Political Innovations, 1

Political Innovations, 1: Government as API

I recently received an email from Estonia.

I'm neither Estonian, nor do I have any ties to Estonia. I am, however, interested in what they're doing with e-residency, and have been following the project as they roll it out.

Let me back up for a second. A few years ago, I learned about the Government Digital Services (GDS) team at Gov.UK. Head over heals, I fell for their approach to building government services. Their full design manifesto is here, but I found one item very relevant to every conversation about government and services. The question was, "What should today's government do [for its citizens]?" The answer was 'do less':

"Government should only do what only government can do."

The GDS focused on building and improving services around the things that only government can do, i.e., creating IDs, issuing licenses, collecting taxes, and supporting social programs. They made those services clear, helpful, and user-friendly. Talk about political innovation!

Fast forward a bit, and you have countries like Estonia beginning to push the boundaries of what "the role of a government" can be. Case and point: Estonia's e-residency program:

The Republic of Estonia is the first country to offer e-Residency — a transnational digital identity available to anyone in the world interested in administering a location-independent business online. e-Residency additionally enables secure and convenient digital services that facilitate credibility and trust online. [...] By offering e-Residents the same services, Estonia is proudly pioneering the idea of a country without borders. [1]

The program has been around since 2014 (see footnote 2 for talking points and accompanying presentation), but today's email introduced services being built on top of the e-residency platform:

New services for Estonia

I'm interested in this idea of Government as API. In the US, open government data is used to further democratic transparency and keep politicians (somewhat) accountable... but what if services built can work with government... not outside of it?

With government functioning more like a start-up, new programs can get rolled out, tested, voted on, funded, and incorporated as core government services. Citizens can directly participate in crafting geo- or culturally-specific programs and applications for their communities. Innovation in one community can be open-sourced and diffused quickly around the country. Special interest groups might no longer control policy-making, democratizing how government works.

That's pretty cool.

1. About Estonia's e-Residency
2. Estonia's talking points and presentation deck
3. The GDS Design Principles