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Last Updated: Friday, 7 May, 2004, 07:02 GMT 08:02 UK
Estonia opens politics to the web
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent in Estonia

In many countries, "e-government" is more political rhetoric than hard reality. But not in the tiny Baltic nation of Estonia, where democracy is running about as close to real-time as you can get.

Visitors to Estonia's parliament
Visiting delegations get a taste of Estonia's parliament
Estonia's cabinet meetings are a good example. Each week, government ministers gather at a few long, grey tables in a seemingly spartan room not far from the country's parliament building.

The walls of the room may be mostly bare, but the tables certainly are not. Spaced at intervals along the table tops are sleek, flat-panel monitors, one for each minister.

Underneath the desks are high-end computers, each hard-wired to the internet via broadband connections.

The day's agenda is displayed on a giant projection screen. Any cabinet member who happens to be travelling can participate in the meeting via instant messaging.

As the meeting progresses, press officers send updates to the Estonian government's website.

In the space of 30 seconds, government decisions are made available to any Estonian citizen with an internet connection.

Young blood

None of this seems outrageously hi-tech here in Estonia. The cabinet's been holding meetings like this since the year 2000. The decision to open up the workings of government in this way stretch back to 1992, when Estonia achieved independence.

"During Soviet times, the whole system was closed," said Tex Vertmann, a technology adviser to the Estonian government.

Ant Sild
What we mostly teach is understanding what your goals are as a government, and then figuring out how technology can help you achieve those goals
Ant Sild, E-Governance Academy
"So we opened our system, because people demanded it. And I think citizens are quite happy with it."

The process was helped along, Mr Vertmann said, by the fact that each of the Estonian governments formed since independence have included younger ministers open to trying new ways of doing things.

"They are interested in looking at the future," he said. "They know how to use new technology, and they know about the benefits they can get from these new technologies."

The push for e-government has made the Estonian government more efficient. Cabinet meetings that used to take up to 10 hours, now run on average about 45 minutes.

Web technologies have also helped make the Estonian government more transparent.

Citizens can now log into a government internet portal called Today, I Decide. On the site, Estonians can comment on government policies, both domestic and foreign.

"Every person can send in ideas and proposals in any field," said Estonia's foreign minister Kristiina Ojuland.

"If there are really important proposals, serious proposals, then those are sent to the relevant ministries. And there have been cases where we've changed our legislation based on those proposals coming from citizens."

Teaching others

Problems do remain, however, in getting Estonians interested and online. Although more than 700 free internet access points exist across the country, and wi-fi is stretching out into the countryside, many Estonians still do not have access to the internet.

Some do not even know how to use a computer.

Visiting delegation to the E-Governance Academy
Officials from nearby countries have been trained in Estonia
One group trying to change that is the Look@World Foundation.

It has just completed a two-year programme which saw more than 100,000 Estonian adults, a tenth of Estonia's population, trained on using computers and the internet.

"The real benefits of the internet start only when the majority of the population starts using it," said Alar Ehandi, chairman of the Look@World Foundation.

"The more people that are online, the more services citizens can get via the internet. That makes the state more efficient, and more transparent."

Now, the Estonian e-government model is getting worldwide attention. A recent study by Harvard University placed Estonia in fifth position worldwide when it comes to the development of e-government.

Other studies rank Estonia in the global top 10 in terms of online environment and "e-readiness."

Regional leader

In the last few years, officials from other former Soviet bloc countries have approached Estonian officials and asked how they might adapt the Baltic nation's concepts of e-government to their own political systems.

The ministers can do anything they want during the cabinet meetings. They can read news or check their e-mail
Tex Vertmann, technology adviser
With financial help from the Soros Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme, the Estonian government formally created the E-Governance Academy about 18 months ago to do just that.

Ants Sild, a program manager for training at the E-Governance Academy, said the focus of the training was not on technology, but rather "mind-set change training."

"What we mostly teach," said Mr Sild, "is understanding what your goals are as a government, and then figuring out how technology can help you achieve those goals.

"But then you need to figure out how to manage the technology, and the changes that the technology brings."

Lure of the net

To date, officials from such countries as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Ukraine, and even Mongolia have all gone through training at the academy.

Mr Sild is proud that Estonia's advances in e-government can serve as a model elsewhere.

"We want to have impact," he said. "You can't go back to the autocratic rules that were common in the last century."

But going hi-tech still offers the occasional challenge to Estonia's government ministers, according to advisor Tex Vertmann.

During cabinet meetings, officials sometimes get lured away by the internet's less political offerings.

"The ministers can do anything they want during the cabinet meetings," said Mr Vertmann. "They can read news or check their e-mail."

"And yes," he added laughing, "some ministers read jokes online or something like that. They're only human."

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production


SEE ALSO:
Estonia embraces web without wires
05 May 04  |  Technology
Country profile: Estonia
01 May 04  |  Country profiles
Estonia opens Scottish consulate
06 Jan 04  |  Scotland
Wireless internet stumbles ahead
19 Mar 04  |  Technology


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