contact-tracing protocol (Latvia’s application is, whereas Lithuania’s is not) and is now stuck in a long, costly and challenging procurement.

This leads us to the question of why.

Why did Estonia’s digital ecosystem falter? The primary reason for this is also, paradoxically, exactly the reason why Estonia was able to reach a high level of digitalisation in the first place — reliance on outsourcing and private sector companies for service development.

This reliance on procurement, however, also brings increased levels of regulations and decreases the speed at which the government was able to respond.

Similarly, due to the shrinking of Estonia’s internal government IT capacity, organisations and individuals were overstretched whilst simultaneously being responsible for managing existing systems, procuring new developments and trying to develop new and innovative solutions all at the same time.

As most digital systems are obtained through procurement, they are often built to serve a specific purpose with specific criteria and, therefore, are quite rigid in nature and missing the needed flexibility and adaptivity to adequately respond to a changing environment.

Finally, due to the reliance of the service provision from the private sector and Estonia’s decentralised government design, changes and innovations take time to proliferate throughout the system, thus slowing down the state’s ability to rapidly address evolving situations. It is paradoxical to some extent: what makes Estonian digital governance work well during more stable times was largely responsible for inhibiting Estonia’s digital response to the pandemic.

What can be learned from all of this and what should Latvia and Lithuania consider in their future digital governance developments?

First, when it comes to the development of digital services, it is important to maintain internal IT capacity within the government itself and not over rely on procurement or outsourcing.

Second, clear strategies must be in place in the case of rapid environmental changes or increasing user loads on existing services, e.g. due to a pandemic. One way to help prepare for this is through the use of chaos engineering.

Third, digital services are not only about software, there are people and hardware as well. If people cannot use the service, it doesn’t matter if it exists or is not used.

Fourth, engaging in simulations and testing of digital service performance during pandemics or crises. The availability of digital services can create a false sense of security about governmental readiness to deal with crises and transition to completely online environments.

Finally, both Latvia and Lithuania have been influenced by Estonia’s success and have invested into government digitalisation as well. All three Baltic states have achieved a rating of “very high e-government development” in the UN’s e-Government development index (in the most recent ranking Estonia was in 3rd place, Latvia in 20th and Lithuania in 49th).

Crucially, it is important to not underestimate the importance of strong and competent public servants — these cannot be replicated by any digital services, and they are key to successful crisis management.

A strategy that is based purely on digital substitutions is one that is doomed to fail.

This text was republished through the partnership between New Eastern Europe and LRT English.

Keegan McBride is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Hertie School’s Centre for Digital Governance in Berlin, Germany. He completed his PhD in Technology Governance at Tallinn University of Technology in Tallinn, Estonia and is heavily involved in international digital government research, teaching and consulting.

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