Public Sector Reforms in Central Asia
Central Asia data
Land area (km2)
GDP per capita (2011 PPP$)
(out of 1.0)
(out of 189 countries
The five republics have been on different trajectories since gaining independence from Russia, although all depend on presidents/heads of state who assume prominent leadership roles, ostensibly to protect and maintain internal stability but in practice to preserve power and control in the hands of elite leaders (Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev; Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev; Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon; Turkmenistan, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov; and Kyrgyzstan Sooronbai Jeenbekov).
All Central Asian countries… face the same challenges of oppressive and predatory post-Soviet states. These are deeply rooted causes of corruption, rent-seeking, state capture, administrative harassment of business and more broadly, a high degree of business uncertainty and insecurity over property rights. The situation looks particularly bad in all areas where economic management interacts with authoritarian political systems and legal institutions, especially those related to the judiciary, law enforcement agencies and public administration.
That state administrative failure—dysfunctional public institutions—and poor governance go hand-in-hand is uncontroversial but is good governance conditional upon having strong state administration? Certainly, a set of strong state institutions can deliver public policy outcomes and public services beneficial to a society, but it can also be oppressive, leading to a diminution in the quality of societal governance (Dixon and Common 2011: 554).
Researchers from each of the Central Asia countries offered an overview of public sector reforms during the period 1991–2000 which provides a useful baseline exercise.
Baimyrzaeva (2011) offered a comprehensive overview of public sector reforms in Kyrgyzstan and describes the period as one where the administrative system experienced many formal institutional changes but practice did not improve. These changes, she argued, “had been unsystematic and mostly cosmetic” focusing largely on legal, technical, and organizational changes. In practical terms “there was a fair amount of counting outputs of reforms, such as the number of laws passed, the number of ministries that underwent functional reviews, and the number of computers allocated to government ministries…accounts of the actual outcomes were rare” Baimyrzaeva (2011: 559). This account is typical of public sector reforms in Central Asia where process trumps product. There is a preoccupation with, and abundance of, laws, strategies, directives, and speeches from the president/head of state with poor implementation capacity and limited or no attention to policy evaluation. In a case study of the agricultural sector Rural Advisory Service in Kyrgyzstan, Ritz and Voegtli (2011: 595) described the introduction of a results-based payment system. The system created targets and incentives for the advisory service to support farmers and boost their income and more generally to “initiate a shift from an input-oriented budget system to the results-oriented mandate system” – a key component of public management reforms.
Amagoh (2011) examined the same period (1991–2000) in Kazakhstan through the lens of a case study in healthcare reforms outlined in the National Program of Health Care Reform and Development (2005–2010). He used the framework of public management (decentralization, competition, efficiency and quality, civil society, and partnerships) as the benchmark to track the progress of healthcare reforms under the program. Amagoh (2011:576) concluded that Kazakhstan offered evidence of meeting international standards in health care and was “addressing the various shortcomings inherited from the Soviet era. Kazakhstan has followed the global trends of public management reform and introduced a number of changes in the health sector.” While he concluded it was too early to realize the full benefits of these reforms, he was sanguine about the early results.
Bhuiyan (2011: 613) examined the early implementation of e-government and its impact on public services in Kazakhstan and argued that although it was not fully satisfactory, “e-government is being increasingly used to improve transparency and accountability and to curb corruption. As a result, the Government of Kazakhstan has been successful in delivering a number of public services to its citizens through electronic means. Thus, it has demonstrated the benefit of e-governance.”
Janenova and Suk Kim (2016) researched the introduction of one-stop shops in Kazakhstan as a means for integrating public service provision and offering greater accessibility for citizens. While they are generally positive about this development, there were limitations associated with the institutional framework and embedded culture of the Kazakhstani bureaucracy which exhibited resistance to change. Janenova and Suk Kim (2016: 332) concluded that there were lessons for other transitional countries from their work in that they needed to engage in critical thinking and in-depth analysis of their own public sector cultures “before Western managerial reforms can be implemented. Otherwise, the government risks falling into the trap of “fashionable approaches”, while overestimating the positive outcomes of the new ideas and underestimating the negative drawbacks.”
Kassen (2018) provided an update on e-government in Kazakhstan with a very comprehensive overview of its history and evolution. He argued that e-government has been “the number one priority in advancing all administrative projects” culminating in an e-government ecosystem for many interactive and transactional public services, including open government platforms which will “change completely the nature of government-citizens interactions.” He concludes that Kazakhstan is now being considered as “one of the first of the pioneers in introducing digital government technologies in the developing world” and e-government offers the prospect of transparent government in a society rarely exposed to the core principles of public administration.
Aminova and Jegers (2011: 580) examined the progress of public sector reforms in Uzbekistan during the same period, arguing that importing market-based recipes from Western societies proved inappropriate. Instead they highlighted the presence of informal structures, sociocultural mechanisms, and cultural artifacts which “filled the emerging vacuum in the areas where formal mechanisms were weakened, non-existent, or only emerging.” These informal mechanisms and social processes were, and continue to be, important in Uzbekistan because people lack trust in government. As a result, formal and informal institutions overlap, with the latter having a significant impact on public policies. Aminova and Jegers (2011) concluded that this impact can be both constructive and destructive: they expedite decisions and are inclusive of those impacted by them; and they could result in the growth or entrenchment of vested interests which are vulnerable to corruption and lobbying, respectively.
Knox (2019) provides the most recent overview of public sector reform in Central Asia and the Caucasus. He compares the reforms in three countries, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, using research evidence which suggests that the New Public Management model has had limited success in developing countries. Instead Knox proposes moving to a combination of outcomes-based accountability for public services and peer-to-peer learning as the basis for raising the quality of people’s lives through better public services.
There are four themes which run through the research on public sector reform in Central Asia: government effectiveness, voice and accountability, corruption, and democracy, none of which indicate much signs of improving (materials below draw on Bertelsmann Stiftung country reports and World Bank metrics).
Voice and Accountability
Central Asia is a mixed bag of public sector reforms with Kazakhstan as the regional leader and Turkmenistan the worse in a number of areas. The former is more open to innovation around digital government but reluctant to countenance digital democracy and open government. The latter is repressive and essentially anti-democratic. Kyrgyzstan, on the back of colored revolutions, sees a role for actively working with the public and has benefitted from collaborating with external funding organizations. Tajikistan shows significant fluctuations in government effectiveness, marginally better than Turkmenistan. Uzbekistan is a work in progress, and the new regime has yet to make significant medium-term gains. Where there has been some evidence of Western influence, it has been in the area of public management, specifically decentralization and optimization of public services; privatization, outsourcing, and public-private partnerships; limited anti-corruption measures; and greater transparency through one-stop shops and electronic government. The situation remains however that Central Asia, comprising five authoritarian states with monopoly powers in the hands of the president and elite groupings, is likely to continue, in part as a legacy of the Soviet Union. There is little evidence that this will change in the short term and, as a result, the potential for significant public sector reforms drawing on Western models remains limited.
- Bertelsmann Stiftung Transformation Reports (2018). https://www.bti-project.org/en/reports/country-reports/
- European Union Directorate-General For External Policies, Policy Department (2016) The EU in Central Asia: the regional context. European Parliament, BrusselsGoogle Scholar
- Human Rights Watch (2019) Turkmenistan: events of 2018. Accessible at: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/turkmenistan
- Kassen M (2018) Building digital state: understanding two decades of evolution in Kazakh e-government project. Online Inf Rev. https://doi.org/10.1108/OIR-03-2018-0100
- Kaufmann D, Kraay A, Mastruzzi M. Worldwide Governance Indicators. http://info.worldbank.org/governance/wgi/#reports