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Why the president's Estonia joke mattered

September 22, 2014

When President Obama recently cracked a joke at a presser in Estonia’s capital Tallinn, saying he should have “called the Estonians when we were setting up our health care website," he likely could have saved himself some drama if he’d read Gartner analyst Zafar Chaudry’s recent Hype Cycle on Telemedicine.

Does the president read Gartner reports? No idea. Still, the president makes a point worth further analysis here. Chaudry cited Estonia as one “example of countries and regions that have pioneered patient portals.” Forrester’s Jennifer Bellisent also pointed out the tiny European country in her research note as a smart government embracing and enabling disruption.

Estonia is an interesting case study worth closer examination of how an entire country of 1.3 million is holistically embracing the disruptive digital model as a core governing tool. We see daily discussion on how organizations and individual businesses embrace digitalization, but we don’t talk much about how an entire country—even if it is that small—can embrace the digital dragon as much as Estonia has. The Atlantic’s Sten Tamkivi explained how Estonia pulled it off in a January piece: “Estonians started by redesigning their entire information infrastructure from the ground up with openness, privacy, security, and ‘future-proofing’ in mind. The first building block of e-government is telling citizens apart. This sounds blatantly obvious, but alternating between referring to a person by his social security number, taxpayer number, and other identifiers doesn’t cut it.”

Tamkivi also makes an additional and more significant point: “As citizens opt for convenience, bureaucrats see a higher inflow of digital forms and are self-motivated to invest in systems that will help them manage the process.”

In that context, Estonia sounds a lot like a very large bimodal approach experiment in which its wholesale nation-digitalization is evolving on synergistic tracks. One mode is focused on efficiency and the support of core or traditional business functions, while the other is focused on speed and innovation. Thus, if Gartner’s Claudio Da Rold concludes that “bimodal IT and adaptive sourcing are critical to digital business success,” then it’s logical to apply that notion to a next-level nation-building model. 

There are some fascinating lessons to be drawn from that, for certain, as Estonia could offer a model for how governments can adapt to the digital landscape. In addition, the nation's success shows how a cutting-edge IT-oriented government can also create an environment that is also progressively disruptive and innovative for private sector businesses. This could be one path to mitigate age-old tensions between the public and private sector while offering governments an opportunity to regulate the digital sphere. Companies in the U.S., for example, desperately need legislators to keep up with the pace of innovation in their industry spaces so that imperfectly crafted regulations don't hinder their growth.

An Estonian digital model shows a path to alignment that could be useful. If a government is essentially reformatting its infrastructure to reflect a digital operation, then it’s fair to assume that creates an environment that provides greater opportunities for vendors looking for opportunity in a world increasingly shaped by the Internet of Things.

Charles Ellison is a senior analyst relations strategist for TEKsystems. He keeps close tabs on changes and public policy shaping the innovation space. He is also a former congressional staffer, senior aide to state and local elected officials and an expert advocacy strategist. You can reach him with questions and comments @twoARguys via Twitter.

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