Digital Democracy

I wrote a few weeks ago about my visit to Estonia, which has the fastest public internet access in the world today. The New York Times today has a featured article on the advanced digital services in the country.

Everyone in Estonia gets an digital identity card when they turn 15, and that card instantly gives them access to all government services – everything from health care to fishing licenses. As a flourishing democracy, citizens can also use this ID to vote online in all elections. 98% of the country's people use this system to file their income taxes online. It takes less than 5 minutes to file your taxes, since the country has flat tax rate of 21%, regardless of income. No fuss, no muss.

In the US, of course, any suggestion of a national ID card that is associated with your personal data is a radioactive political topic, hotly debated by people from all corners.

And yet studies have shown, for example, that emergency medical outcomes would be dramatically improved if first-responders were able to swipe your ID and immediately have digital access to your medical records. First-reponders would be able to give much more effective, targeted emergency care, and more people would live. 

Meanwhile, while the US is bogged-down in complicated feelings about government and individual privacy, Estonia has the advantage of – having declared independence from the Soviet Union just 23 years ago – viewing this miraculous new democratic technology as enlightened and forward-thinking, in contrast to their draconian past.

They also have had the advantage of building 21st Century technology for the entire country from the ground up, without having to worry about integration with legacy technology.

According to the New York Times, the entire IT budget for the country of Estonia is $63 million. Meanwhile, the US spent $700 million just building Healthcare.gov, and a big chunk of that was spent on integrating crappy, out-of-date technology platforms at the various government agencies in Washington, DC.

Estonia has none of that. They fired the Soviet Union in 1993, and built everything brand-new, from scratch.

As we continue to improve public technology systems in the United States, it's helpful to look at some other examples around the world. And Estonia is a good one to look at.