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How to Digitize an Entire Government

Oct 18, 2023 8:00 AM

How to Digitize an Entire Government

From online voting to frictionless taxes, Estonia’s government services can sound like sci-fi to outsiders. Its chief information officer talks about how it works—and what other countries might learn.

Luukas Ilves

ON THIS WEEK’S episode of Have a Nice Future, Gideon Lichfield and Lauren Goode talk to the chief intelligence officer of Estonia, Luukas Ilves, about the country’s completely online government. In Estonia, citizens can access any government service, including voting, online. What would it take to create that kind of digital infrastructure in the United States?

Show Notes

Check out our coverage of government, politics, and voting. Read about why the US might look to Estonia to bolster cybersecurity and Estonia's plan to use AI in the courtroom.

Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Gideon Lichfield is @glichfield. Bling the main hotline at @WIRED.

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Note: This is an automated transcript, which may contain errors.

Lauren Goode: Hi, I'm Lauren Goode. Nope, I hated that.


Lauren Goode: Three, two, one. Hi, I'm Lauren Goode.

Gideon Lichfield: And I'm Gideon Lichfield. And this is Have a Nice Future, a podcast about how terrifyingly fast everything is changing.

Lauren Goode: Each week we talk to someone with big, audacious, and sometimes unnerving ideas about the future, and we ask them how we can all prepare to live in it.

Gideon Lichfield: Our guest this week is Luukas Ilves. He is the chief information officer of the government of Estonia, which people often talk about as one of the most digitally advanced governments in the world.

Luukas Ilves (audio clip):The fact that other countries in a couple of years time can look at what we've done, learn these lessons, and then kind of catapult themselves into being the same league with us, that gives me ground for optimism that actually governments can get better at this.

Lauren Goode: So Gideon, I've heard passing references to Estonia as this magical, futuristic place where everything runs on the blockchain or something. But I have to confess, I know very little about Estonia. I am going to be the proxy today for audience members listening to this who are like, “I know nothing about Estonia, tell me.”

Gideon Lichfield: That is your job.

Lauren Goode: That's my job.


Gideon Lichfield: OK, well, so let me ask you something. In the last five years or so, how many times do you think you have filled in exactly the same information: your name, address, phone, email, social security number, health conditions, whatever, every single time you've gone to see a new doctor or applied for a driver's license, or done pretty much any other bit of bureaucracy?

Lauren Goode: A lot. A hundred. You're saying within the past year? I can't even begin to count.

Gideon Lichfield: Or five … However long. Yes.

Lauren Goode: I can't begin to remember. That's actually just called adulting.

Gideon Lichfield: That's why it's so hard.

Lauren Goode: Yes.

Gideon Lichfield: So what if you never had to do that again? You show up at a new doctor's office or at City Hall or at the bank, and you just prove to them that you are you, and they say, “OK, thank you Ms. Goode. Just tap here to accept our services, and we will have all the data on you that we need.”

Lauren Goode: So it's like Apple Pay for government?

Gideon Lichfield: Sure, if you want.

Lauren Goode: I think this is good as long as the data is secure.

Gideon Lichfield: Yeah. So what Estonia has is this advanced system for permissioning data. Different bits of the government, and also different private companies, all have data on you. But you can decide who gets to see which data from which place. This system they call the X-Road is basically a backbone for transferring data between different entities. And what's more, you not only can give permission to individual people or entities to see bits of your data, you can also see who has looked at it every single time, so you have total transparency into how your data is being used, which you certainly don't here in the US.

Lauren Goode: Ah, that must be where the blockchain comes in.

Gideon Lichfield: Somewhere in there the blockchain comes in. Yeah. It's possibly the first use of a blockchain I've actually believed in.

Lauren Goode: OK.

Gideon Lichfield: So let's go even further. Let's say you don't have to file your taxes

Lauren Goode: I'm listening.

Gideon Lichfield: You just get a notification from the government that your tax return is ready, you take a look, and if it looks good to you, you click accept, and your taxes are done.

Lauren Goode: What if they don't look good?

Gideon Lichfield: Then you can change them.

Lauren Goode: OK. I'm just saying if you have, like, a quibble about something.

Gideon Lichfield: Yes.

Lauren Goode: OK. I like the sound of this too.

Gideon Lichfield: And now let's imagine you're eligible for some kind of state benefit, like disability or an education grant or childcare but you don't have to apply for it, you don't even have to know it exists, you just get a notification from the government saying that you qualify for this thing, do you want it? If yes, click here.

Lauren Goode: How does the government know you're about to have a baby? Are they spying?

Gideon Lichfield: [Chuckle] No, but if it knows you've had a baby, if you've been to the hospital and registered a birth—

Lauren Goode: OK.

Gideon Lichfield: Then they—

Lauren Goode: OK.

Gideon Lichfield: Kick in automatically.

Lauren Goode: OK, so there's one side of this that sounds a little bit Big Brother, and then there's another part of me that thinks this is probably how a fully digitized government should work.

Gideon Lichfield: Right. It's kind of like Steve Jobs used to say about Apple products, “It should just work.”

Lauren Goode: And so, Luukas' job is to make this all work?

Gideon Lichfield: Well, not his job alone, but he is the guy in charge of overseeing the digital transformation that started about 30 years ago, and continuing to advance it across all the government.

Lauren Goode: Estonia is pretty small though, right? So to ask a question that perhaps a Silicon Valley VC would ask, can it scale? Is this something that the United States could conceivably do?

Gideon Lichfield: Well, that's what I wanted to talk to Luukas about. Because Estonia is seen as this poster child for digital government, to the point where it's kind of become a cliché. People say, “Oh, yeah, Estonia.” But good luck trying to replicate what Estonia does anywhere else. I basically wanted to ask Luukas how exportable is the Estonian model. And he seemed to think it wasn't as unique to Estonia as you might imagine.

Lauren Goode: Well, I can't wait to hear this.

Gideon Lichfield: And that conversation is coming up right after the break.


Gideon Lichfield: Luukas Ilves, welcome to Have a Nice Future.

Luukas Ilves: Thanks, Gideon, it's a pleasure to be on.

Gideon Lichfield: Are you having a nice future?

Luukas Ilves: I am. Although for me, it's my present.

Gideon Lichfield: I think most of our listeners probably have heard that Estonia is a pioneer in digital government, but they don't know much about what that means in practice. So can you briefly talk about the key things that make it a leader?

Luukas Ilves: Sure. I mean, the headline point is really simple, which is just that everything's digital. There isn't a government service or an interaction between citizen or business and government that hasn't been digitized at this point. So everything from the mundane that should be digital at this point in pretty much every country in the world, like filing your taxes, permitting of any kind to—you know, some things that are a bit less digitized in most parts of the world, such as voting, where we've been able to vote online since 2004, and in our most recent elections, more than half of people did. And of course beyond just digitizing things, we have a very strong focus on taking advantage of all the sort of, the tools that new tech gives us to constantly make stuff better, whether that's better from the perspective of transparency and accountability, convenience, or cost effectiveness. So in some ways, I'd say it's almost unremarkable. We do in government what pretty much everyone in the world everywhere does with digital transformation, which is to find ways to constantly get better at what they're doing using the technologies of the day.

Gideon Lichfield: Estonia has been on this journey of digitizing government for about 30 years, so how did it get started, and why do you think it got a head start on so many other places?

Luukas Ilves: Well, the interesting thing is we didn't get a head start, we had a very late start. So when did the US start digitizing government? Late ‘40s or the early ’50s with a bunch of mainframes. And even countries that you don't think of as being wealthier, super technologically advanced, have been doing digital government, at least in the sense of having government mainframes running back-office processes since the 1960s. Estonia was forcibly occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991, and so in a sense, a lot of our government processes were much more backward technologically. And when we regained our independence in 1991, we effectively had a clean reboot of a lot of how government functioned, and so we got lucky in timing. We started at a time where the thinking had just radically shifted in terms of what providing a service means. We were in the era of the internet. And the second is that we didn't have a lot in the way of resources. So we couldn't just sort of take 1980s enterprise IT, because we didn't have the ability to afford IBM and Accenture to come in and build that for us. And so, you know, initially, a lot of what we did was bootstrapped, and at the time fairly young tech guys figuring out very organically, well, what makes sense, what kind of fits our functional requirements?

Gideon Lichfield: Let's talk about some of the implications of what that actually means for users of government services. So Estonia has this principle that no piece of data should have to be entered twice. How does that change the experience for people compared with a country like sitting here in the US, every time you go to see a different doctor, you have to fill in forms all over again?

Luukas Ilves: That's right. So that's what we call the once-only principle. If the government has asked you for a piece of data, they don't have a right to ask you for that same data again in a different context. So that means prefilled tax declarations, where Estonians like to compete on how long it takes them to declare their taxes, and what they're really competing on is who's faster at logging on to the tax service, pressing accept, and being done.

Gideon Lichfield: How long does it take then to file one's taxes?

Luukas Ilves: If you don't actually look at the declaration, you can do it in about 15 seconds. So what's happening in the background there is that we have a pretty good taxonomy of the data that government has, and when one public body has a reason to use data, then they go and query that from another public body based on the legal authorization they have to use that data. But the benefits aren't just around convenience. It makes our public services work more effectively, it reduces a lot of error, and a lot of the sort of difficulties in public service delivery where disadvantaged populations might not get access to a service because they don't know about some kind of an opportunity or an entitlement—that you can sort of do away with. It reduces a lot of opportunities for fraud on the one hand, but also corruption on the part of officials. And it also, we at least think, makes us better at protecting our citizens' data, because instead of having massive amounts of data over-collected everywhere and generally not necessarily thawed and safeguarded too well, if we've got a piece of sensitive data, then we focus on keeping that well protected in one context, making sure the access rules are strictly enforced and making sure the right protections are in place, and then giving our citizens transparency on how that data is actually used.

Gideon Lichfield: So my sense from having visited Estonia a number of times over the last couple of decades, it's a pretty technologically literate country. But there will always be some people, and especially the elderly, who find digital services a little harder to handle, or who are especially vulnerable to hacking and having their data compromised. How do you help those people, and how do you make sure nobody's getting left behind?

Luukas Ilves: So there's a two-part answer. The first, of course, is how you actually build your digital services to address these problems. So it's a basic, first of all, user design question, where you can have very complex services that can still be easy to use or that can be a nightmare to use. And the same thing is true for instance, for questions around identity theft or hacking. Part of having a security ID is it puts additional barriers in place to some of the usual ways in which credentials would get stolen. So for part of the elderly population, you're gonna solve that question by having easy-to-use convenient services that don't create those problems. And by the way, it's not just an elderly question, if we look at the largest proportion of calls to our help lines are actually from people in the age bracket of 18 to 25, because a lot of how government agencies design services, even Estonia, isn't really built for how Gen Z, which only uses mobile devices, which has a different expectation of user experience, how they're used to using services. So it's not always the case that younger means that they have an easier time using a service. But for the elderly, you're never gonna hit 100 percent. You're always going to have people with enough cognitive or sensory impairment that they really can't use a service, you're going to have people who just refuse to use a service, and we don't force citizens to use digital services, there is always an in-person or paper alternative. But it becomes a numbers game. The more you can move people into the online and automated channels, the more you can take the resources that you would use for in-person interactions to actually make the interaction for the complex cases work better. The idea is not that we move everyone into digitization, but that if we can move 80-20 or 90-10—the vast majority—into digitized automated channels, then we use the resources we have to then deal with the other 5 or the 10 percent in a way that actually pays more attention to their needs and gives them better outcomes.

Gideon Lichfield: Right. So it seems like one of the big shifts that is happening at the moment in Estonia is a move to proactive public services, the idea that if you're entitled to some benefit, you shouldn't have to apply for it, it should just appear automatically. Where do you expect that to end up?

Luukas Ilves: The idea is really quite simple, which is that the triggering conditions for most public services are written in the law somewhere. It can be anything from as mundane as, well, your passport needs to be renewed, to something a bit more sophisticated like means-testing for a public benefit. And if we know that we have the data that determine whether you are entitled to a benefit or should be using some kind of a service, then we're kind of sitting on our hands if we don't reach out to you when those data or those events indicate something should be happening. So the basic idea is just—it's a convenience point, it's as simple as me getting an SMS saying, “Hey, your passport's gonna expire in two months, here is a link to renew it.” But as you then start going through more complex events and services, you get into situations where you're notifying people of benefits that they weren't aware they're eligible for, you might in particular be focusing on disadvantaged populations where the information about the availability of these benefits isn't really there. Or you're pushing out things like, for instance, in the case of Covid, where we had additional unemployment benefits and then health benefits and support also for enterprises, you're going to the people that these benefits are meant to target without waiting for them to come to you, which should be contributing to actually achieving the desired outcome—the reason for which those benefits or those targeted forms of support were created in the first place—more effectively.

Gideon Lichfield: Right. I mean, it seems kind of obvious. And yet in most places around the world, it's assumed that if you want something from the government, you have to ask for it.

Luukas Ilves: Yeah. And there may still be asking for it, I have to ask to have my passport renewed. But why shouldn't the government tell you that, “Hey, you can ask for it.” Wouldn't you like to ask for it? Because again, all of these various forms of benefits and services, ostensibly they exist because they're in the public good and because the lawmaker wants them to be used. So if we're kind of funding something, we're creating a legal framework and then we're just failing to tell our users that it's out there, it's really sort of doing 95 percent of the work and then failing in the last 5 percent.

Gideon Lichfield: Let's talk about online voting. This year, Estonians voted, and for the first time, more than half the votes were cast online. Tell us, first of all, how that online voting system works, what makes it secure?

Luukas Ilves: Yeah. So the online voting we have in Estonia is actually quite similar to a mail-in ballot. The ballot itself, you have an anonymous ballot that can only be read and decrypted by the Electoral Commission after the voting is over, and that in turn is digitally signed using your electronic identity and your signature that Estonians use every day for banking and government services. And in practice, you've got a piece of software which you download to your desktop, or from next year, on your smartphone, and you cast that ballot, it gets sent to the electoral service, and then once the voting period's over, it all gets tabulated and counted.

Gideon Lichfield: So it's a little bit like the digital equivalent of a paper ballot where you have a ballot inside an envelope which is blank, and then that goes inside another envelope which has your voter information on it.

Luukas Ilves: Basically, with a bunch of fancy cryptography thrown in there. Yeah.

Gideon Lichfield: Right. There have been some claims over the years that the system isn't entirely secure. Various researchers have suggested that they found flaws, and clearly it's taken a while to build public trust in the system because it's only this year that more than half the population voted online. Given everything else that Estonia has been doing digitally, does it feel like this one is harder to get right?

Luukas Ilves: Almost a decade ago, we open-sourced software, and of course researchers from across the world looked at that. And there were some—they found some potential theoretical concerns, and there were a whole bunch of sort of observations of a process that were made, which we then took on board and we sort of worked through the software, we've made some updates. But at the same time, there hasn't ever actually been any form of compromise that's been discovered. The flaws that have been talked about are all theoretical and generally also have a whole bunch of technical and organizational safeguards in place, so that even if any of these flaws that for instance were discovered, would have been exploited, that wouldn't have actually impacted the integrity of the electoral process. Making these elections secure, ensuring the integrity of the process, ensuring the secrecy of the ballot and so on has always been the number one design consideration. And the slow uptake, I'm not sure it's about trust, initially it was seen kind of as geekish oddity. And people don't vote very much, so there's also, for a large part of the population here as elsewhere, there's an element of ceremony to going into your local polling booth. But it's been one of those services where the uptake, it follows an exponential growth curve, but it just takes time.

Gideon Lichfield: Obviously, the big question for all of this conversation is how easy it is for other places to do what Estonia is doing. And particularly, sitting here in the US, a lot of the stuff that you're describing sounds science fictional, just because it's hard to imagine anybody agreeing to a single centralized ID where that allows all your data to be shared across different government agencies, for example. But you lived in the US for a bunch of years, what do you think it would take for some of the stuff that Estonia is doing to be replicated here?

Luukas Ilves: Yeah. So before I get to the US, let's just say that I've noticed that bunches of countries have copied what we've done, or they're taking inspiration, big and small. On the big side, India, and a lot of how they thought about the India stack was really inspired by what we did. Some countries have really copied quite directly. We've done so—most recently, most notably, Ukraine's digital transformation I think was kick-started by being inspired by us, and a lot of the ways in which they've rebuilt individual services based on what we've done. Their data exchange platform is basically our X-Road and so on. And there's a long list of examples. So this does transfer, and what's been done in Estonia can be done—is being done—in every continent of the world. Now, we get to the US, I'd say that what I found to be most detrimental to all this transformation, and you see this in the US, you see this also in a couple other countries, I'd say Germany and Japan, is a self-defeating attitude of, well, we shouldn't even try because we probably can't pull it off. And in the US, that takes the form of deep pessimism about the capability of the public sector to do things differently. I would say the most important thing is to actually not fall into that sort of trap of prejudging yourself to failure. In English-speaking countries, the perception that the government really shouldn't be handing out identities—

Gideon Lichfield: It's seen as a Big Brother thing.

Luukas Ilves: Yeah. But you see the results that politicians in these countries, the US included, haven't really fought that fight. I mean, I think the way that digital identity is probably going to happen in the US is going to be that the actual sort of technical layer is probably going to be done by tech, and then there's going to be an interface probably which states on how you actually take the certificates and maybe even the secure hardware in your iPhone or your Android device and link that to identity credentials. And I think basically that's what Apple and Google are working on already. So I think that probably EID in the US is actually going to sort of solve itself by the back door without anyone even realizing that it's been solved. What that will require is enough people, more I think in state government, but with support from the federal government, having the courage to do that and sort of get over the initial hump. And the best thing to get over the hump is actually putting services into users' hands that they really like. You put something that works, that's fairly easy to use, and it also has some transparency on what it's doing with the data into someone's hands. And I think that most people say, “Hey, this is great. I'm really happy it's made my life easier.” And if, in the background, the work has been done to convince the privacy advocates, et cetera, who would be really concerned about it, that actually this passes muster, you would hope they'd sort of listen to the signals. I realize that's hopelessly naive, given the political polarization in the US, but that still sort of should be your starting point.

Gideon Lichfield: Do you worry about Estonia starting to fall behind, having been the leader in building these digital systems for so long, as other countries come in and innovate in their own way?

Luukas Ilves: I don't worry about us falling behind, sadly in part because this is tough to do across governments everywhere. And so while we do have plenty of competition, we don't have as much as I think we should. But also because our main goal is to make stuff better here. So the stuff that keeps me up at night, it's not “Will another country be better than us?” It's, “Will all the sort of normal bureaucracy of government, and all the sort of mundane challenges we have, funding cycles, programming requirements, et cetera, get in the way of doing the next cool, interesting thing?” And not by thwarting it directly, but just death by 1,000 paper cuts.

Gideon Lichfield: And what makes you optimistic?

Luukas Ilves: Right now I'd say what makes me optimistic within government in Estonia is that we've really gotten to a point where I think top management and below them, sort of the service delivery teams really across government, gets it. And we put a lot of effort into executive education, into training our civil servants, not just the technology, but how you do service design, how you think about data. And there's actually, like, a pretty across-the-board hunger to use the tools we now have to get better business outcomes. So that's the first thing that makes me optimistic. And the second thing that actually makes me optimistic is precisely the fact that we're not the only country in the world that's doing a good job at this. The fact that other countries in a couple of years time can look at what we've done, learn these lessons, and then kind of catapult themselves into being the same league with us, that gives me ground for optimism that actually governments can get better at this. And that this, you know, there isn't some kind of unique special to Estonia, sort of set of circumstances that doesn't scale, because that would actually be a really depressing conclusion. If the conclusion is actually anyone can do this, and it works for big countries and small countries, I think it's a much more optimistic conclusion.

Gideon Lichfield: Indeed. Luukas Ilves, thank you very much for joining me on Have a Nice Future.

Luukas Ilves: Thank you.


Lauren Goode: So my first question, Luukas sounds like an American. I was expecting an Estonian accent, so this surprised me. Is he also an American?

Gideon Lichfield: Well, his father was the president of Estonia, then taught at Stanford for a while, and Luukas studied in the US.

Lauren Goode: OK, so more seriously, I'm still not sure I understand exactly how their data system is so secure, particularly when they do still rely on third party vendors to power some of these services. How do they make that work?

Gideon Lichfield: I mean, granted that I'm not a digital security expert, but it's a system that they've built over a number of decades, that is based on this thing they call the X-Road, and what that is is simply an agreed platform that no matter what data system you use, in whatever government ministry or whatever private company, there is a kind of pipeline that you interface with by an agreed protocol that is secure. And that pipeline is what carries data from one entity's databases to another, and what controls who accesses it and how permissions are granted. And so they're using that single protocol for everything, both in the public sector and in the private sector. And they also use a blockchain as a way of making sure that things can't be changed without leaving a trace. So somebody can't interfere with the data and then cover up the interference, that whatever change is made to the data is going to be recorded in the blockchain.

Lauren Goode: Got it. OK. So provided that works as promised, it seems like it'd be pretty good for something like voting. Do you think that online voting is a good thing generally? I mean, it has a bad reputation here in the United States. Cybersecurity experts have actively opposed bills that would introduce internet voting because of how insecure they think it is. I don't know if you recall, but we had a little issue with our last presidential election.

Gideon Lichfield: There was something I heard, I think, somewhere on the news. I mean, I think it seems as if Estonia's done quite a bit of work and has taken some time, both to build up the trust and to build up the security of its online voting system. But as Luukas said, they now have more than half of the voters voted online in the last election. I think there is another argument that one might make against online voting, which is that voting is seen as a civic duty and as a kind of, it's an opportunity for people to come together. You all show up at the voting booth, you're standing in line with other citizens. You get to feel like you're participating in this important democratic process. And that if you just click a button online, maybe it won't have that effect. But I don't know if there's evidence either way that shows that that's true. We've seen voting rates decline in many, many countries where they have voting in person. So, I don't think we can say definitively that online voting makes it worse.

Lauren Goode: Right. And voting in person also creates opportunities for voter intimidation.

Gideon Lichfield: Yeah. One of the things Luukas talked about was how their online voting system allows you to vote as many times as you want, which seems weird and counterintuitive. But what he was saying was, if someone tries to pressure you to vote a certain way or even to bribe you, you could vote the way they want. And then five minutes later, you could vote again. And only your last vote counts in the system.

Lauren Goode: Oh, that's interesting.

Gideon Lichfield: So that takes away the incentive to bribe people or to put pressure on them.

Lauren Goode: Wow. You could change your votes as often as you change your outfits.

Gideon Lichfield: Right. But …


Lauren Goode: You wake up one day and have a totally different vibe.

Gideon Lichfield: Right. But only the last one counts.

Lauren Goode: I'm intrigued by Luukas' claim that we will get a single electronic identity here in the United States via some sort of backdoor implemented by tech firms like Apple and Google. People in tech have talked about this idea of federated identity for a long time. But also, I'm not sure this should be powered by the private sector. How do you think this would actually work?

Gideon Lichfield: It seemed to me that what Luukas was saying was, if you see what Google and Apple and I think even Microsoft are already doing, they've rolled out these things called passkeys. And the idea of a passkey is, instead of having a password for each site that you log into, your phone or your computer basically authenticates with that site and says, based on this person's fingerprint or their face ID, I can confirm that this is the person who has this identity. And that eliminates the possibility that you might have multiple logins with different emails, some passwords that are compromised, all of that kind of uncertainty. So your phone or your device becomes the identity standard for you. Once that becomes more accepted, it's logical then that government services, banks, everybody else will all start adopting passkeys. And then what happens de facto is that you have a single identity across all of these different services. And that's what I think he meant by this coming in via the backdoor, that because the tech firms have built these identity systems for us, we now start to have the possibility to swap information in theory between those services if we choose to allow it. And maybe he's suggesting that that's what's eventually going to happen.

Lauren Goode: OK. So the one thing that I can get behind that Luukas talked about, automated taxes. I mean, the US government services are pretty digitized at this point. You can buy your marketplace health insurance, file for unemployment, register your car, all that stuff entirely online. But when it comes to tax season, we still have to go looking for our W-2s, our 1099s. We either then file our own taxes using onerous services like TurboTax, or maybe you package all those files neatly and send them off to an accountant who ultimately comes back to you and says, "Guess what? I need more forms." I kind of want Estonia's version.

Gideon Lichfield: Right. So when you said that US government services are already pretty digitized, I think the key difference here between the US and Estonia is, here they're digitized but still siloed. So you still have to have separate data for each of those things that you do online, and those services don't exchange data with each other, whereas in Estonia they do. But then as for filing taxes, essentially what Estonia does is give us access to your bank records and your salary records and everything else. And then we, the government, from that data, create your tax return. So you have to be comfortable with that. Now, I don't see why you wouldn't be, because ultimately you're giving them all of that information anyway.

Lauren Goode: Unless you're Donald Trump, but please continue.


Gideon Lichfield: But yes, you have to now manually go through the process of compiling all of that information and giving it to the government so it can calculate your taxes. So why not just give it to them preemptively and let them do the work? That seems like a great idea to me.

Lauren Goode: So why don't we have this yet? Why has there not been a candidate for president who has said, “I'm going to run on the e-government platform. I'm going to digitize all of this and make your life easier”?

Gideon Lichfield: Can you imagine what an exciting governing platform that would be in the US? Wouldn't that just bring people out in droves?

Lauren Goode: I can't recall in recent history any president saying, “One of my top priorities is going to be digitizing the government.” And I suppose that Barack Obama did this too with healthcare.gov.

Gideon Lichfield: Which was a resounding success.

Lauren Goode: The initial rollout was rough. Painful.

Gideon Lichfield: Yeah, it was a real mess.

Lauren Goode: Yeah, so why hasn't a candidate done this?

Gideon Lichfield: I think part of it is it's kind of boring as a campaign platform in the US. I mean, the things that get people riled up are the polarizing issues like abortion and taxes and gun control and so on.

Lauren Goode: Actually, you just made me wonder, what's Estonia's policy on abortion?

Gideon Lichfield: I mean, abortion is legal in Estonia. I think the reason this is a worry in the US is that state laws vary. So where an abortion or gun ownership are legal under certain conditions in one state, they might not be in another state. And people who are traveling out of state for an abortion might not want the state they came from to know that they went and got it somewhere else.

Lauren Goode: Right. So in a totally polarized America you might have one group of people, let's say gun control activists, who really think it would be beneficial to have a centralized database of every assault weapon in the United States and who owns that weapon and who's in possession of it. At the same time, there might be people who don't believe in abortion, feel strongly it should be illegal, who also think that there should be a database of people who get an abortion. And that's a scary future.

Gideon Lichfield: But I think the thing that is often really misunderstood about Estonia's data system, which is why it might also in fact work in the US, is that it is not about necessarily centralizing a database. You could have state-level databases of who's had an abortion or who owns guns. You could even have city-level. And you, as the citizen, would have control over who gets to see the data in your state database. So you could say, I'm from Texas. Texas doesn't have the right to see any abortion data or any health data that I have from another state, for example. That's the way that data is exchanged in the Estonian system. And so that does actually allow for a lot of security. I think the problem with this discussion in the US is it would be very hard to make that clear to people. And I think people would assume that everything is being centralized and everything is being Big Brothered. I think it's a shame that this conversation is so hard to have in the US, because I actually think a lot of the distrust in government in this country especially is because government services are often so lousy. And making them more digital and making them better connected so you didn't have to spend all your time reentering data or you didn't have conflicting versions of your data sitting on different servers, that would actually make it a lot more efficient, a lot more reliable, a lot more easy to use, and it might increase trust in government. But it's very hard to see how you get there politically.


Lauren Goode: That's our show for today. Thanks for listening.

Gideon Lichfield:Have a Nice Future is hosted by me, Gideon Lichfield.

Lauren Goode: And me, Lauren Goode. If you like the show, we would love to hear from you. You can leave us a rating and a review wherever you get your podcasts. And don't forget to subscribe so you get our new episodes each week.

Gideon Lichfield: You can also email us your comments at nicefuture@wired.com. Tell us what you're worried about, what excites you, any questions you have about the future, and we'll try our best to answer them with our guests.

Lauren Goode:Have a Nice Future is a production of Condé Nast Entertainment. Danielle Hewitt from Prologue Projects produces the show. Our assistant producer is Arlene Arevalo.

Gideon Lichfield: We'll be back here next Wednesday, and until then, have a nice future.


Credit belongs to : www.wired.com

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