Technology may help drive the future of service delivery, but it can’t overshadow the humans being served. Siim Sikkut, CIO of Estonia, and New America fellow Marina Nitze discuss how to get that balance right.
Siim Sikkut: It can be such an awesome tool because it so much helps us as humans to do better jobs, but if we don’t employ it well, actually, it can also break your back.
Marina Nitze: It’s like if you told me tomorrow I have to start doing my job entirely in Portuguese, I don’t speak Portuguese. I don’t even know a single word of it. Of course, I would feel threatened by that because I would be completely unable to operate in that environment.
Tanya Ott: Welcome to Insights in Depth: The future of government. I’m Tanya Ott, and this is Simon Cooper.
Simon Cooper: My passion for creating great government services comes from a deeply held sense that government services should be as good as, if not better than, what we achieve in our personal lives. That’s fundamental for the success of the country and people achieving all that they can do with their talents.
Tanya: These days, Simon leads Deloitte’s digital government–focused customer strategy across Australia. But he comes from a long line of public servants. After World War II, his grandfather was in charge of a job center in the town of Dunstable in the United Kingdom. Simon followed in his grandfather’s footsteps.
Simon: In my tenure in the United Kingdom government, I worked predominantly in a mixture of immigration, counterterrorism, and criminal justice. I got to work for former Prime Minister Theresa May when she was home secretary as a strategy adviser. I ran the immigration command across 60 countries.
Tanya: In this last public sector job, he headed up the United Kingdom digital and data team, running big programs and creating digital products. Over the years, he witnessed a lot of changes.
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Simon: When I first started in public service, in my first week, I was helping [prepare] a piece of policy, just about to get launched two or three months later. I asked, “How do we know that someone has used it?” The public servant at the time who was my boss said, “Simon, dear boy, it doesn’t matter if anyone uses it. We’ve done it.” I think 15 years later, we’re in a position where, around the world, particularly after COVID-19, fundamentally people in government are thinking about services being citizen- and business-centric, organized around meeting their needs rather than government needs, whilst keeping all the good things that public service is meant to be doing, including good record keeping, equitable keeping to the rule of law.
Tanya: It’s no longer if government should do digital, but how will it truly be digital.
Simon: Public service and citizen services have changed because citizens expect this stuff. We did a report with the data in 2019 and showed that if we digitize a fraction of the forms in Australia, it could save people up to a day a year. People want to spend that day a year with their families doing the things they enjoy, not navigating government sites and inputting multiple forms. That is becoming the norm and expectation from the political side as much as a public service and government side.
Tanya: In his book, Are we there yet? The digital transformation of government and the public service in Australia, Simon refers to this as Service 4.0, where governments aren’t just digitizing forms and processes, but taking a more holistic, human-centered approach to providing services. And some countries are well ahead of others.
Siim: At least for Estonians, the best government is one that doesn’t bother me.
Tanya: Siim Sikkut is the t-shirt and Chuck Taylor–wearing chief information officer for the Republic of Estonia. With 1.3 million residents, it’s one of the least populous members of the European Union, but it is the world leaders in most unicorns per capita1. That’s startup companies valued at more than $1 billion. … not the mythical creatures with horns. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that so many high-value digital companies are based in Estonia, because the country itself is considered to be one of the most, if not the most, digitally advanced countries in the world.
Let’s tick through Estonia’s greatest hits …
Tanya: The Digital I.D.
Siim: That’s one of the very first things we ever did in Estonia, and the reason was we clearly figured out that if we want to provide services digitally, we obviously had to have a trusted interaction from both sides. Government needs to know who’s entering the service and the other way around; citizen needs to know if the other side is actually true and so forth. So obviously, that’s why authentication is there.
But we figured, as opposed to building out, let’s say, dozens of different authentications, we needed to come up with a platform solution. So we came up with the national digital identity. That’s, by the way, not only for government purposes or public service purposes, it’s an infrastructure for the country. So the banks, the utilities, my movie theater, anyone can use it to provide an authenticated service online or through app or whatever. So ID really is my key to all the services: All the public sector ones, all the public services, but also many private sector ones. So that’s how it works. And by the way, it’s not just an access key. My digital signature is based on digital ID, so I can sign any document in a fully legally valid way from wherever I am in the world.
Tanya: Online voting—which they’ve been doing [since] 2005.
Siim: We see online voting as a convenience service: How to make it easier and more convenient, more accessible for you to be part of democracy across the world. Because people move globally, we have votes coming in from 120 countries around the world. Secondly, there’s also the issue that we are all busier in our lives, so if I can cast my vote, just not even during my lunch break, but just taking three minutes off my other duties and just get it done from a work station at work or from the comfort of my home at the evening, it’s so much more accessible. That is what has been driving that, but we still are very conscious to keep the paper versions there because ultimately we want to make sure that everybody has a chance to participate in the way they prefer. This is very fundamental to how elections are held, one of the core principles.
For us, online voting is essentially prevoting, as it’s called. So if we have any hesitation that something has gone wrong, let’s say someone has hacked in or whatever, then we can call it off and still invite everybody to come in on the voting day just in the physical, old fashioned way. My point being that we see online voting really as an addition, a very valuable addition to the core process, but the paper option still stays there.
Tanya: Number three in Estonia’s greatest digital hits: frictionless family benefits …
Siim: We know that most of the services you need or the need to interact with the government happens around certain events in your life, like when a child is born. We have started to make these services proactive and work in bundles, so whatever happens in your life, you will get things done at one go, [and] that’s ideally started by the government, [not] you. If a child is born, government knows about this because hospital makes an entry to the population registry. Then immediately the parents get the official email from the government saying, “Hey, based on our records, this is the benefit you’re being entitled to. Do you want to accept this?” So as opposed to me going to four or five different websites, filling different forms out and still having it all done online, my government can even say, “Hey, thanks for the new citizen,” and ask me what’s the name, what bank account you want the money to be sent to, and which kindergarten you want to line up your kid to go to.
Tanya: Finally, something that will make most Americans very jealous: Filing taxes in Estonia generally takes just a few minutes.
Siim: We believe in data sharing and reuse. By the way, we even have a rule called “once only” that if some form of government knows something about you, the rest of government should not ask you again because you’ve given government the data already. In our case, taxes are paid by employers on a running basis. That’s also different from [the] United States. As they are paid, as the salaries are known, then we don’t ask you that data again. So for us, a tax day means that all of the data is presented to you basically just to check and validate. And 95% of the time, nobody changes anything. So getting a tax declaration done based on prefilled data from salary data and everything that has accumulated over the past year, for us is a three-minute thing. And has been that for years. We could even automate it, but we haven’t, just to exactly give you an option to make sure your data is correct. Actually the next step easily can be, we present you the outcome and if you want to check, then you go in and check your tax records.
Tanya: So basically, I just look at the document and I say, “That looks right,” and hit OK or whatever. Then it’s done.
Siim: Exactly. Click, click, click done. Four or five clicks or something.
Tanya: Siim says the next big frontier in government service delivery is artificial intelligence. They’ve got dozens of different use cases in live practice throughout different agencies.
Siim: We see that based on AI we can radically change and again simplify interaction with the government and service delivery for people. So just like we are talking now the most natural way for us to receive information and exchange that or interact is through voice, through speech. Right now, all the public service is pretty much anywhere in the world are somehow webpage-interface based. But AI virtual assistants, the Siris, the Google Assistants, the thing that is in a car or fridge in tomorrow’s world, they can be the interface. So [the] vision that we are not just dreaming about, but we are building out, is to say that virtual assistants will be the interface to get things done with the government and receive public information. That’s what we want to get to, that all of the things you do digitally in Estonia, you should be able to do through virtual assistants, voice-based in Estonian language and at an instant.
Tanya: AI devices can create a lot of data about its users. Siim said when they first started planning how to bring AI into government service delivery, they needed to figure out a way to explain both the potential … and the risks.
Siim: Obviously, we also had to somehow counter all of the Terminator scenarios that are very popular, as well.
Tanya: So they drew on Estonian mythology … and a creature called Kratt.
Siim: Kratt used to be a creature that you could sort of buy from the devil and then it worked for you. It did manual chores and other things for you. But if you didn’t employ it, it actually could also crack your neck. So that’s the thing we sort of use as a metaphor to explain what is AI. It can be such an awesome tool because it so much helps us as humans to do better jobs, more jobs, stuff like that, but if we don’t employ it well, it can also break your back by improper use of data or otherwise. So we brought that analogy in and it seems to work. It somehow has made this whole thing of technology much more livable and it got people thinking in a good way.
Tanya: Estonia’s got a couple of things going for it when it comes to government service delivery. First, it’s not saddled with a whole lot of legacy regulations and equipment. It gained its independence from Russia in 1991 and basically rebooted the country from scratch, reorienting to the West. It switched to a market economy, reformed the currency, and joined the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and NATO.
Then there’s its size. It has 1.3 million residents. The United States. is 247 times that. So how can a country like the United States. think about leveraging digital to provide government services?
What’s the saying? How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Marina Nitze: I have effectively always been a business process reengineer. It’s something that I have loved doing.
Tanya: That’s Marina Nitze and she’s not exaggerating. She worked her way up from the first computer her dad bought her when she was three …
Marina: Even at very young age, I was the person people would call to fix their dot matrix printer or help them install windows on their machine …
Tanya: She taught herself Perl when she was in fifth grade.
Marina: But my real work in computers started because I was obsessed with the soap opera General Hospital, and this was before the World Wide Web existed. Like, you couldn’t go to WWW dot anything dotcom, but you could go to an AOL keyword channel. So I started learning how to make websites there on my AOL page, just to support and celebrate my favorite soap-opera characters.
Tanya: From there, she started a business making websites, and by the time she was 27, she was appointed chief technology officer of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs—even though she never graduated college, because she was too busy working.
This was right around the time the VA was facing a major issue. Hundreds of thousands of veterans were waiting up to six months to get an appointment.
The entire system was difficult to understand. But Marina and her team took it on one bite at a time.
Marina: There’s that TV show, Undercover Boss, where the CEO for the first time ever learns how to work the front line. That’s critically important, because when you crawl through the process with the lens of understanding how it works from end to end, you start finding lots of opportunities for improved efficiency, for policy changes, for places where technology tools or increased communication can help streamline things.
Tanya: But there were silos and paperwork—lots of paperwork—getting in the way.
Marina: So for a veteran, to get their disability rating, at the time you had to get a medical exam and then a claims processor would review your medical exam and then give you a disability rating. And there were a lot of myths around the disability rating such that people believed it was very subjective. But it’s actually in the law, it’s very, very available and transparent. You can look in the law and see if you can bend your elbow this far this is your disability rating. If you can bend it this far, this is your disability rating. What I saw over and over very early on was veterans would travel hours, sometimes even needing a hotel room to go to this disability exam. The examiner, as a doctor, they want to care for you, so they ask lots of treatment questions. They really care for you as a whole person.
But the complication from that is when the doctor writes this eight-page medical synopsis, they thought that another doctor was going to read it at the other end and make like a very nuanced decision. But that’s not how it works. The eight-page medical essay goes through a processor that has maybe five hours of medical training total, and their job is to look for specific facts and details in the narrative and enter it into effectively a calculator. And so one very big opportunity for efficiency that I saw was, if you give the calculator to the doctor in the first place, you can actually skip many months of work in the middle. And so we piloted that successfully and were able to fully automate at least 25% of those claims just in the first pilot.
Tanya: These days, Marina is a public-interest technology fellow at the New America think tank, where she’s turned her focus to another really thorny issue. … helping reengineer the child-welfare system.
Marina: What I’m really focused is upstream. Right now, there’s a tremendous focus on keeping kids out of group homes, which I completely support and completely agree with. But if a child is not going to go to a group home, they have to go somewhere else. So I’m very focused on helping make those somewhere elses a reality.
Tanya: Like she did with the VA, Marina examined the process end to end and uncovered some pain points that could be opportunities to improve government services.
Marina: If a child does have to enter foster care for safety reasons, they should be placed with an adult that they already know and trust—a grandma, a teacher, a baseball coach, a friend’s parent. That placement should be resourced financially and with wraparound services to help make that placement either the only place that that child is until they can return home or, if that child cannot safely return home, then become their new placement. So I do a lot of work with states right now on family-finding.
As one brief example, a lot of states do not have a practice of asking children if they have a place to go when they’re removed. That might seem like kind of an obvious thing, but for various reasons, that’s not a common practice. And where it is a common practice, those places have astronomically higher placement rates with family members.
Tanya: She also spends a lot of time on the kinship licensing process.
Marina: You have to be licensed to get financial resources as a kinship placement. A lot of these families struggle getting through drawing a model diagram of your home for an evacuation plan, getting a tuberculosis test in the pandemic, and 75 other kind of obstacles. I work closely with a number of states to help make that process as user-friendly and streamlined and equitable as possible, so that we can place as many kids as possible with kin and not have to disrupt them any further.
To me, the richest source of information are actually families that dropped out of the process. I want to talk to grandparents who started the process and didn’t finish it, because I want to understand what obstacles were there. Then for each obstacle we work through, OK, is this a policy, is it a practice or is this a technology issue and how might we resolve it? In many, many cases, the challenges are simply because things are so siloed that the left hand didn’t necessarily know what the right hand was doing. Or there’s just a lot of what I call water-cooler rules, which is we’ve required this because we’ve always required it, or we require this because we think it’s a federal law, but it’s not. I’m lucky to have a lot of insight into that because I run an 18-state working group, so when you’re familiar with 18 states’ detailed practices, if one state tells you this is a federal law but the other 17 aren’t doing it, that’s often a clue that it’s probably not actually a federal law. I work through a lot of that myth-busting and again, a lot of lifting up community voices. Working with tribal families to understand that perhaps a traditional Native American long home does not have the “correct” number of windows, but that is OK, and we will find a way through that. But if you just have to fill out a generic form on your own about the number of windows that you have, you will fail to make it through a process. So we really have to bring a lot more community voices to fixing it.
Tanya: Those community voices—the human beings that interact with the services government delivers—are key to envisioning the future of service delivery, no matter how high-tech it gets.
Simon: When I think about being digital, fundamentally that is where the human experience is elevated.
Tanya: Again, Deloitte’s Simon Cooper.
Simon: It’s human-centric products and services that make the best use of emerging and emerged technologies, be they the relatively simple website through to advanced AI enabled by the cloud and absolutely protected in the sense of security from a cyber perspective and the right privacy controls. That in turn transforms how government operates and how those experiences are delivered in terms of services.
Tanya: Which is not to say those transformations will be uniform.
Siim: Obviously, it’s very cliche, but still holds true that every journey will be a bit different …
Tanya: Siim Sikkut in Estonia.
Siim: The bigger the country usually, the more complex the governance, the harder it is to get things decided fast. That’s the differentiator. That’s hard to replicate, because my belief is that in this digital world of ours, those who can decide and act fast, those are the ones who win. So even countries who are big, they need to figure out some other way to literally, for lack of a better word, become more agile because otherwise they just lose out.
Marina: It’s easy to come in and say, “Why don’t you make an app for that?” or “Why don’t you use technology for this?” and not appreciate the many years of paperwork and approvals and security concerns and legal concerns and inspector-general reports. Also the fact that it’s really wildly rude and awful to come in and tell someone that is a GS15 and has been at the top of their game and very experienced and worked very hard to become an expert in something, that the thing that they’re an expert in, such as internal servers versus cloud computing, is going away. It’s deeply threatening. I try to give an analogy to people, it’s like if you told me tomorrow that I have to start doing my job entirely in Portuguese, and I don’t speak Portuguese, I don’t even know a single word of it, of course, I would be threatened by that because I would be completely unable to operate in that environment. There could be a “right” or “best” solution, but it’s not right or best if it can’t work with the workforce that you have in the environment that you have.
I really encourage folks to make this kind of three-by-three grid: policy, practice, technology. Then, what can you do in the next three months, in the next year, or three to five years? Put something in every one of those nine boxes on that grid and start working toward it. No matter where you are in the organization, I believe there are things you can do and you can advocate for. You don’t have to be the head of the agency. In fact, in many times the head of the agency is less empowered to make some of the changes that you can make from where you sit.
Simon: We have this beautiful quote that says “Digital transformation sometimes feels like being repeatedly punched in the face, but you are making a difference.” That was from an anonymous director in the New South Wales government. Anyone who’s working in this space, public or private, it’s challenging. That’s part of the joy that when you get these new services through, when you make a real difference to people’s lives, be it citizens or businesses, that is making a difference. If it was easy, arguably, it would have been done already.
Tanya: In this podcast we heard from Deloitte’s Simon Cooper, who focuses on digital government customer strategy across Australia; Estonia’s chief information officer, Siim Sikkut; and Marina Nitze, public interest technology fellow at the New America Foundation.
Next time, we’ll be talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion in government. It’s a big issue, and we’ll be covering it from multiple angles: How equity can be built into service design and delivery, and how government itself can move the needle on diversity in its own ranks.
Johnathan McBride: People are looking at these institutions that are providers of services of last resort, and they want to know that their specific view is being represented. So representation probably has a higher impact in government than it does in the private sector.
Tanya: Check out the rest of our episodes on The future of government on your podcaster of choice. Plus you’ll find more research and case studies at www.deloitte.com/insights.
You can connect with us on Twitter at @DeloitteInsight. I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1. I am Tanya Ott. Have a great day!
This podcast is produced by Deloitte. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte. This podcast provides general information only and is not intended to constitute advice or services of any kind. For additional information about Deloitte, go to Deloitte.com/about.
Citizens’ demands are rapidly changing, and government customers want interactions to be on par with those they have in the private sector—mobile, innovative, and easy to use. As digital and technology trends continue to evolve, a forward-thinking customer experience strategy can improve citizen engagement and put your agency at the forefront of innovation.