Estonia’s CDO on becoming AI-powered: ‘Government should feel and be as one’

From e-voting to digital ID cards, Estonia is one of the most highly digitised countries in the world. In its latest move, the government has outlined plans to become AI-powered by 2030. 

On its mission to achieve this, it is looking at how virtual assistants can take user experience and the functioning of the state “to the next level,” Ott Velsberg, Estonia’s Chief Data Officer, tells Government Transformation Magazine. “We are using AI to build the foundations of a more personalised service provision.” 

Introducing Bürokratt

Bürokratt is a voice-mediated virtual assistant that seeks to help citizens with their queries - whether it's applying for driving licences, borrowing books from libraries or applying for benefits.

In development since 2021 and with the launch of the first official version in 2022, the tool is intended to be more than just a chatbot. Velsberg explains the vision; "anOtt Velsberg CDO Estonia interoperable network of public and private sector AI applications, accessible via voice, which can act as a single channel for public services and information."

The desired result is “effortless communication,” between citizens and government, the CDO says. A system where queries are answered in one place around the clock; users only have to input their data once and can choose their preferred method of communication to ensure that accessibility limitations are considered. 

It is about creating public services that reach citizens “where and when they need them” Velsberg says. “The idea is that the government itself should feel and be as one. Citizens don’t really care which government organisation is responsible for their issue, they just want the issue to be resolved.”

Bürokratt has been developed in collaboration with RIA, the State Information System Authority, alongside multiple private partners. 

The opportunities of such a platform are far-reaching; as well as providing more seamless communication between state and citizens, it can cut costs and reduce government inefficiency. Bürokratt components have already been used to develop forecast models in the Tax and Customs Board and Estonian Health Insurance Fund and the Information Technology Centre of the Ministry of the Environment to support the recording of forest resources. 

“The platform development is going as planned,” Velsberg says. “Right now we have six public sector agencies who have implemented Bürokratt and the response so far has been positive!” 

Enhancing data governance

The name - Bürokratt - is rooted in Estonian mythology. The story goes like this: ‘Kratt’ is a magical servant built with old household items who is tasked with doing everything its master orders it to. However, the creature must constantly be kept working or else it turns on its owner. In Estonia, the character is often used as a metaphor for AI and its complexities. Much like its mythological namesake, Bürokratt needs to be implemented with care, Velsberg explains. 

For starters, this means maintaining transparency and trustworthiness. To achieve this, he says “citizens need to have a meaningful role in decision-making and shaping how the government is using their data.” Empowering people so that they understand when and why their data is being processed is what has allowed Estonia to advance and scale its AI ambitions, he adds. For example, the government implemented a data tracker tool, which allows citizens to keep an eye on which entities have viewed their data. All queries about their personal information are logged to ensure that data is only accessed for justified reasons.

The government also offers citizens the opportunity to share data on the basis of consent for the development of services in the private sector. Giving consent means data can be shared more easily, enabling organisations to implement new services and improve existing ones. So far, over 350,000 consents have been generated, Velsberg notes.

This is playing a crucial part in deepening integration with private sector platforms -  something Velsberg believes will have "a truly significant place in the future of digital government." 

At the end of the day, "embracing human-centric data governance principles, investing in digital infrastructure and fostering collaboration is key to enabling governments to leverage data while safeguarding citizens’ interests,” Velsberg says. 

Another challenge has been finding the appropriate distance and tone for governments’ communications with citizens. “Ensuring that the information provided by the virtual assistant is accurate and reliable is one thing - but the context behind the service provision is just as important," Velsberg explains.

From any AI project implementation, it's always crucial to understand what the business requirements are, he says. “We need to keep in mind that not everything should be provided via virtual assistant. At the same time, we need to have an understanding within the government that every channel has its own purpose. In more urgent scenarios, people typically want to speak on the phone.”

Joint innovation

To facilitate the reuse of AI in government agencies, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication has created the concept of ‘kratijupid’; open source AI components that can be reused by the public and private sectors. 

In the spirit of ‘kratijupid’ the team behind Bürokratt has opened up the entire development process to the public, partnering with private companies like Texta, Stacc, Microsoft, and Solita to help develop the tool. Velsberg says these have been significantly involved in the architecture and design phases of the project, such as being responsible for developing the algorithm that answers users’ queries. 

This ethos of continuous knowledge exchange and collaboration between the public and private sector has helped to find “better solutions for the ecosystem of Bürokratt - and for future wider use,” Velsberg says. 

By opening everything up, Estonia’s hope is not only that the private sector will adopt it, but other countries as well, Velsberg explains. Work is already underway to establish interoperability with systems in neighbouring states, such as Finland and its AuroraAI platform. This way Estonians can access the same personalised public service even if they are abroad, he says. 

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