1. The Crisis Of Democracy
It is widely accepted that democracy is at risk worldwide. There is a continuous increase in the number of citizens that doubt that democracy is working for them, or that it is working properly at all. Many link this crisis of democracy to the digitalization of societies. These new technologies weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation through external and internal challenges. External challenges are represented by the vulnerability of democratic institutions to foreign actors’ interference, such disinformation and cyberattacks. Internal challenges are represented by threats that undermine democratic processes, such as digital mass surveillance or the concentration of power among a small number of dominant tech companies. Although the 21st century became known as the Information Age, digital technologies have overall weakened democracy.
This can explain why there is a global drop in the level of trust in democratic governments (Edelman, 2022). Carlos Scartascini, the Lead Economist at the Research Department of the Inter-American Development Bank writes that mistrust in the public sector is an impediment to the well-functioning of democracy and to inclusive growth, since it prevents people to demand better public policies and services (Scartascini, 2021). He believes that people will arrange their own security, education and health rather than pay taxes and demand quality public goods. In order to restore trust, Scartascini finds essential to furnish quality information and transparency. Citizens do not trust their government when they are not informed about what the government is doing for them, and when they can’t hold government accountable.
Moreover, people trust less and less the internet and BigTechs, which is weakening digital ecosystems and the digital economy.
2. The Covid-19 Pandemic
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, to governments and citizens alike, how e-services can make countries more resilient to exogenous crises. A study by Bhaskar Chakravorti, Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi, Christina Filipovic, and Griffin Brewer mapped countries’ Digital Evolution scores against their percentage decrease in GDP growth from Q2 2019 to Q2 2020 (adjusted for inflation). The analysis showed that the level of digital evolution helped explain at least 20% of a country’s economic resilience against the pandemic’s economic impact (Chakravorti, Bhalla and Shankar Chaturvedi, 2020).
1. The 2008’s crisis recovery
Five years after the economic collapse of 2008, the Spanish government issued The Digital Agenda for Spain. A strategy regarding the digitalization of public administration, which was parallel to a broader European approach (Luengo and García Marín, 2010). The principal goal of the strategy was the creation of employment and economic growth through the adoption of digital technologies.
2. The COVID-19 pandemic
As a corner stone of the economic recovery, Spain has articulated different strategies and roadmaps to digitalization such as the National Strategy of Artificial Intelligence, 2025 Digital Spain or the National Plan for Digital Skill. However, all these plans are economic-oriented strategies.
3. Present digitalization status
The Digital Evolution chart, realized by Chakravorti, Bhalla and Shankar Chaturvedi in 2020, positions Spain at the very bottom of the “Stall Out” zone. The authors explain that countries falling in this category have economies with mature digital ecosystems, but which exhibit less momentum for continued advancement.
Spain needs to launch a strategy touching on the very political and democratic core. This means that the government has to design a governance and institutional model that would enlarge the role and contribution of digital technologies. However, it is important to bear in mind that the digitalization of the State is not a process of a single workout or a single strategy. The process involves multiple phases of development. To this end, Spain must learn from insights and lessons of good practice from countries that have already undergo through a digitalization process.
An interesting case is Estonia. The Baltic country, which is found in the “Stand Out” zone, is considered a role model in the digitalization of its government services and in the guaranteeing that the digital ecosystem respects the privacy of Estonians. Through the digitalization of the State, Estonia, a country with very limited natural resources and population, has achieved to become a very appealing economy, being the nest of global start-ups such as Skype, Bolt or TransferWise. In fact, the country has the largest number of start-ups per capita in the world and a high-tech sector that accounts for about 15 percent of its GDP (Schnurer, 2015).
Moreover, Estonia showed a great ability to adapt to the new COVID-19 reality, since the GDP was barely altered. Both the public and the private sector easily and quickly moved their activity online. And the government managed to curtail the spread of the virus rather effectively, leaning on the existing ICT and e-government infrastructure.
The first step in the process of Estonia’s digital transition was the establishment of a digital identity – also referred to as e-identity system (eID) and a data storing system called X-Road.
The eID system was launched in 2002 in a coordinated effort by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications. It consists of a cryptographically secured digital identity card, powered by a blockchain-like infrastructure (Shen, 2016). The digital card allows Estonians to access all public services, financial services, pay taxes, vote and provide digital signatures.
To protect the national data architecture and guarantee resiliency against cyber threats, the Estonian government wisely decided to not centrally store data. The government established a data platform called X-Road, which links individual servers through end-to-end encrypted pathways, letting information live locally (Heller, 2017). X-Road also filters the information available, e.g. a doctor can access the medical records of a patient, but not its financial status. Furthermore, citizens must give permission for its information to be disclosed to anyone. The blockchain infrastructure makes any anomaly or breach to leave a trace, regardless of the source. To cover tracks also leaves a trace.
Moreover, Estonia installed backup of its systems in Luxembourg to safeguard critical information systems and databases. They called it a “data embassy” since it is built on the same body of international law as a physical embassy. The goal is the guarantee of the uninterruption of the State’s activities, functioning even if the country is compromised, whether digitally or physically.
Some examples of e-services that have been created following the establishment oof the eID are: e-Health, e-Voting, e-Tax Board, e-Business, e-Banking, e-Ticket, e-School, University via internet, the E-Governance Academy, as well as the release of several mobile applications.
Through this system, Estonia has achieved five goals:
- Restore confidence on the Internet
- Restore confidence in the State and in democracy
- Revitalize de economy
- Reduce the digital gap, without creating new divides
- Cyber resilience
- Cost-saving efficiency
1. Restore confidence on the Internet
The Estonian digital system has made it reliable and secure for citizens to log in to Internet environments. The e-ID is used as a way to verify a person’s identity when they log in to an electronic environment. Hence, phishing, scams and unmoderated anonymous internet comments that have led to disinformation and polarization have been reduced. Actually, Estonia is ranked second worldwide in internet freedom (Freedom House Index, 2019).
2. Restore confidence in the State and in democracy
To begin with, the e-Estonia project gives the control of personal data to each citizen, who have the power to decide what private entities can access their information and when. They are also aware of the data that the government collects of them. The fact that citizens can access their personal data in a transparent and secure way removes privacy concerns and institutional distrust.
It limits privacy violations by restricting the amount of data shared in online transactions. For example, while buying online products, Estonians do not have to provide their full date of birth to verify a certain age limit, since the digital identity confirms that the user meets the shopping conditions. The system also allows to access private sector services, instead of doing it through email or social media, which gives a better protection against online tracking for advertising and algorithm bias.
Finally, there is great transparency. Citizens can easily access all governmental and bureaucratic data. But also the government has greater tools to fight against corruption, since every business transaction or investment is captured and becomes searchable public information.
3. Revitalize the economy
The Estonian Government reported in 2020 that the digital transition has allowed the country to be ranked first in entrepreneurial activity by the World Economic Forum in 2017, first in start-up friendliness by Index Venture in 2018, and first amongst EU countries in the European Commission’s 2020 digital economy and society index (Government of Estonia, 2020).
The Baltic country´s ease and secure online bureaucracy has allowed the quick creation of enterprises and nurtured active and engaged consumers, resulting in a very dynamic digital ecosystems and the generation of huge amounts of data.
4. Cost-saving efficiency
e-Estonia is based on what the government calls a “once only” policy, which implies that a person only needs to give their data to a state institution once. The collection of duplicated personal data is prohibited. For example, if a person needs to do a loan application, he can extract his data (income, debt, savings) from already existing information in the national data system. This method saves time and resources for government and citizens alike. Apparently, the digitizing processes reportedly saves the state two per cent of its G.D.P. a year in salaries and expenses (Heller, 2017).
5. Cyber resilience
The system guarantees data resilience since it ensures that all public data is indestructible and that it cannot be made inaccessible. Furthermore, it also guarantees data integrity since information cannot be illicitly altered. This fact has made Tallin a hub for cyber-defence and is considered the most advanced country in this field in Europe. For this reason, NATO has its network protection headquarters in the capital of the country.
The Estonian system is difficult to replicate in a country like Spain, for several reason. Estonia has 1.3 million inhabitants, while Spain has 47.35 million. The Baltic country has a very centralized system, while Spain has a federal-type territorial organization.
Furthermore, Bhaskar Chakravorti, Ajay Bhalla, and Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi argue that economies like Spain once they reach a higher level of digital evolution, they are confronted with the trade-off between continuing with digital expansion and establishing institutions that prioritize digital inclusion. It is harder for large-complex economies to balance innovation with the bureaucracy needed to responsibly regulate that innovation (Chakravorti, Bhalla, and Shankar Chaturvedi, 2020). However, it is easier for smaller economies such as Estonia to keep up their innovative edge while providing an inclusive digital transformation.
Moreover, a quick and unreflexively planned digital identity system, without proper controls will put enormous power into the government and the administration, which could lead to discrimination or authoritarian state behaviours.
Digital technologies must be used to enhance democracy and increase citizen’s trust in their governments. Although Estonia and Spain are very different countries in terms of territory, population and administration, Spain can learn from the Baltic country digitalization process and adapted to its own national reality.
Spain needs to take a proactive approach to technology and use it to restore trust in its democratic institutions. The Spanish government must make trust a public policy objective of its digitization strategy and not only a possible by-product. Ilves and Schroeder in their paper Unlocking Digital Governance argue that “digital governance only works, however, if trust has been established between the government and the citizen. Building this trust and reaping the benefits of digital governance require two critical policy interventions: secure digital identities for citizens, and resilient data architectures for governments”.
- Edelman (2022) 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer. Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://www.edelman.com/trust/2022-trust-barometer
- Scartascini, C. (2021) Trust - the key to social cohesion and growth in Latin America and the Caribbean. Inter-American Development Bank
- Chakravorti, B., Bhalla, A and Shankar Chaturvedi, R. (2020) ‘Which Economies Showed the Most Digital Progress in 2020?’ Harvard Business Review [online] Available at: https://hbr.org/2020/12/which-economies-showed-the-most-digital-progress-in-2020?ab=hero-subleft-3 (Accessed: 15 November 2016)
- Luengo, O and García Marín, J (2019) ‘Digitalization and Political Science In Spain’ in Kneuer, M. and Milner, H (eds.) Political Science and Digitalization – Global Perspectives. Berlin: Verlag Barbara Budrich, pp. 197-212
- Schnurer, E. (2015) ‘E-Stonia and the Future of the Cyberstate’. Foreign Affairs [online] Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/liechtenstein/2015-01-28/e-stonia-and-future-cyberstate
- World Economic Forum (2014) Future of Government Smart Toolbox. The World Economic Forum [online] Available at: WEF_GAC_FutureGovernment_SmartToolbox_Report_2014.pdf (weforum.org)
- Shen, J. (2016) e-Estonia: the power and potential of digital identity. Thomson Reuters [online] Available at: https://www.thomsonreuters.om/en-us/posts/news-and-media/e-estonia-power-potential-digital-identity/
- Heller, N. (2017) Estonia, the Digital Republic. The New Yoker[online] Available at: Estonia, the Digital Republic | The New Yorker
- E-Estonia Briefing Centre Solutions - e-Estonia
- E-Estonia Briefing Centre (2017) A digital success story: the cornerstone of e-Estonia celebrates its jubilee. E-Estonia Briefing Centre [online] Available at: A digital success story: the cornerstone of e-Estonia celebrates its jubilee - e-Estonia
- Government of Estonia (2020) “E-Estonia Facts,” e-Estonia, [online] Available at: https://e-estonia.com/wp-content/uploads/e-estonia-facts-210820.pdf.
- Ilves, T., Hurd, W., & Schroeder, C. (2020). UNLOCKING DIGITAL GOVERNANCE. In K. Kornbluh & S. duPont (Eds.), #Tech2021: Ideas for Digital Democracy (pp. 10–11). German Marshall Fund of the United States. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep28474.6