Estonia’s first professor of e-governance: “Technology is transforming the democratic process”
TUT’s newest professorship is in e-governance, a newer field already full of debate, as technologies such as e-voting have clearly begun to influence democracy.
Given Estonia’s reputation as a pioneer of e-governance, it is only fitting that TUT’s Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance have Estonia’s first professorship in the field. Currently, the post is held by Robert Krimmer, an expert with many years of experience with e-governance.
However, Professor Krimmer is not a new face at TUT. He has worked at the university since February, initially as a coordinator for e-governance studies. Previously at TUT, he also defended his doctoral dissertation - “The Evolution of E-voting: Why Voting Technology is Used and How it Affects Democracy” - supervised by Professor Wolfgang Drechsler.
Before earning his doctorate, Professor Krimmer worked for four years as the first senior advisor on new voting technologies at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in Warsaw. Given the topic of his thesis - the use of electronic means in elections - Professor Krimmer had regularly visited Estonia during the previous 9 years. “Professor Drechsler, whom I had known for more than 10 years,” he says, “approached me during one of his visits to Warsaw, about whether I would be interested in conducting my doctoral research in Estonia.”
There is currently a heated discussion about the influence technology has on democracy. It could be benign, Professor Krimmer thinks, provided that people keep the transformation process under control.
In his dissertation, Professor Krimmer shows that the transformative process of using technology for democratic decision-making can activate an entirely new set of possibilities for social interaction, particularly with people living in remote places who we hardly know. As such, technology will naturally affect how democratic systems work, as well as challenge existing paradigms such as representation.
For example, technology can help people to more directly influence the democratic process via interaction with their representatives. It also might be possible that, instead of using technology as a tool for discussion with politicians, voters could use it to eliminate representation altogether and decide everything by popular vote. Yet, Professor Krimmer doesn’t think that that’s very likely to occur. “People prefer to have decision-makers, experts,” he says. “But they do want to have control over them and to be able to replace them.”
Professor Krimmer does not think that technology itself is either good or bad. However, he thinks that when such a technology is implemented in a balanced, proportional approach that considers multiple dimensions and undertakes careful preparations - including step-by-step decision-making - then voting technology can be deployed to improve democracy.
“Technology is part of our lives; we can’t get rid of that,” Professor Krimmer says. “And, clearly, there is a transformative process going on.” He adds that the process is one people should seek to control, or else technology will take it over. One of the dangers he sees is that technology is not understood by most laypeople. As things go digital, a large part of the population could become disenfranchised. It is thus important to guarantee IT literacy for everyone. Similarly, all people must have access to technology, though there must always be a channel other than the digital one.
One of the reasons that Professor Krimmer decided to work for TUT was his positive experience during his studies. He was surprised to find a very professional, yet friendly work environment at TUT and enjoyed the experience very much. “My colleagues from RNS were very supportive and helped me with every situation that an international could have,” he says. “This is something that every doctoral researcher can only wish for, and TUT clearly stands out in this regard.”