This week at The Westin resort, scores of civil servants are being given a taste of a more efficient, more customer-friendly, future … We’ll call it the “Estonia Age.”
For more information about the presentation from the Estonian e-Governance Academy, read our stories published in the Compass today and Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, coincidentally, we included in our Opinion & Letters section a column from economist and Cayman Financial Review editorial board member Richard W. Rahn filed from Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, on the subject of the “small” (population 1.3 million) country’s achievements over the past 25 years.
The column begins, “Estonia is arguably the most advanced country in the world when it comes to the use of the Internet and related technologies. Estonia is a most improbable success, in that a mere quarter of a century ago it was still under domination of the Soviet Union as a very poor backwater on the Baltic Sea. Now it is a developed country and a member of both the EU and NATO.”
After it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the leaders of Estonia adopted a number of initiatives in order to shed the mantle of Soviet-style communism and its accompanying bureaucratic ills. One of these was a simplified tax system, and the other was an all-out embracing of technology in government. (Imagine being able to establish a new business in as few as 18 minutes.)
In June, American presidential contender (and former Florida Governor) Jeb Bush raised some eyebrows when he made the claim that, “You can fill out your tax return in Estonia online in five minutes.”
Journalistic fact checkers from PolitiFact, at the Tampa Bay Times, decided to vet Mr. Bush’s assertion. They ultimately deemed Mr. Bush’s statement as “True” — with the following caveat: “If anything, Estonian tax filers tell us, it takes even less than that.”
This is an example of Estonia’s leveraging of e-government, by providing taxpayers with tax forms that are pre-filled with their information. All taxpayers have to do is check the information for accuracy, append any additional information, and click a button to send.
In Cayman, of course, it doesn’t even take five minutes, or four, or one, to file our income tax returns — because, thankfully, there isn’t any income tax. But that may be the only area of government where we have the Estonians beat for efficiency.
In addition to the existence of an income tax, Estonia also differs from Cayman in more fundamental ways. Historical and social factors in Estonia, for instance, have made it acceptable to have a national identification card that links individuals to both the public and private sectors. We don’t know if the culture in Cayman will ever be amenable to such an initiative. But that is an extreme example.
For now, it is obvious that Estonians have much to teach Cayman about e-government reforms, with a very small part of that involving software and systems.
Cayman’s director of e-government, Ian Tibbetts, was correct when he said, “Technology, that’s easy. You can get what you can afford. The people and process side is where the challenges are.”
Estonian e-government expert Mari Pedak agreed, “The technical part is always the easiest part. Technology allows you to do everything.”
She said the challenges are “how to protect data, how to build trust, how to build awareness. Without trust, nothing works.”
In Cayman — where many government employees interpret “increased efficiency” as “fewer jobs,” where many citizens doubt the stated intentions of public officials, and where some lawmakers keep top civil servants at arm’s length from decision-making — we may, yet, have a long way to go.