Digital ArchitectureDigital Identity

Tell Us Once – The Single Most Important Digital Government Policy

'Tell Us Once' - Provide your data to one government agency, and never be asked for it again from another, defined explicitly through legislation.

‘Tell Us Once’ – Provide your data to one government agency, and never be asked for it again from another, defined explicitly through legislation.

There is one particular design feature of their digital government systems that has enabled Estonia to achieve their world leading, wholly integrated digital society, their ‘Tell Me Once’ policy.

As the EUObserver writes with the title defining the critical aspect, ‘You can’t use 18th century law for a digital world’ – in 2007, the Estonian government introduced the “once-only” principle – that the state is not allowed to ask citizens for the same information twice. It is explored in technical detail in this presentation.

Since it has been growing in adoption across Europe, with other countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Portugal each implementing their own version. The EU has published research reports and explanatory videos to encourage widespread take up.

Massive inefficiencies

As every one will have experienced, while we live in an age of Digital Government being a popular concept, the coal face reality is that our common experience of dealing with a public sector agency for the first time is the need to repeat an identification and data entry process.

In many cases it’s even via hand writing a paper form, where again, we have to supply our name, address and other personal information, details provided countless times to other agencies.

A simple example is that you can register for one GP, move to a different part of the country, and to register with a new doctor, have to repeat exactly the same process. Despite having told the previous doctor everything the current one is asking for, there is no sharing of data, no “memory” of who you are built into the overall system itself.

The only reason for this is simply a lack of an integrated system, instead every agency operates in a ‘silo’, creating their own island of information. Information that is duplicated innumerable times across other similar islands. Naturally this gives rise to massive inefficiencies, more expensive processes, more mistakes, more inconvenience for citizens.

In contrast countries like Estonia operate a single, interconnected system. As New Yorker magazine highlights describing Estonia as the Digital Republic:

“They do so through the “once only” policy, which dictates that no single piece of information should be entered twice. Instead of having to “prepare” a loan application, applicants have their data—income, debt, savings—pulled from elsewhere in the system. There’s nothing to fill out in doctors’ waiting rooms, because physicians can access their patients’ medical histories.”


The universality of the problem and this solution is highlighted through the fact Canada too is also now exploring and in the early stages of implementing their own Tell Me Once policy.

This includes a first project for online direct deposits. Their future looking Canada150 site explores the idea this represents the future of their online government, and as the feature video shows they’re seeking to socialize the idea across the Canadian public sector to encourage further adoption.

Legislating Best Practices

In conclusion the most important and effective aspect of this approach is writing into law the requirement for best practices. Governments can pay lip service to building user-centric digital systems but without an overarching framework and legislative requirement, agencies will find it easy to slip back into old habits of operating in a silo and building yet more isolated systems.

By mandating truly user-centric outcomes as a legal requirement both the end result and the imperative to achieved it is established in a meaningful form. The success of countries like Estonia and the seamless digital services their citizens enjoy speaks for itself in how effective it has proven to be.

Thus for countries seeking to achieve same advanced level of digital maturity, it is the single most important policy they could choose to implement.

In countries like Scotland, where the lack of such an integrated system has been identified as the primary impediment holding back their goals of achieving an integrated Health and Social Care system, it offers politicians the tools that are within their power to entirely address the situation via one act.

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