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Pulling Ahead of the Pack: How Public-Private Partnerships Have Advanced Estonia’s Democracy

As a leader in e-governance, Estonia has leveraged public-private partnerships to boost innovation, support its democratic institutions and establish itself as a top-rated democracy among post-Soviet states. Despite sharing a similar history, many countries in the region have struggled to emulate Estonia’s democratic success. For this reason, IRI recently convened a study tour of Estonia to equip parliamentarians from Armenia, Georgia, North Macedonia and Ukraine with the tools to improve their own democracies.   

Arriving in Tallinn, Estonia feels like stepping into the future. Food delivery robots quietly roam the streets. Free 5G wi-fi is accessible throughout the capital. An entire city district has emerged as a hub for innovative and knowledge-driven companies.  

Today, some 99 percent of Estonia's governmental services and resources are online. Estonian citizens can vote, pay their taxes, sign important documents, access their personal health information online and much more. Going digital has saved Estonians an estimated 820 years of work in aggregate annually and approximately 2 percent of Estonia’s gross domestic product 

Estonia’s global leadership in e-governance is especially striking because it was achieved by a country less than 30 years old, having restored its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. With a population of only 1.3 million people, it is one of the least populous countries in the European Union, yet ranks number one in democratic development among 29 post-communist nations.  

In order to share Estonia’s experiences and expertise, IRI led a House Democracy Partnership (HDP) study tour with 17 parliamentarians from Armenia, Georgia, North Macedonia and Ukraine to Estonia. This trip was a continuation of IRI and HDP efforts to work on eGov issues in the participating countries, all of which were selected to learn more about Estonia’s e-governance success and how it can be replicated in their own countries that share similar histories to Estonia. Participants met with Estonian e-governance experts and practitioners, parliamentarians and business leaders.  

During the program, the Estonian e-Governance Academy (eGA) emphasized that Estonia’s commitment to developing public-private partnerships has been critical to the innovation allowing its democracy to be exceptionally accessible and responsive to its citizens. The eGA expressed the belief that public-private partnerships can make possible what neither the private sector nor government could accomplish on its own, and yield products and platforms that both protect and enhance democratic systems – such as generating extraordinarily accessible and secure voting platforms 

These partnerships allow for risk and cost-sharing, facilitating innovation that might otherwise be too costly or daunting. Where a government might feel reluctant to dedicate millions of dollars to the innovation of a new tool to better facilitate service provision or increase transparency, private sector actors may be willing to share some of the costs, especially if there is an opportunity to make a profit from the end product. 

Take EstWin: Estonia’s country-wide, high-speed, middle-mile telecommunications network that services even the most sparsely populated areas of the country. Managed by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, the success of the project was largely contingent on the use of commercial telecom operators to provide the needed last-mile connections for end-users. This partnership has resulted in a successful cost and risk-sharing model to innovate a system in which 98 percent of Estonia’s households, enterprises and establishments are within 1.5 km of the network. It has also, by effect, successfully empowered 98 percent of their citizens to freely access, interact with, hold accountable and benefit from their government in a way that would not have been possible without the connection provided by EstWin. 

HDP program participants also learned how the Estonian government is working to catalyze private investment and expertise in order to improve public service delivery and financial accountability by digitizing procurement. For example, Enterprise Estonia and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications have coordinated to encourage contracting authorities to better support innovation in areas such as e-governance and healthcare by changing their practices toward innovation procurement. The eGA explained how such partnerships hold promise to improve public service delivery and enhance transparency all while reducing government expenditures. 

For the four countries that sent delegates to join the summit – each one actively seeking to further digitize their governance systems – gaining a deeper understanding, and eventually emulating, the Estonian innovation model is critical to overcoming the bureaucratic, legal and financial hindrances that are limiting accessibility, accountability and transparency to their citizens. By learning about these programs, participants saw concrete examples of how e-governance – and the public-private partnerships that facilitate it – greatly enhance a government’s ability to efficiently, effectively and transparently provide services to citizens. As Olena Kopanchuk, an MP from Ukraine, summarized in her closing statement, “It is necessary [for a democracy] to have confidence from the people, to give access to each and every citizen and to give access to the e-services they need.”  

The Estonian model is a strong example of how public-private partnerships can improve governance through innovation, foster confidence and improve service delivery for its people. HDP study group participants learned just how critical e-governance has been to Estonia’s ability to develop democratically as a post-Soviet statefacilitating connectivity between the state and its citizens, enhancing the efficiency of public service delivery, and giving the Estonian government the tools to improve its transparency.  

As Daniel Mitov, former Foreign Minister for Bulgaria and NDI representative, articulated in the program’s opening ceremony: “People want to know what their elected representatives do, how they do it, how they craft the bills… [e-governance] is not only about  government services, it’s about connecting with the citizens and being accountable and transparent to them.” E-governance, and the public-private partnerships that have both been created by – and been critical to – the development of Estonia’s digital society, has provided just that for the citizens of Estonia.