* Estonia is a tiny, new country but that's given it an impetus to find online government solutions, reports Mel Poluck .
Estonia took an unusual route to democracy. In the country's bloodless Singing Revolution, which began in 1988, Estonians gathered en masse in its capital city Tallinn's main square to sing banned national and rock songs.
Having sung its way to democracy, this tiny country of less than 1.5 million wedged between Russia, Latvia and the Gulf of Finland then showed it could master technology: with less than 1% of its state budget spent on IT, it has become one of the world leaders in e-government.
According to the European Commission's statistics body, Eurostat, all Estonia's basic public services to businesses can be handled entirely online. Nearly all Estonian companies with an internet connection (87%) have accessed a public authority website compared with just 36% in the UK.
As a new democracy, Estonia could set up its government from scratch using the most recent technologies. There were no unwieldy legacy systems to hold back e-government progress and no decisions to make about redundancies, because the former Soviet governors had left.
"We actually had a lot of disadvantages that we turned into advantages," says Mart Laar, ex-prime minister of Estonia and chief architect of the country's e-government policies. "Most disadvantageous was that we did not have large resources to build up e-government, and this was very good because then we had to build public-private partnerships."
In a relatively short time, Estonia has developed an impressive array of electronic public services. Last month, it used e-voting in its local elections for the first time, allowing voters to post their ballot forms online. "Estonia is the only country to have had whole-country e-elections," says Laar. "The government session room is .........
......... still the only paperless government working online."
The country's size has compelled it to take a creative approach to modern government. "Estonia is one of the smallest countries in the world," says Siim Raie, director-general of the Estonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "We have to be efficient and optimal in dealing with our administrative burden. Online solutions are a great opportunity to bring government closer to people. Estonia is a flexible society that has gone through tremendous transition in the last decade."
A portal was set up in 2003 providing a single point of access to all government bodies allowing access to online forms and a place for people to perform transactions with government agencies and access their personal data using a digital ID card as authentication. The government is especially proud of its mandatory digital national ID card, which by last May had been issued to more than 80% of citizens.
The ripples of Estonia's innovation are being felt beyond the Baltic states. "I gave a lecture about [the ID card] to the leader of the Scottish National Party, among other people," says Ivar Tallo, former Estonian MP and foreign policy adviser to the president, and now head of the E-Governance Academy in Tallinn. "A few weeks later he wrote [to me] that he has re-evaluated his position on the ID card issue".
The academy, established in 2002 by the government in a bid to train policy makers abroad, has trained people from over 26 countries on basic strategies for using ICT in the public sector and inspired people as far afield as Rwanda.
One key message for others implementing e-government is the need for patience. "Even if you have a killer application that everybody is supposed to love, you have to have not only the money and the political leadership but also time for people to get used to the new ways of doing things," says Tallo. When online payment of personal income tax was introduced in 1999, 2% of people used the service, compared with 76% this year.
For Karen Rits, head of the information society unit at Estonia's ministry of economic affairs and communications, support from above has been crucial. "We have always had strong political support notwithstanding which parties have been in power for information society-related developments. Being a small country with relatively limited resources has forced us to ensure as cost-efficient and transparent as possible," she says.
"What we consider important is the fact the state has been increasingly active in developing e-services that do not only generate revenues for the state itself, but provide benefits for individuals."
These impressive e-government achievements are all very well, but as the UK government knows, good electronic services do not guarantee good take-up. To ensure e-government services reach the end users for which they were designed, including people without access to the internet, a privately-funded initiative, Vaata Maailma ("look at the world") was launched. It aimed to provide free basic computer training to older and disabled people in their own environments by their peers and, according to Laar, was a great success, with 10% of the total population taking part.
"I am sure that every country in Europe can do the same as we have done in Estonia," says Laar. "[In terms of] infrastructure and resources, most countries have more possibilities than Estonia.
"The key message we can teach is that e-government is not only making governance more effective and transparent, but it gives the possibility to develop a real partnership between the government and people."