Civil service reform in Uzbekistan: white collar — clean hands

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In the beginning of October, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed a decree[1] on civil service. Despite the fact that the reform of the state civil service has been discussed since 2017, Uzbekistan is just now beginning to implement it. The key points of this document were ensuring competitive selection, creating a level playing field for career growth, improving the quality of decisions and developing intolerability for corruption among government officials. According to the President’s decree[2], the new Agency for the Development of Civil Service under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan will become the authorized body for state civil service, which will coordinate the activities of state bodies and organizations in the field of state personnel policy and manage the National personnel reserve. Almost simultaneously, a draft decree on the phased introduction of a system for declaring property, income and expenses of certain categories of civil servants was also put up for public discussion.

The President’s decree on improving personnel policy sets the task of securing at the legislative level the basic concepts, regulations and guarantees in the field of state civil service. This provides for the creation of conditions for career growth and promotion of public service for the most capable candidates on the basis of their professional merit (meritocracy), excluding the use of informal career mechanisms that are not related to professional skills.

Among the attempts to improve the quality of civil service were the return of highly qualified compatriots from abroad and the organization of the republican contest for the selection of managerial personnel “Tarakkiyot”. However, individual attempts did not give the desired result on the overall effectiveness of civil service. Despite the fact that the absence of directly applicable law Law on Civil Service, which regulates all legal parameters, remains a serious drawback, today we are witnessing a systematic approach to the issue of public personnel, the definition of their rights and obligations for the first time. The Uzbek Review provides expert opinions on the legal and practical aspects of the steps taken and analyzes what conditions are necessary for the steps mentioned to produce tangible results.

Officials’ Revenues and Corruption.

Corruption in government is always one of the most destructive factors for the development of any modern society. According to the latest Transparency International assessment in 2018, Uzbekistan continued to occupy one of the last places in the ranking (158 out of 175 countries in the ranking). The reasons are obvious. Despite the rather low salaries in the civil service, many officials historically have the opportunity to live in private villas scattered in different parts of the capital and equal in the grandeur of architecture to large family estates in Europe, and can also afford other expenses that are clearly not up to standard official salary. The issue of total income sooner or later should have appeared on the agenda.

If the draft decree submitted for discussion is adopted, then from January 1, 2020, a process will be phased in where officials will have to answer questions about the origin of income and expenses in annual tax returns, which is normal practice not only in all developed countries of the world, but also in the vast majority of developing countries. There is no doubt that the adoption of the proposed system will give a good impetus to raising the country in international ratings related to assessing the level of corruption, but this will be only one of the first decisive steps towards the eradication of corruption in the state. The President firmly and repeatedly declared his commitment to this course.

Corruption Perception Index, 2018. Transparency International

OECD engagement

In May of this year, the monitoring group of Uzbekistan in the framework of the Istanbul Plan of Action against Corruption from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) noted that “the uncertainty in the status of civil servants determines a low level of accountability and, as a result, a manifestation of corruption risks.” In the same report, new recommendations were made to define clear concepts of conflicts of interest and to ensure their application in practice. At that time, it was also noted that out of 23 previous recommendations, Uzbekistan had implemented 10 of them partially, 8 — mainly and 3 — fully, and 2 recommendations remained outside the focus of the monitoring group.

At the moment, the concepts of conflict of interest and the definition of the categories of civil servants in Uzbekistan are still outside the legal definitions, but there is a chance that they can be given in the near future in the Law on Civil Service, the drafts of which were put up for public discussion last year: by the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations of the Republic of Uzbekistan. The draft law stated that “the personal interest of civil servants includes the immediate possibility of obtaining any tangible or intangible (non-property) effect or advantage for them personally or for their close relatives, as well as other persons with whom they have close or business relationships.” So far, nothing is known about the outcome of the discussions and the prospects for adopting the law. It can be assumed that key concepts can only be introduced in stages, in view of the obvious opposition to their legislative consolidation. The Presidential decree, drafted by the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations, put up for discussion on October 8, 2019, touches upon the introduction of a system for mandatory declaration of property of government officials and the creation of the necessary technical infrastructure, which is probably the first step on a longer path. Based on one of the OECD’s earlier anti-corruption reports in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, declaring the property of government officials is one of the most important ways to ensure accountability. The new draft decree regulates groups of civil servants who are required to submit an annual income statement with varying degrees of data openness to the general public. According to the document, personal information will be available only to the Prosecutor General of the Republic of Uzbekistan. In the public domain there will be given a summary of the income and property of public servants. The procedure and format for the publication of information will be developed in accordance with the draft decree.

A restriction on the publication of an income declaration is not a rare occurrence in most countries, the OECD 2011 report says. There are examples of data disclosure, excluding personal identification information related to relatives (Latvia, Estonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, etc.). In these countries there are laws on the protection of personal data, which determine the degree of disclosure. In the case of Uzbekistan, this is the “Law on Personal Data” adopted in 2019.

For example, in Germany, data on the members of the Bundestag are subject to disclosure in a simplified form, where a certain amount is not specified. Portugal has general access to asset declarations, but there are ways to limit it by court order.

And also in some countries there is a certain category of officials whose income statement is not subject to disclosure. This category is represented by persons from the security services (Latvia, Macedonia, USA). A similar practice is also provided for in the draft law by the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations.

It is worth mentioning that there is a practice of providing access to information related to the income of officials, at the request of civilians or the media, subject to certain conditions. For example, in the USA there is a ban on the use of the information received for commercial purposes. In Albania, one of the conditions is a ban on the use of information as evidence in court. Uzbekistan will have to consider such practices at the next stages once the law is finally adapted.

All of the above being considered, the mandatory declaration of income and property from civil servants alone cannot become a guarantor of the eradication of corruption. Undoubtedly, not only the points of legislative acts are important, but their proper legal enforcement. The real challenge for the government will be the process of organizing the implementation and ensuring unconditional execution of the standards in the event of the adoption of published draft laws and decrees.

Expert opinions

Rustam Urinboev, assistant professor at Lund University (Sweden) and University of Helsinki (Finland), associate researcher at the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, expert of “Buyuk Kelajak”, writes in his study that one of the conditions for entrenchment of corruption is poor social protection when people seek to receive services by informal methods. This is one of the main reasons why corruption is persistent in Uzbekistan, where informal practices are stronger than official laws and regulations.

Speaking about informal practices, expert Raffael Sattorov notes: “The adopted law can be implemented only and exclusively if we finally have a system of checks and balances that will be institutional rather than personal in nature, as in today’s Uzbekistan.” According to the expert, compliance with laws is not a priority in a personalized system, in contrast to a system of established institutional mechanisms. “As you know, we often criticize local officials who do not implement and do not understand today’s changes and reforms. In fact, for all the years of the Soviet and post-Soviet period, they strive, first of all, to catch the mood of their bosses, and not follow the letter of the law”, — said the expert.

“The president shows firm commitment and irreversibility of reforms. The importance of this decree and the creation of the Agency for the Development of Civil Services under the President should not be underestimated, ”said Akram Mukhammatkulov, head of the PR center of the Agency for Information and Mass Communications (AIMC), who returned to Uzbekistan from abroad in 2019 to work in the civil service. According to him, the radical improvement of personnel policy, competitive selection, meritocracy will open the door to the civil service for the most literate, educated, creative fellow citizens of our republic who want to contribute to the implementation of reforms and improvements in all spheres of life.

Akram Mukhamatkulov notes: “As a state civil servant who recently started working in the system, I can say that if implemented correctly, it will be important to listen to international consultants on how to implement civil service reform, we can begin to fundamentally increase the efficiency of the entire system. I lived in Austria for more than 10 years and I was always amazed at the level of efficiency of state bodies, even in the presence of a rather complicated bureaucracy and many different procedures. As they often say there: the system works “.

According to the Decree of the President [3], which was signed on October 3, 2019, the admission to the state civil service (except for the posts selected and appointed in a special order) on the basis of independent open competitive selection will be conducted in a pilot mode at the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Uzbekistan, the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations of the Republic Uzbekistan, the Ministry of Finance of the Republic of Uzbekistan and “People’s Bank” JSC and in all state organizations in certain territories of the country from January 1, 2020. Beginning from January 1, 2021, all state bodies and organizations of the republic will switch to this type of employment and promotion of personnel.

The director of the AIMC PR center believes that many very talented people deliberately avoid civil service, because they do not want to work 12–14 hours a day, but to devote more time to family, self-realization, self-development, sports, friends, society, travel, and have rich social life besides the work. “To live by the principle: I live to work, but not work to live. The gender issue will also be acute,” Akram Mukhammatkulov concluded, “since it is necessary to create equal conditions under which talented girls firmly believe that, with the necessary skills and education, they can climb the career ladder.”

The following references are used in the article:

[1] Decree of the President “On measures to radically improve the personnel policy and public service system in the Republic of Uzbekistan” (No. УП — 5843, dated October 3, 2019).

[2] Decree of the President “On measures to organize the activities of the Agency for the Development of Civil Service under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan” (No. ПП — 4472, October 3, 2019).

[3] Decree of the President “On measures to radically improve the personnel policy and public service system in the Republic of Uzbekistan” (No. УП — 5843, dated October 3, 2019).

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