The aim of ECePS – the ERA Chair in e-Governance and Digital Public Services – is to strengthen the Center of IT Impact Studies (CITIS), a research unit in the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu (UT) so it can act as a world leader in research on e-governance, public e-services and data-driven public innovation. The project will do so by recruiting a leading expert in the field to serve as an ERA Chair in e-Governance and Digital Public Services who will form a top-level research team capable of conducting cutting-edge research on the digital transformation of government and public services. While the Chair will have considerable freedom in shaping the specific research agenda of the team, it is expected that the research group will tackle the following questions:
- How to harness the benefits of digital transformation of government while minimizing the associated risks and ensuring security, privacy and equal access?
- How can obstacles that prevent governments from implementing e-governance systems be overcome?
- How can researchers and practitioners best utilize the vast amounts of data that is already being generated throughout the world (via existing public e-services)?
Specially, the team is expected to assess the quality of existing e-governance solutions and services, analyze user experiences, suggest improvements to existing services, and provide ideas and, possibly, prototypes, for developing new solutions. The team will also focus on factors that facilitate or hinder the uptake of e-governance solutions and new technologies, and examine the political, social and economic impact of the digitalization of government.
A uniquely conducive environment
The ERA Chair in e-Governance and Digital Public Services will be based at the University of Tartu, the leading institution of higher education in Estonia. Estonia is an ideal location for a top-level research team focusing on e-governance because it has been at the forefront of the digital transformation of the public sector for most of this century. According to the Digital Economy and Society Index 2019, Estonia ranks second in Europe in both the provision of digital public services and in e-governance usage. Estonia has a uniquely developed infrastructure for e-government, including ID cards for digital authentication and digital signatures, as well as the X-road, a distributed state information system which enables cross-usage of registry data. As of September 2019, the X-road was used by over 52 000 public and private organizations, and the number of services that could be used via the system was 2738, generating nearly 986 million service usage queries annually (in a country with 1.3 million people). All permanent residents of the country have an ID-card that provides a secure digital ID. Over the years, a total of 786 million digital signatures have been given with over 889 million authentication events registered. The country has been a champion in remote internet voting since 2005 – nearly a half of all votes cast in the most recent national election were electronic votes. In 2014, Estonia became the first country in the world to launch e-residency, a program that provides non-residents access to the Estonian digital infrastructure and allows them to start and manage EU-based companies online. The total number of e-residents has reached 60 000.
Effective e-service provision has produced large amounts of log data on e-service usage. This data provides unprecedented individual level info on the population and can, if analyzed properly, give unique insights into human behavior. More effective utilization of this data can lead to the next level of e-governance: predictive e-services. This 3rd generation of e-governance will not only impact several stages of the policy formation cycle (agenda setting, policy discussions, implementation), but could also lead to the creation of a new more efficient data-driven policy cycle.
Resources and infrastructure available to the research group
The UT research unit in which the ERA Chair will be based, CITIS, has access to anonymized log files of virtually all e-services provided via the X-road. This currently includes 2.2 billion service call queries, with more data becoming available continuously. CITIS has four years of experience using big data generated by various Estonian public e-services (such as internet voting, mobile parking, e-health, digital ID, e-residency, etc) in order to:
- estimate the economic, political and social impact of those services;
- predict social and economic trends and outcomes;
- prototype new services and e-governance solutions;
- improve evidence-based policymaking;
- examine the impact of e-participation in democratic systems.
The CITIS team collaborates closely with national public authorities, including ministries, the State Electoral Office, and various agencies. It has concluded legal agreements with these institutions granting it the right to access anonymized user data and obtain information about the operation of e-services.
The ERA Chair will have access to modern research facilities and infrastructure, including a leading research library with excellent access to electronic databases, a High-Performance Computing Centre and the Big Data Research Infrastructure built through a previous Horizon 2020 project (SoBigData, 2015-2019). The ICT needs of the team (equipment, software, support services) will be fully met.