During the past decade the government of Kazakhstan has invested a fortune in the development of e-government and in adapting Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for the delivery of various government services to the general public. These new and ambitious initiatives have set out to change the government system, the ICT landscape and public–private partnership. But experts are divided in their evaluation of e-government strategy in Kazakhstan. Some believe that it would greatly optimize the governance system, including the delivery of state services to the country’s citizens and simplifying business procedures for local and international investors. Others think that it is another expensive but unnecessary round of public administration system reforms.
BACKGROUND: The government of Kazakhstan has been among the most enthusiastic supporters of e-government in the post-Soviet space and has introduced such elements at all levels of government. The inflow of young professionals who have received education in the leading West European and American universities under the state scholarship program Bolashak has added a critically important element – young technocrats. They understand the importance of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for improving the public administration and civil services in this Central Asian republic and have the necessary expertise to work on some very technical issues. The number of services provided by the state over e-platforms has skyrocketed from a limited number of official documents and official forms placed on websites to offering complex public services from paying various service fees and taxes to complicated business transactions and online receipt of important documents and permits.
In turn, this development has boosted state and private investments into the ICT infrastructure and digitalization of many aspects of public and private activities. As recently as 2001–2005, Kazakhstan was behind many members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in public access to the Internet. In many smaller towns and cities high speed Internet was simply unavailable and where it was accessible it was prohibitively expensive. As recently as 2008 only 14 percent of the country’s population had access to the Internet; at the end of 2011 according to www.gazeta.kz the number had reached 41 percent. This placed Kazakhstan in 78th place out of 190 in the UN E-Government Survey 2012, behind countries such as Russia, Estonia and Moldova.
The lack of ICT infrastructure has also had a negative impact on governance. It is simply too expensive to deliver state services in many remote corners of the ninth largest country in the world with a very diverse geographic landscape. Over the last 5 or 6 years the situation has changed noticeably as the state-controlled national telecommunication company in partnership with various private entities reduced prices, introducing high speed internet and a 3G network for mobile devices. In 2011–2012 several telecommunication companies have experimented with the introduction of the newest 4G technology, though it is still has limited coverage and availability is for the most part confined to major urban centers.
IMPLICATIONS: Public and private usage of the Internet have picked up due to these efforts. This has changed not only the Internet habits of the Kazakhstan’s netizens, but also the ways in which people access information and interact with the government. Take for example environmental issues and information, which are important components of Kazakhstan’s e-government program. After some hesitation, the government of Kazakhstan posted a significant amount of data on various environmental problems and government initiatives on environmental protection, green economy and even some data on government spending on environmental protection. In fact, the government has been among the pioneers in the Central Asian region on this issue. The UN E-Government Survey 2012 showed Kazakhstan taking a leading position, coming in ahead of many neighboring countries in the E-government Environmental Index, ranking 35th out of 190 countries, ahead of Kyrgyzstan (49th place), Uzbekistan (86th), Tajikistan (101st) and even the Ukraine (70th).
Moreover the government of Kazakhstan has obliged all ministers and high-ranked government officials to establish their presence in the global web through maintaining their own blogs and webpages and regularly hosting online blogo-discussions, photoblogs, webinars, online surveys and even online press conferences. According to the recently introduced law, it is compulsory for every ministry to answer every inquiry and request posted to the ministry’s blogs or emailed to a specific government official. For example, the official website of the Minister of Environmental Protection Nurlan Kapparov (http://blogs.e.gov.kz/blogs/kapparov_n) received between 80 and 100 inquiries per month in 2012, as of August 05, 2012.
The digitalization of government and delivery of state services over various e-platforms has picked up speed during last four or five years, though it is still too early to say that the government has perfected the delivery of state services and achieved all its objectives including full transparency in decision making and public consultation. Both the general public and government officials still need to be educated on the opportunities and services provided by e-government. Yet, the development of e-government has had a significant impact on many aspects of social and political development in the country as well as on governance.
First, the development of e-government has stimulated investment in the ICT infrastructure across the country and led to the growth of the ICT sector, which in turn has provided employment for thousands of young people. Second, the digitalization of governance in Kazakhstan has contributed to significant changes in the nature of access to information, especially public information, and has increased the transparency of the public administration process. Third, the growth of e-government and public access to information and greater communication between state officials and the electorate has changed the very nature of public consultation in the country. For example, several public debates on the future of large environmental programs and tourism projects, which could have an impact on the environment, have been carried out almost entirely in the blogosphere and other Internet platforms. The supporters and opponents of several controversial projects such as a ski resort close to Almaty gathered signatures, published their own assessments, reports and documents and even organized a kind of public e-hearing entirely on the Internet.
Fourth, the growth of e-government also has energized civil society as more people, especially young citizens who are usually politically inactive, have begun to enthusiastically participate in various blogs, Internet and Twitter-based activities. They have also begun contributing to public discourse on local and national issues, actively demanding transparency and openness in the decision-making process and delivery of higher quality state services to ordinary citizens.
CONCLUSIONS: Public policy experts believe that e-government, if properly managed, might significantly improve the effectiveness of the work of state institutions and the quality of state services. In addition, the development of ICT infrastructure and integration of ICT platforms into the work of various state agencies at all levels would improve the effectiveness of budget spending and would make it cheaper to deliver state services, especially in remote areas of the country. In this regard, the government of Kazakhstan should continue investing in the digitalization of government and improving the work of all its e-government platforms. It should also actively work with civil service workers, providing training and re-training in order to improve the effectiveness of their work, and should promote broader educational cooperation in e-governance with other countries in the Central Asia region, including Afghanistan. Last but not least, the government should also continue educating the general public about the benefits of e-government and deliver more state services through various e-platforms, thus stimulating greater participation of netizens in public consultation and policy process.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Rafis Abazov, PhD, is a visiting professor at Al Farabi Kazakh National University and a director of Global Classroom Program. He also teaches at SIPA, Columbia University, NY. He is author of The Formation of Post-Soviet International Politics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (1999), The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (2007) and The Role of Think Tanks in the Policy-Making Process in Kazakhstan (2011). He has been awarded an IREX 2010–2011 EPS fellowship (Title VIII program) for research on public policy reforms in Kazakhstan. The author would like to express his gratitude to Dr. Alexei Tikhomirov acting head, United Nations Project Office on Governance, UN DESA, for his comments and assistance in preparing this article.