Implementing public strategies in Kazakhstan

The President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has devised at least three important strategic documents, the purpose of which is to build on the country’s existing success and ensure Kazakhstan is among the top 30 developed nations by 2050.

Colin Knox

The three documents – Kazakhstan 2050, Plan of the Nation (100 Concrete Steps), and the Third Modernisation of Kazakhstan – propose a route map for the future in a turbulent and uncertain global environment.

These documents offer foresight and leadership consistent with a strong President who has a clear vision for where he wants to take Kazakhstan.

Despite the pledges in these strategic documents, the recent review by the OECD of governance in Kazakhstan found key deficiencies in terms of the implementation process: “The country’s governance model suffers from excessively hierarchical structures in its strategic orientations and policy design, together with inadequate focus on policy implementation, in particular in terms of evaluation of policy effectiveness and accountability… Insufficient focus on implementation also hinders understanding of the actual outcomes of policy.”

There is, however, a body of international research that might offer some insights into why public policies within Kazakhstan’s strategy documents fail to get fully implemented as intended. These are discussed in no order of importance.

First, Kazakhstan has a very complex system of governance. There are 15 government ministries and one central executive body (i.e. the Agency for Civil Service Affairs and Anti-Corruption); 6,269 state enterprises which operate in sectors where the direct provision of a public service is deemed necessary; 679 joint stock companies and limited liability partnerships established by the government and the National Bank to both engage in the production of market goods and services in a competitive environment; and 18,902 state institutions which are non-commercial entities created by the President, the government or local executive bodies for carrying out socio-cultural or administrative functions.

With such a complex system of governance comes the likelihood of poor horizontal and vertical coordination and duplication across executive bodies.

Second, there can be a problem of reform overload where civil servants are unable to absorb the volume of changes coming from the top-down without a sense of prioritisation. This can lead to officials using their own discretion to make sense of the roll-out of reforms in ways which were not intended at the stage of policy formulation (public policy research refers to this as ‘street level bureaucracy’).

Third, because of this issue of reform overload, officials can lack accountability to deliver, sometimes described as circumstances ‘where everything is important and nothing is important’. Lack of accountability can also encourage inaccurate monitoring and reporting of changes intended to happen through the three strategies, a kind of ‘tick-box’ exercise where tasks are fulfilled in a perfunctory way to meet the demands of process rather than produce good policy outcomes. Lack of accountability also risks the potential of corruption and civil servants putting their own self-interests in front of the country’s needs.

Finally, high staff turnover can result in a lack of consistency in policy implementation. Officials and politicians do not remain in their positions long enough to see through the full impact of policy change.

This, combined with a hugely complex governance structure, means that leadership of the reforms becomes diffuse, ownership amongst officials and politicians is shifting, and there is no time/space to undertake proper policy evaluation of those strategic changes which are successful or failing.

The end result is that even though there is a clear route map of the strategic direction for Kazakhstan until 2050, the implementation of the operational plans can prove difficult to deliver in practice. International research tells us that the ‘implementation deficit’ is a neglected issue in public policy.

We cannot assume that good strategic plans will be faithfully implemented, not through negligence, but rather the bureaucratic mosaic through which they pass and lack of attention to the successful achievement of policy outcomes and their evaluation.

The author is a professor at Nazarbayev University’s Graduate School of Public Policy.