Networks of trust
According to Kattel and Mergel, the crucial factor in Estonia was small tight networks of highly motivated civil servants and private sector actors. This was a result of both necessity and chance. Since at that time Estonia was poor (to the extent of being virtually bankrupt) it could not afford building big centralised systems. Instead, the government was encouraged to embrace a distributed architecture of IT systems to cater to the different needs of government agencies. This included cooperation with private sector in, for example, developing cybersecurity along with the banking sector.
Kattel and Mergel point out that these kinds of networks are often mistrusted within the neoliberal bureaucratic culture. Sensitivity to corruption and erosion of accountability make these networks extremely vulnerable. Hence the million dollar question – how to design this kind of network – remains. I already mentioned the small scale and collective sense of urgency as possible answers. A hint towards the final piece of the puzzle is given in an interview with Andres Kütt, at the time principal advisor to the Information System Authority. He compares the inter-personal network to a collective brain and then says: “[In order for] the collective brain… to work together, there needs to be trust between parties in that brain.”
In the Estonia of the 1990s this trust was both personal coming from the fact that the country is small and people tend to know each other; and it was also provided by the enthusiasm of gaining re-independence. But this is also something inherent to the stability, pride and sense of duty of public service. This, I suspect, is something that neoliberalism, despite the many virtues of free markets, can never fully achieve.