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Forced Digitalization of Public Services in Kazakhstan During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic in Kazakhstan has pushed for a massive transition to the digital environment. The situation with forced digitalization was a good lesson and revealed shortcomings in the provision of public services online.


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Due to the threat of the spread of coronavirus infection in Kazakhstan, a state of emergency was introduced from March 16 to May 11, 2020. The only way to obtain public services during this period of time was the e-Government portal. Did the portal cope with the task? How effective were government measures?

The e-Government portal was launched in 2006, and during the introduction of the state of emergency, it provided 80% of all public services online. The e-Government includes a number of other projects, such as “e-Licensing”, “Open Government”, “Open Data”, “Open Budgets”, “Open Laws and Statutory Instruments” and “Open Dialogue”. In addition to the official website www.egov.kz, there are also chat bots in the Telegram, VKontakte and Facebook messengers. In the Telegram bot @Kenes1414Bot, 28 types of services are available. However, during the period of mass one-time flow of users, it turned out that the server is not able to cope with such a large volume of visits.

Ran short of strength

The network load in the midst of a pandemic was unprecedented. The portal was not ready for such a massive simultaneous connection and it failed. The problem was the insufficient performance and carrying capacity of the e-Government servers.

Chairman of the Board of JSC National Information Technologies (АО Национальные информационные технологии) (NIT) Aset Turysov explained this situation by the fact that the portal was not ready for such a large influx of users. If on ordinary days in the portal there were 600 connections per hour and 5 million connections per day, then during the emergency period 15 million connections per hour and 102 million connections per day were recorded.[1]

During this period, the number of calls to the e-Government contact center has also increased. There, on ordinary days, 15–20 thousand calls were received per day, and during the period of emergency their number increased to 400 thousand on average, 600 thousand at the peak. 12 thousand employees of public service centers (PSC) were transferred to a remote mode of operation.

In addition to the huge influx of users on the e-Government portal and the intensified fraudsters, the state server was also subjected to hacker attacks from abroad. In this vein, on May 12, a hacker attack occurred on state electronic servers, including “Electronic Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan” egov.kz, “e-Licensing” and all components of electronic government. According to official statements, these were DDos attacks that were carried out from more than 550 IP addresses from 48 countries. This was the first ever large-scale cyber-attack on the Kazakhstan state Internet server. However, authorities stated that no compromise of personal data of citizens was revealed.[2]

Benefits should (not) be returned

The portal overload began with the fact that citizens began to massively apply for social benefits in the amount of 42,500 tenge (about 102 USD) in connection with the loss of income during the state of emergency. Authorities announced that citizens who lost income due to the state of emergency, will receive social benefits from the state. According to the labor code of Kazakhstan, the amount of social benefits per employee is one minimum wage or 42,500 tenge (about 102 USD) per month. Working citizens who were sent on unpaid vacation, as well as individual entrepreneurs and self-employed, working officially or unofficially, could count on this payment.[3]

In order to apply for payment, it was necessary to go to the portal using “Electronic Digital Signature” (EDS). The problem was that not all citizens have this signature, but in order to receive it, one had to visit the public service center (PSC). Given this situation, the authorities launched a service that allowed them to receive digital signatures online. However, it was still not possible to apply for benefits, since neither the official portal nor the Telegram bot worked due to high overflow.

In connection with the mass filing of applications for social payments, a separate website was created only for this service – www.42500.enbek.kz. However, the carrying capacity of this site was also low, at the level of 25 thousand one-time visits, which also turned out to be insufficient during that period.

To reduce the network load on the server, it was necessary to open an additional channel that could accept applications. To do this, 18 regional chat bots were launched in the Telegram messenger, and only then, a lot po people managed to apply for a social payment. Nevertheless, the applicants faced one more problem: the scammers made copies of these telegram bots, which were difficult to distinguish from official channels.

As a result, citizens began to massively apply for social benefits, even if they did not fall into the categories. In mid-April, authorities announced that people, who had received social benefits illegally, would be found and punished for fraud and property damage through breach of trust. This threatened with a fine of 25 thousand USD or sentence for a period of 4 years.[4] Upon learning of this, many citizens who received social benefits began to return money. As of April 24, 164,730 people returned their social benefits back to the state.[5]

Later, on April 20, the Minister of Social Protection Birzhan Nurymbetov stated that the authorities would not hold anyone accountable for the 42,500 tenge received, and that the applicants themselves were responsible for the accuracy of the information about the loss of income. On this, the uncertainty that kept the citizens in fear was clarified.

According to official figures, more than 4 million people received benefits for loss of income during the state of emergency, and over 3 million were denied to applicants for various reasons. And the payment for the second month of state of emergency was received only by those who managed to submit an application before April 16. Since the first month of the introduction of the state of emergency in Kazakhstan is considered to be the period from March 16 to April 15, the second month is considered to be the period from April 16 to May 11, when the state of emergency was lifted.

New realities require new rules

Experts note that in connection with the coronavirus pandemic, people will be forced to live in a new reality with new rules. Government services will be transferred to online mode on an expedited basis. The government is trying to reduce the presence of people in public service centers, and the centers themselves will provide only paper services that cannot be obtained online. There were 97 similar services in Kazakhstan.[6] These include the restoration of identity cards and passports, the appointment of pension payments, etc. From now on, citizens must receive all other services independently through the Internet portal of electronic government.

To reduce the number of people in public service centers, a requirement for a preliminary queue have been introduced, which must be taken in advance on the website or through the Telegram bot. It is interesting that only 30 minutes are allocated for each person; if a person missed a turn, they will have to take a new one the next day, since place in a line for each person is issued only once a day.[7]

It is clear that not all citizens have the necessary devices to receive public services online. Therefore, in PSCs promised to create preferential windows, that will serve only pensioners, large families and people with disabilities. Also, small corners or the so-called self-service sectors have been created, which are located in front offices at akimats, educational and medical organizations, in school buildings and shopping and entertainment centers.[8] These corners are equipped with computers and Internet access and are designed for 8-15 places. Due to weakening of quarantine standards in Kazakhstan, public service centers and self-service sectors resumed their work.

“Self-service corner” of electronic government services at Kostanai Medical College. Photo: komeco.kz

Future plans and correction of errors

The situation with forced digitalization was a good lesson and revealed shortcomings in the provision of public services online. The digitalization process as a need for new realities will continue to gain momentum. The government plans to transfer 90% of all public services to the online platform by the end of the year.[9]

A function is being developed in the e-Government mobile application that will allow users to sign documents on the site through your smartphone using a QR code. The launch of this function is planned in June of this year and will further expand the list of public services available for signing through a QR code. Currently, 60 services are available in the application.[10]

Another innovation that will appear in the work of e-Government is that now some digital documents in the application will have the same legal force as their paper originals. Now the draft law “On Digital Technologies” is under consideration in the Senate of Kazakhstan. If it is adopted, citizens will have the opportunity to present their documents via smartphones. To date, four digital documents are available in the application: this is an identity card, a birth certificate, a marriage and divorce certificate, a change of name, surname, middle name.

It also considers options to reduce the number of certificates issued by government agencies. Until next year, 24 information certificates will be canceled. But for this to happen, it is necessary to do a huge bureaucratic work on the integration of state bodies and make changes to the regulations of their work.

According to the state program “Digital Kazakhstan”, in 2020, the government wants to rise to 28th position in the UN ranking of the development of e-Government. The list is compiled according to three criteria: the degree of coverage and the quality of Internet services, the level of development of ICT infrastructure and human capital. In 2018, Kazakhstan was at 39th positions, in 2016 at 33rd position, and in 2014 at 28th position. To rise in the list, it is necessary to take measures to improve the efficiency of the provision of public services online. During the quarantine regime, gaps were highlighted where it is necessary to make improvements in the work of e-Government.[11]

Conclusions

The pandemic pushed for a massive transition to the digital environment. This was the period of time when the e-Government was forced to become truly electronic. One of the positive aspects is that due to the forced digitalization, digital literacy among the population has increased. This trend will continue, and in the future, the authorities plan to transfer all public services to a digital platform. However, for this to happen, it is necessary to do a lot of work to improve the quality of public services provided in electronic format. Firstly, it is necessary to integrate state bodies, secondly, it is necessary to increase the productivity and throughput of state servers, thirdly, it is advisable to reduce excessive bureaucratic information, make the process of obtaining electronic public services as simple and convenient as possible. Finally, it is important to conduct information work with citizens to raise their awareness of the functions and methods of obtaining electronic public services.


The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.


Cover photo: inform.kz

[1] The work of eGov has been stabilized. Kursiv.kz. https://kursiv.kz/news/obschestvo/2020-04/rabotu-egov-stabilizirovali

[2] Hackers attacked egov.kz, e-licensing and e-government. Inbusiness.kz. https://inbusiness.kz/ru/last/hakery-atakovali-egov-kz-e-licenzirovanie-i-elektronnoe-pravitelstvo

[3] Kazakhstanis who lost income during the state of emergency will receive payments from the State Social Insurance Fund. Forbes.kz. https://forbes.kz/news/2020/03/26/newsid_221847

[4] Illegal recipients of 42,500 tenge are facing criminal punishment. Baigenews.kz. https://baigenews.kz/news/nezakonnykh_poluchateley_42500_tenge_zhdet_ugolovnoe_nakazanie/

[5] Almost 165 thousand Kazakhstanis voluntarily returned the payment of 42,500 tenge. Informburo.kz. https://informburo.kz/novosti/pochti-165-tysyach-kazahstancev-dobrovolno-vernuli-vyplatu-v-42-500-tenge.html

[6] Now PSCs will not provide electronic services and issue digital signatures. TVNZ. https://www.kp.kz/online/news/3866183/

[7] The time of visiting PSCs in Almaty is strictly regulated. zanmedia.kz. https://zanmedia.kz/40738/vremya-poseshheniya-tsonov-almaty-strogo-reglamentirovano/

[8] Now it is impossible to visit the PSC for help, simply because one does not know how to use the eGov website. Kstnews.kz. https://kstnews.kz/news/society/item-59459

[9] http://today.kz/news/kazahstan/2020-05-20/798161-kak-pandemiya-povliyala-na-sferu-okazaniya-gosuslug-v-kazahstane/

[10] https://informburo.kz/novosti/dokumenty-na-sayte-egovkz-mozhno-budet-podpisyvat-bez-ecp-s-pomoshchyu-mobilnogo-prilozheniya.html

[11] https://zerde.gov.kz/en/activity/analysis-and-development-of-information-and-communication-technologies/international-ratings/UN-E-Government-Development-Index-EGDI/

 
 
 
 

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