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Creating dialogue and citizen engagement – initial observations from Uzbekistan

Nina Kolybashkina's picture
I started my assignment in Uzbekistan in 2015, working on social issues such as labor rights, gender mainstreaming, and citizen engagement. This work was certainly not without its challenges, at a time when Uzbekistan ranked among the worst performers on democracy and accountability, and before the process of liberalizing the economy had begun.

I never imagined, therefore, when I temporarily left Uzbekistan in late 2016, that I would return just a half year later to find the country in the midst of a significant transformation.

That transformation began soon after the Presidential election of December 2016. Just three months later, in February 2017, the Government adopted and started implementing its Strategy of Actions for the Development of Uzbekistan for 2017–2021, which outlined new political, economic, and social priorities, including measures to liberalize the economy.

Shortly after being elected, the new President declared 2017 to be the “Year of Dialogue with the People,” avowing that government should serve the country’s citizens, not the other way around.

To support this dialogue with citizens, the Government launched a digital platform – the Virtual Reception of the President – which enables people to raise questions, complaints, and suggestions on matters that concern them. By February 2018, more than 1.5 million queries had been submitted to the Virtual Reception, an average of 100,000 queries per month.
 
Such efforts towards better engagement are to be welcomed – they are crucial first steps in the lengthy process of building public institutions that reflect citizens’ views in decision-making. At the same, we must acknowledge that significant challenges remain.
 
After decades of operating within an institutional culture secluded from the public, state organizations are reluctant to meaningfully engage with citizens. This is all the more challenging with respect to traditionally marginalized groups such as the poor, disabled, and residents of remote rural areas, people whose voices have not typically been heard in the public discourse.
 
So, you can imagine my enthusiasm (and curiosity), when I became involved, on behalf of the World Bank, in organizing a National Conference on Citizen Engagement, in partnership with Uzbekistan’s Development Strategy Center, the Ministry of Justice, and the President’s Virtual Reception Office.
 
At this Conference, in January 2018, parliament members, government officials, NGOs, and development partners in Uzbekistan came together to take stock of citizen engagement progress during the previous year. And, more importantly, they agreed to discuss the many significant challenges still facing the country. Frankly, it was a conversation I could not have envisaged just six months before, yet one that I now wholeheartedly welcomed.
 
Citizen-oriented service delivery was among the topics discussed. It was interesting to hear senior Government officials express the view that public service providers should be more proactive and that, rather than just responding to problems, they should engage citizens in preventing problems from happening in the first place.

Representatives of several NGOs, including the Center for Democracy and Human Rights, the Association of Disabled People, and the Center for Protection of Family, stressed the point that meaningful citizen engagement requires a deep cultural shift – both within the administration and among the public.

The discussions also helped spur some novel initiatives on citizen engagement. For example, shortly after presenting at the conference, the Mayor of Mirzo Ulugbek District in Tashkent published his district’s budget on Facebook – an unprecedented occurrence in Uzbekistan. The Mayor also encouraged citizens to vote online about how best to distribute part of this budget, suggesting options such as pre-school education, social protection, utilities, healthcare, and culture, among others.

Going forward, our team in Tashkent will continue to support consultations and knowledge exchange on citizen engagement initiatives in Uzbekistan. Indeed, World Bank-supported projects in sectors such as education, energy, water supply and healthcare, could serve as useful testing grounds to pilot such initiatives.

We know there is still a long road ahead. So much more needs to be done within government to reach meaningful dialogue and engagement with all of the country’s citizens. But, from where I sit, the initial signs are encouraging. Let’s hope the momentum continues.