Magazine, Vol. 3: Digital Transformation
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“Thinking about a «state trojan» does not keep me up at night”

Messe © Max Dauven

The Paperless State


The world is going digital – including states and bureaucracies. While E-Governance has already become a part of everyday life in many Southeast Asian countries, many other states, like Germany, have trouble keeping up. In his interview with 42, Prof. Dr Wolfgang Drechsler from Tallinn University of Technology discusses the threat of mass surveillance, why E-Governance is crucial for the EU and why he believes E-Health to be sensible.

Professor Drechsler – the state is organised completely digitally: we only have one card in our wallets that simultaneously collects loyalty points for the supermarket and serves as our ID. During elections, nobody has to leave the house, we just have to open up our laptops and our tax returns are submitted online. How far are we from this type of E-Governance-future here in Europe?

Countries that make E-Governance a priority – I am referring to the digital transformation of state and administration in action – and have the technological competence, would need about one to two years to accomplish an almost all-encompassing implementation. For Germany, I would estimate about five to ten years.

What are the causes of these different paces of development?

Germany does not make digital transformation a real priority. We have many councils, advisory boards and speeches engaging with the topic – they are a dime a dozen. But proper implementation has been delayed. These delays are also related to Germany’s history and the current political and societal climate, which favours security, predictability and reliability. There is only little room for agility or to try new things – even though counterexamples do exist of course.

Would you then say, Germany is rather lacking in political will for implementation instead of technical requirements?

Definitely. We are not only lacking in political will, but also in societal enthusiasm for the cause.

Speaking of data security: Are people in Germany more sceptical towards E-Governance than those in other European states?

You could definitely assess it that way; nearly all empirical studies show it. This scepticism exists in all political camps by the way. Of course, it is rooted – as I said – in German historical experiences, a general distrust of the state. Most Germans do believe in the competence of the state, but they also fear its capabilities. On top of that, German culture is heavily informed by juridical matters, a focus on laws and rights that is nearly unique in today’s world. Technological developments matter very little to judges and courts.

In public discourse, you can hear some say: We would like to keep all our rights, all our securities, but also want all the conveniences a digitalised world can offer. You can ask for these things simultaneously, but to get them is at least not an easy task. It is the same for digital transformation as for internal security, which also has its price.

Does this mean that in Germany, the legal side of things brings more problems than the technological one?

Without a doubt. Germany’s technological competence might not be world-leading but is still very good. Digital signatures, digital cooperation, an entirely digitalised administrative body and maybe even a transformation of the economy, society and politics: we have seen less of these things around the world than expected – to establish all this in Germany would be no problem, technologically speaking.

“Digital transformation offers technologically literate people more access to the political and societal reality”


Not all people possess the same abilities to access information and communication technology. How do you assess the risk of a part of society being excluded from the rest, older citizens for example?

Age and poverty are less of a problem than one might think. In most cases – especially globally speaking – we find no correlation between income or social status and time spent online, at least not a linear correlation. What remains unclear is what people do online: are they sorting sweets in Candy Crush or are they informing themselves? The digital divide – the unequal access to information and communication technology across different sections of society – is of course still real. But currently, the problem is often solved through analogue alternatives. In Estonia, the Chancellor of Justice, who also serves as ombudsperson, has declared these alternatives as kind of a civil right. It is definitely true that digital transformation offers technologically literate people more access to the political and societal reality.

One threat that is often mentioned in public discourse is mass surveillance or even a “state trojan”. How real are these threats?

Thinking about a “state trojan” does not keep me up at night. Regarding mass surveillance – the loss of sovereignty over our personal data turning each individual completely transparent, including habits, interests and inclinations, which justifiably are an integral part of our privacy – the threat is less the state and rather economic actors. I believe that ship has sailed already. We should assume that no online activity is private. We already know that, but we are lazier than privacy-conscious. In that sense, the issue of mass surveillance is real. The trust in the state is a whole other matter that has to distinguish between an absence of fear and confidence in a competent and honest administration.

The latter indicates: I trust the state and its bureaucracies. They might have my data, but I know they will handle it responsibly and with care. The former means: I am not sure of the state and its bureaucracies want what is best for me, but I am not afraid of them and do not believe that the state apparatus poses a threat or danger to me. In smaller states, where the difference between “those at the top” and “us” is less tangible, an absence of fear is quite common.

“The best E-Governance countries stand out due to their consideration of how much technologisation they want”


The varying reservations people in the different European countries hold seem to be a crucial reason as to why European states tend to lag so far behind others in the field of E-Governance.

When you say “behind”, you insinuate a natural process. As I see it, the best E-Governance countries stand out due to their consideration of how much technologisation they want: They do not just implement everything that is technologically possible but rather determine each time whether it is desirable. That means: the solution does not lie in the implementation of all technological developments, but in an approach that is positive and open towards developments yet assesses them critically. But when it comes to doubting everything, Germans are definitely the world champions. This level of scepticism greatly exceeds the necessary level.

Which countries would you deem to be role models concerning the implementation of E-Governance?

That depends on whether I only evaluate the technological advancements or also prioritise careful considerations. Overall, I would say that the leading European countries – in different aspects mind you – are Finland, Denmark, Estonia and in a sense also the UK. Finland is very successful due to its taking action based on technology, but not driven by it.

What can other European states learn from these four?

If the assessment of the digital transformation done by governments and administrations is really based as strongly on society as it seems, it would be advisable to not just apply the exact model another state has implemented. We should learn from them: What have they done correctly? What do we want? Can we use their approach and integrate it properly? The most successful countries stand out, because they prioritise digital transformation at the governmental level. They ensure there is both talk and action.

This might sound cliché, but it is true. The implementation of a general approach to administrative reform centred around the users, i.e. the citizens, is also crucial. It does not get you anywhere to just digitise. By the way, digital transformation tends to lead to an improvement of administrative action instead of a reduction of public service, which, if you think of “Public Value Creation” and less of neoliberal models, is not a bad thing altogether.

If we look beyond Europe, which countries are global leaders in implementing E-Governance?

When someone asks me about the biggest challenges of our time, I always name two: one is digital transformation and the other is the rise of Asia. Our world is shifting on all levels more and more towards East and Southeast Asia, South Asia also. Based on population size alone, that is the centre of the world. In my opinion – and most rankings agree – Singapore is the leading country regarding E-Governance followed by South Korea. There is not country in Europe that can keep up with Singapore.

The reason for that is that Singapore possesses a highly competent administrative body focused on the citizen, which legitimises it. Thus it possesses both the mandate and the ability to implement digital transformation wherever it sees fit. But Asia also demonstrates what E-Governance looks like if it is constructed to further government interests. Simply positing that E-Governance has to be beneficial to citizens misses that phenomenon.

“Digital transformation is always ambivalent, as is all mechanisation actually”


Can China be seen as a discouraging example due to its introduction of facial recognition software and social credit points used to control society to a certain degree?

Digital transformation is always ambivalent, as is all mechanisation actually. There is a nice comparison that illustrates just that. E-Governance is like MSG, like monosodium glutamate. MSG is a substance often used particularly by Chinese restaurants to intensify certain tastes that are already a part of a dish without changing them. This phenomenon can be transferred onto E-Governance: When you implement E-Governance, you notice that existing political and societal tendencies are intensified by it. Digital Governance does not automatically mean that a society will be democratised or liberalised, which is what we first assumed as the phenomenon gained in prominence, but we were wrong. And whether blockchain can change that is still entirely uncertain.

An oppressive system becomes more oppressive, because it improves its ability to oppress. And an already liberal or more open regime, which prioritises liberality and openness, becomes even more liberal and open. If you have online elections and a truly democratic system, then you can reach even more people with it – even though a change of electorate would be inevitable, which can cause problems if it distorts the results. But if you only have pseudo-elections, the respective ruler can just say: “Today I would like 97.5, not 98.2 percent” which he then gets. You do not even have to fake ballots. You just inform two or three IT engineers ahead of time and you get the election results you wanted. All this means E-Governance intensifies already existing tendencies. It generally improves – from a German point of view – good things and worsens bad things.

You just mentioned E-Voting and the possibility of manipulation. In which sectors do you see E-Governance most easily implemented?

In my opinion, service provision – services provided through civil service – works a lot better than E-Participation or E-Democracy, which both face problems like the digital divide. But using an app or a visual display at a bus stop to check live arrival times and not just timetables is very achievable progress and people are rightly asking for it. To visit authorities in person might not be a medieval idea, but it is a thing of the late 20th century. Emphasising digital services therefore suggests itself. We also have to consider that the legitimacy of a state, which is of crucial importance, depends on personal experiences with bureaucracies, especially in relatively conflict-free times. That means, the more an administrative body is perceived positively, the more people are generally in favour of a liberal democratic system.

Besides “Digital Services” – what else do you deem reasonable?

E-Health is controversial, but very sensible: moving healthcare into the digital sphere. If you are at the doctor’s waiting your turn, it should be normal to step outside and to receive a WhatsApp message once there are only three people left ahead of you. It is 2018 after all. Technically speaking, this has been possible for many years. Most importantly: the digital storage of medical records makes a lot of sense. If an emergency physician can access your medical history easily, he or she can help you much better. A certain level of transparency of health is in our self-interest. Digital transformation is not just efficient when it comes to waiting at the doctor’s but it is medical progress.

But in many countries people still have reservations concerning the implementation of E-Health. Do you sympathise with that?

It is completely understandable that in a country like Germany many have reservations due to the fact that there was a time when people were killed because of their medical records. Or when they were fired or not even hired because of them. In Estonia, people do not care about that. You have to accept that the implementation of E-Health is more difficult in countries like Germany and if all efforts of persuasion have no influence then we have to accept that as well. But in the case of E-Health, people’s health can benefit and actually improve due to an E-Health system.

When it comes to E-Governance Europe seems to be a Europe of different paces. How much of a problem is that and which consequences does it have?

That depends on the one hand on whether you favour a united, uniform Europe or whether you believe that Europe’s strength lies in the diversity of our beautiful patchwork carpet. The different speeds result from different experiences, but not entirely. It is quite complicated and hardly legitimate to dictate the attitude a certain country should have if the old attitude is deep-rooted and simply does not change. On the other hand, there are certain obstacles put in place by an administrative tradition that makes no sense nowadays: a lack of information and a lack of political will. In that case, it depends on the competence of the political leadership and whether it is future-oriented. Then we can and do take action. After all, it is a priority of the EU and consequently we have the Vice President Andrus Ansip and two more EU-commissioners dealing with nothing else but Europe-wide digital transformation.

Why is this topic so important for the EU?

Well, besides the possibility to strengthen Europeanisation through digital transformation: Because we have realised that Europe has to be careful not to be left behind economically by the US on one side and caught up with by East Asia states on the other. That has been the goal of European politics overall since 2000 since the Lisbon-strategy. In this era, these things have a lot to do with digital transformation. The European social model is based on Europe’s economic superiority. We have to make more money than we are globally entitled to in order to finance our social model. That is why we have to be at the forefront regarding the techno-economical paradigm of our time, namely information and communication technology. It is clear that this is a pan-European priority. In that sense, it would pose real challenges on multiple levels if parts of Europe were seriously lagging behind – not just because of economic competitiveness. That is particularly crucial for the legitimacy of the EU.

Interview: Vera Szybalski

Translation: Hannah Bliersbach



Prof. Dr Wolfgang Drechsler is professor of Governance at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) in Estonia focusing on public administration, political philosophy and innovation. He is also an Associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center and a member of its Advisory Board.

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