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Digital democracy The man who wants to revolutionise online government services

Zu seinen Waffen zählt auch Naivität: Daniel Gasteiger, Schweizer Civic-Tech-Pionier.

Daniel Gasteiger's blockchain startup Procivis recently announced that it is working with canton Schaffhausen to create a digital identity for citizens

(Ester Unterfinger/swissinfo.ch)

“Civic tech” activist Daniel Gasteiger is a former investment banker who wants to digitise Swiss government. He describes himself as naïve, and this very naïveté may help him in his mission. 

"A journalist on a local radio station just asked me why we are choosing to work with the small canton of Schaffhausen," says Gasteiger. "Quite simply: because they are innovative there."

Gasteiger is very interested in innovators and “first movers”. He sees himself as one of them. His blockchain startup Procivis (https://procivis.ch/external link) recently announced that it is working with canton Schaffhausen to create a digital identity for citizens.

This article is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues from swissinfo.ch.

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At national level, this major innovation will only become official in four years at the earliest, the preliminary hearings on the draft legislation, the “E-ID Act”, having just been completed. 

"Switzerland needs to get going with this, or we will soon be left behind," warns Gasteiger. 

The political entrepreneur aims to put a digital spin on Switzerland’s government. His vision is for official agencies and all public services to be accessible via smartphone. Tax returns, registering as a resident, and voting in elections and referendums – an E-ID app should be able to offer the full range of services. Gasteiger wants to create a kind of iTunes of government.

Federalism as ideal terrain

Gasteiger is not (as might be expected) a former civil servant, nor is he a typical hi-tech entrepreneur for that matter. Until recently he was working in a totally different sector – investment banking. Not so long ago, he says, everybody wanted to work for a bank. Coming out of school he served his time with Credit Suisse. His ambition was to join top management by the age of 40. His highest position was in fact Chief of Staff to UBS board chairman Axel Weber. 

But it was partly due to misfortunes happening to people in his life that made him revise his plans. He decided his new goal was to move to a different sector of work and become an entrepreneur. "I plan my career in five-year increments. The next goal was a startup in a growth area." 

Gasteiger felt ready, but a business idea had not occurred to him yet. To get some inspiration, he took a trip to a startup conference in Bangkok. "The young people were bursting with ideas," he recollects with enthusiasm.

A further trip to California and Silicon Valley really opened his eyes. After talking with the then head of innovation at the Swisscom outpost in Palo Alto he realised that blockchain technology was going to be the next big thing. This encryption and security technology could not only change the banking world fundamentally, the 44-year-old believed, but also government.

"Switzerland operates in decentralised mode, just like blockchain technology, so they should be a good fit," he says.

Security as a killer argument

Things moved fast. In 2015 he started "Nexussquared" – a startup incubator, dealing with the blockchain field. Then the tech nomad took off for what he calls the digital model country: Estonia. On a visit to the capital, Tallinn, Gasteiger was taken with the singlemindedness with which the small Baltic nation is implementing a "digital first" strategy.

Since then he has been working with Kaspar Korjus, who heads the innovative e-residency programme. Politics has always interested Gasteiger, and he was for a time a member of the business-oriented Radical Party of Switzerland. 

His mission takes patience and courage – and a dose of naïveté. Anyone who follows digital developments in Switzerland knows the obstacles. The list of failed projects is a long one: when it comes to e-government, Switzerland does badly in international rankings.

The “suisseID” project never quite got underway, and “e-collecting”, the digital signature proposal for initiatives and referendums, has just been shelved by the Swiss government.

Just recently, on the other hand, the “vote éléctronique” project to bring in an e-voting system has been revived; the Swiss government had pulled the plug in 2015 citing security concerns. 

The word security gets Gasteiger worked up. "When people from government and universities come along with their so-called killer argument that something is not secure enough – then online banking would never have been introduced," he says.

It is just scaremongering, he adds, and it makes him mad. First try it and then see, is his motto. In Switzerland there is no lack of brains, he says, but there is a lack of political will and understanding. 

Gasteiger admits readily enough that he has approached the issue naïvely and without preconceived ideas.

First, he had to read his way around the topic. He speaks quietly but very fast. The high tempo is to be ascribed to his Mediterranean ancestry, he says. According to himself, he combines Swiss quality thinking with the Italian temperament. 

Kein Träumer: Daniel Gasteiger hat seine Vision für die Schweiz bereits umgesetzt - in Estland.

Daniel Gasteiger wants to develop an electronic ID app that can offer a full range of services: from tax returns and registering as a resident, to voting in elections and referendums.

(Ester Unterfinger/swissinfo.ch)

Still an unknown quantity in Bern

However, progress with the digitalisation of Swiss democracy takes more than personal drive and skills from different cultures – it also takes a good political network. In the Swiss capital, Bern, Gasteiger is regarded as a newcomer. Many of the parliamentarians who sit on committees have heard his name, but few know of the extent of his ambitions. 

It also takes staying power. The mills of Swiss legislation grind slowly. And there is plenty of opposition to the digital transformation of government. 

The former investment banker does not want to wait on Switzerland all that long. Gasteiger already has his eye on the United Nations. With Procivis he is thinking of a kind of digital “reputation score” which could enable refugees with no papers to document their nationality, for example. If someone could prove their identity using profiles from different social networks, there would soon be no need for a state to confirm it. 

Gasteiger may sound like a libertarian anarchist here, but during our discussion he relativises what at first seems like a dystopian vision. The scenario would work in states with high levels of corruption, he explains. 

With blockchain solutions, land registry titles could be neither faked nor manipulated. His main motivation would be to protect citizens from abuses by others or the state itself. He admits that there is not much need for that here. 

"In Switzerland we have confidence in government, because the system works," he declares. 

To Gasteiger’s chagrin, the Swiss government system probably works too well for there to be an urgent need for change.

Follow the author on Twitter: @adfichterexternal link



Translated from German by Terence MacNamee

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