Finland takes the X-road to better e-services
Tim Bird finds out how Finland can learn from its Baltic neighbour Estonia about the best ways to share data...
Estonia’s secure and distributed X-road solution is providing a model for the development of “e-Finland”.
Keep it simple: according to Sitra Senior Advisor Mirjami Laitinen, that is the main lesson that Finland can learn from its Baltic neighbour Estonia when it comes to exchanging data between different information systems. Estonia’s X-road concept for allowing the nation’s various e-service databases, in public and private sectors, to link up and operate harmoniously has been recognised in Finland as a sound model for its own data exchange environment.
In practice, the X-road has allowed Estonia to build a state portal website that serves as a “one-stop-shop” for all the different e-services provided by government departments, from healthcare and welfare to education and population registers. Citizens, entrepreneurs and officials are directed to their own portal sections.
“Sitra’s most important role has been to familiarise itself, as well as other co-operators, with Estonia’s X-road systems, together with the Ministry of Finance and with two experts from Estonia,” explains Laitinen. “Sitra has been a member of the steering group of the Finnish project and helped participants to start pilots by using X-road components.”
“In Finland we should be more open-minded when reforming the whole public sector, not only in terms of services and e-services but also management and structures,” she continues. “This will be possible by increasing co-operation but also by developing new kinds of services which are not as fragmentary as those we have today. The entire Finnish “e-government” has been built in an overly complex way because each separate organisation has built its own systems and applications.”
Regulated, and secure
“Today, almost every company or state institution has its own information system or many of them,” says Estonian Sitra advisor Riho Oks. “To create a good e-service for citizens or businesses, you need many different kinds of information. For instance, to provide a pre-filled tax declaration for a citizen, you need to know where they live, where they work, what they own, what are their other obligations and so on.
“You could gather all this information into one huge database but this is very costly to maintain and not a very secure solution. It is much wiser to request this information from different databases in a regulated and secure manner, logging all traces of these interactions.”
Oks agrees with Mirjami Laitinen that a simple approach along the lines of the X-road will benefit Finland in developing its own data exchange portal. He lists a number of specific instances where Estonia can serve as a useful model.
Firstly, he recommends less consultation and planning, and more practical steps and pilots. Secondly, he points out that a good communication strategy is needed to explain the system and its security to citizens, entrepreneurs and state institutions.
“The more you use a certain type of data the better its quality becomes,” says Oks. “Solutions built on top of the X-road data exchange need to be based on the everyday needs of the citizen, not on the view of the state institution or service provider. Too much stress on data exchange regulations should be avoided, because much of them might be covered in the existing legal framework. And it might be an idea to consider making the X-road solution obligatory for exchanging data in the public sector.”
Potential for invisible services
In time, citizens will appreciate the benefits of “e-Finland” in the form of more and better e-services. “Citizens can make enquiries from state databases and check the information that the state has provided,” says Oks. “Communication with other officials, entrepreneurs and citizens is faster and more accurate: the citizen will not need to carry information from one institution to another when this operation can be conducted via the X-road.”
Riho Oks believes the X-road also enables “invisible services”. Finland already has such facilities where, for example, information about a new-born baby is automatically sent from the population register to the health insurance fund, and the parents can use their time for parenting instead of bureaucratic form-filling.
“Estonia is ready to pilot cross-border e-services with Finland,” says Oks. “This could set an example for the rest of Europe in getting the digital single market to work in practice. Finland is a very technologically advanced country. At the same time, it is also a small country realising the need to save resources and to exchange data between existing information systems instead of building one vast database. Last but not least, the existing bureaucratic culture is a good fit for a regulated and transparent data exchange system like the X-road.”