Q&A  | 

Welfare in Estonia, The World’s Most Digitised country

“In Estonia, having an electronic ID – which gives you access to 99% of government services online – is compulsory. So there is no accessibility gap between men and women”.

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Florian Marcus works as Digital Transformation Adviser at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre, Estonia being the most digitised country worldwide. “My main focus is meeting with stakeholders from around the world, be they from the public or private sector, and explain to them how digitalisation works in Estonia and how we can make it happen in their countries as well”, he explains. “We regularly give keynote speeches, attend conferences and create connections that can help other countries develop digital systems so their citizens can enjoy the same quality of life as we do in Estonia”, he adds.

How far reaching is the digitalisation of the welfare state worldwide?

In a handful of countries, the welfare state is almost fully digitalised. In Estonia, for example, parents get an online notification after their baby is born, simply asking them to which bank account they wish to receive their child benefit payments. No more paper, no more applications to fill out. The truth is, however, that there are huge gaps when it comes to digitalisation – not just from country to country but also within societies, between the old and the young, or the poor and the rich. There is still a lot of work to do and it’s part of what makes my job so meaningful.

Does the digitalisation of the welfare state imply that algorithms will be deciding the level of care we get from the state?

It definitely doesn’t imply that. Of course, you could let AI decide what level of care a particular individual gets but the truth is that the vast majority of systems around the world are created within a legal framework that they have to abide. To go back to my previous example, there is no mechanism in Estonia that would – on its own accord – decide that I should get slightly less money because my child has brown hair and green eyes. In Estonia, it is simply an automated system that provides services based on the information it has on you and the legal environment.

I should also point out that in Estonia, having an electronic ID – which gives you access to 99% of government services online – is compulsory. So there is no accessibility gap between men and women. Interestingly, some digital services are used more frequently by women than by men. In the Estonian parliament elections of 2019, 54.5% of online votes were cast by women for example.

The gender gap has the digital welfare systems under scrutiny. What's your take on this? Are women miss or under represented?

I don’t believe that this is an issue of digitalisation. If a government’s legislation means that women get more parental leave time than men, that’s a policy issue and not a digital one. Digitalisation, in this case, is merely the tool with which a government provides services.

If the question aims at whether there is an under-representation of women in the tech sector: Absolutely. In Estonia, we’ve got many organisations and initiatives that aim to correct this, though. The first one that comes to mind is the Unicorn Squad initiative which aims to get more girls into STEM subjects and they already have more than 80 clubs across Estonia with more than 1,000 participants.

Which are the roots of this miss-representation?

I believe it’s important to point out that this is not necessarily a policy issue but rather a societal question: How do we raise our kids? What stereotypes do we teach them? We can only move forward on issues like this with a collective approach that teaches boys that they can share their emotions, that they don’t always have to be strong, and likewise help girls discover and follow their passion, especially if it’s in a male-dominated field (or, vice versa, for boys in a female-dominated field).

Following Brockport professor Kristin Heffernan “there continues to be a lack of information on welfare research on fathers” too. Are we mistaken when we believe the digital welfare state biases will affect only women?

I fully agree with Professor Heffernan. Women and men suffer from the roles that society has more or less pushed them into until now. But again, I don’t believe that this has much to do with digitalisation because this is simply one format in which the government provides its services.

I don’t want to live in a world where men are expected to die on battlefields, where they suffer disproportionately from alcoholism and other forms of drug abuse, and are frequently pushed into situations that lead to much higher incarceration and suicide rates than for women. Similarly, I don’t want to live in a world where, depending on the country, women struggle with higher living costs because of policies like the tampon tax or have to fight for their right to get an abortion.

If online information campaigns and other initiatives can raise awareness about the disparate expectations towards members of society, this would be great.

How can governments tackle this issue and can they do it alone?

Personally, I am not a big fan of quotas because they often create more distrust between various societal groups and the sad truth is that the ratio of female politicians, CEOs etc. is a reflection of the systemic power inequality that women have faced over the last few decades. I would prefer an organic development over the next decade or two where the best people rise to the top regardless of their background.

Government can definitely not do this alone. It can create legal frameworks to ensure equity – not just between sexes and genders but also different age groups, ethnicities and more – and enforce them properly. But there is definitely a societal responsibility for each of us to be more open-minded and thoughtful.

How can the private enterprise help and which business opportunities arise in terms of digital welfare gender equality?

The most important thing is to employ people based on merit and treat employees with their background in mind. Some companies offer period days that allows women to take some time off if they need it. This could help create a healthier working environment and help shape the reputation of being an attractive employer for women.

 

In terms of job creation, which new workforce will the digital welfare state demand?

From my understanding, the point of digitalisation is to minimise the requirement for human-to-human interaction in the area of public service provision. The result of a digital welfare state is that everyone, both public servants and citizens, has more time to focus on the things in life that truly matter.

While Estonia has a well-established digital welfare state, many other countries are still in the process of creating it. This is a fantastic chance for programmers, service design specialists and policymakers of all backgrounds to shape a truly inclusive digital environment. Let’s get to work!