In fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, South Korea emerged as a role model. The country managed to greatly slow down the epidemic at an early stage without taking authoritarian countermeasures or locking down entire cities. The use of contact-tracing apps that allow users to find out whether they may have interacted with an infected person might have contributed to this success. European governments in France, Germany or Italy started rolling out similar applications, in collaboration with private tech-partners, hoping to imitate the South Korean success story.

The current discussion about the security and acceptance of contact-tracing apps relates to a general predicament of e-governance: How can governments protect individual privacy, while not hindering the free flow of data, which is a valuable resource for the digital economy?

In my recent short paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Electronic Government, I examine four myths that are claimed to influence citizens’ acceptance of electronic services provided by the government. In Europe, the examples of Finland or Estonia, where more than 90 percent of the internet population are regularly exchanging data with their government, suggest that e-governance solutions are most successful in

  1. small countries,
  2. with a young population,
  3. high trust in institutions, and
  4. a historical need for technological renewal.

In fact, the successful e-governance model of Estonia relies on transparency and accountability: most user data are openly available to government institutions, while citizens can follow up every single request of their data and have the right to demand clear justifications for the usage. Not surprisingly, a closer examination reveals that citizens’ trust in governmental institutions plays an important role for the success of e-governance services.

Graph figure 1

Figure 1: The acceptance of digital services provided by the government is highest where citizens trust their institutions.

Figure 1 summaries the relationship between trust and the acceptance of digital government services across 27 countries in the last ten years. Three countries with low (Poland), middle (the UK), and high levels (Finland) of e-governance acceptance rates are highlighted. Regarding trust, individuals were asks how much they trust the legal institutions of their country on a scale from zero (no trust) to ten (complete trust). On average, citizens from the five countries with the highest e-governance acceptance rates also report significantly higher levels of trust (6,24) than citizens in the bottom five countries (4,87).

Likewise, the analysis finds references that population size and age are related with the acceptance of electronic governance. However, the argument of “technological leapfrogging”, often suggested in the case of Estonia, can not be confirmed across European countries. Among the many characteristics that facilitate successful e-governance strategies, like contact-tracing application, trust in governmental institutions is certainly one of the most important factors. In the long run, it will be difficult for countries to establish successful e-governance solutions without the trust of their citizens.

For citation, please refer to the full article as: Stephany, F. (2020) ‘It’s not only size that matters: determinants of Estonia’s e-governance success’, Electronic Government, Vol. 16, No. 3, pp.304–313.