Uzbekistan staggered into a state of uncertainty last year, when it lost the only leader it had known for decades: Islam Karimov. Remarkably, the country didn’t slide into disorder, but started to transition to a new vision – citizen inclusion.

The new president has said that government must do more to listen to the people, and has turned to tech to make this a reality. With 32 million people for this former Soviet state to keep happy, it is a big task.

The Virtual Office

Last year, the government set up a ‘Virtual Office’ initiative, headed by Sherzod Shermatov, the Minister for Development and IT communications. The big idea is to enable citizens and businesses to complain or put forward suggestions directly to the President, either online or through phone calls. Shermatov says, “During the first two weeks of operations, the Virtual Office received 24,000 requests, and there have been over 1 million complaints logged with the Virtual Office up to 21 July 2017.”

“Transparency has increased”

How does it work? There is a website for citizens to visit, which “encapsulates a whole-of-government approach: one front office is maintained for the government,” Shermatov says. It’s hosted on the cloud, and connects with all government agencies.

Crucially, “transparency has increased as each applicant can track down the status of the complaint”, Shermatov says. The Virtual Office demonstrates increasing public trust, Shermatov suggests.

“We can tout it as a tool to decrease corruption and increase the efficiency of responses,” he notes. Citizens already prefer to use this system, rather than going directly to agencies.

Using it to reform a government

Sherzod Shermatov

How can a government implement an effective complaints system within a rather rigid government bureaucracy? The trick is to tie it in with performance management, Shermatov explains. There is clear data on which complaints are overdue, the quality of response from government agencies, and the user satisfaction with the response.

This data can be used to make bigger changes in government. For example, Jakarta’s governor successfully used his system to make sweeping changes to the bureaucracy, removing staff who were inefficient and disinterested.

The highest number of complaints came for the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Tashkent Mayor’s Office. “Handling complaints depends not just on well trained front-line staff but on the commitment, understanding and attention of the leadership at all levels,” Shermatov notes. The Virtual Office unit has reviewed these complaints and advises ministries on how to reduce problems, a little like the Hong Kong Efficiency Unit.

This initiative is just a first step. There has been an increase of social media outreach, particularly to the large young population of Uzbekistan. As the youngest member of the cabinet, Shermatov – a Yale alumnus – has been instrumental in bringing about change.

Perhaps there may be a new Ministry of Public Administration, he suggests, taking this concept to the next level: coordinating virtual and physical policy-making across government.

Uzbekistan is in transition, and there is plenty more to expect from this country on the move.

Aziza is CEO of Smart Gov consulting bureau, specialising in transferring strategies and tools in public administration reform for the countries of the former USSR, Mongolia and Afghanistan.

Image of Registan Square by Gustavo JeronimoCC BY 2.0