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Public Image Problems of State Institutions in Uzbekistan: How to Establish Dialogue with the People?

«The information policy of state institutions should be built on the proper positioning: it is necessary that officials see civil society as a “client” who requires quality service. Ignoring the demands of society or responding inadequately to them will lead to final loss of public image and trust from citizens», Lira Zaynilova, communication specialist from Uzbekistan, participant of the School of Analytics CABAR.asia, writes in her article.


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Brief review of the article:

  • Under the previous government in Uzbekistan, officials, while in the shadows, did not try to adjust the information policy of government structures and departments;
  • After Mirziyoyev came to power, the officials were instructed to keep the media as close as possible, to build a dialogue with the public and civil society;
  • Over the past three years, the political life of the country has noticeably revived, the higher echelons of power have become more open to dialogue;
  • The political elite should be more active in making decisions, be able to skillfully popularize them without damaging their public image, rearrange the work of press services and correctly build their PR strategy.

In January 2019, the Uzbek Agency for Press and Information (UzAPI) was transformed into the Agency of Information and Mass Communications, whose tasks include PR-support for reforms that are implemented in the country. On February 4th, the “disgraced” Komil Allamjonov was appointed as the acting director of this Agency. For the record, Allamjonov previously held the post of press secretary of the president, where he performed his duties quite actively and efficiently. However, one of his first statements as director of the new agency was that the work of ministries’ and government departments’ press services were not presented at the proper level. Will Allamjonov be able to make a positive influence on information policy development of the state bodies? What challenges will he face? 

The epoch of Islam Karimov: informational isolation of the officials

The public administration under Islam Karimov was characterized as a “top-down approach”, that is, any decisions made were initiated and descended from the top to bottom through hierarchy of the government officials. This suggests that the state institutions were just executors, and decisions were discussed neither within departments nor with the population, which led to certain omissions. In addition, no steps were taken to further popularize bills and decisions taken among citizens, and state institutions did not see the need to communicate with media or public. This, in turn, generated the lack of interest among state institutions in promoting their own strategies for developing and strengthening their public image.

One more feature of the Karimov era is considered to be the existence of an unspoken law: it was undesirable for state officials to “be in public eye within the mass media.” They avoided any contact with journalists, and were afraid to give interviews and comments. A vivid example can be the case in 2011, when the permanent representative of Uzbekistan to the UN literally fled from a CNN journalist who filmed a report in response to a replica from presidential candidate Herman Kane about “Ubeki – beki – beki – beki – stan – stan”.

Sessions of almost all government agencies were held behind closed doors for journalists. The population did not know the government by sight, and it wasn’t even interested in it, where for the people, the ministers and, especially, lower-level officials were a monotonous gray mass.

The Uzbek people could easily name or recognize the Prime Minister or the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, but did not know the names of their authorities.
Even during election campaigns of the deputies, modern communication tools were not used. The voters got acquainted with the candidates’ program immediately at the polling stations where posters with their photos and proposals were hung.

In general, being in the shadows, government officials did not try to adjust the information policy of state structures and departments, quite the opposite, they tried to stay in their comfort zone and preserve the status quo.

Coming to power of Mirziyoyev: an attempt to launch a dialogue with the people

After Mirziyoyev came to power in the country, a review of the information policy of state institutions had begun. Steps have been taken towards the reduction of the gap between the political elite and civil society. To this end, officials were instructed to closely contact mass media and build a dialogue with the population and civil society.

During the implementation of this policy, 2017 was even declared the “Year of Dialogue with Population and Human Rights”, the program of which included reforming government structures and improving the feedback of the population with government bodies on the ground. In order to conduct a direct dialogue with the people, virtual receptions were opened for the President and all executive bodies in the country.

In order to conduct a direct dialogue with the people, virtual receptions were opened for the President and all executive bodies in the country. Photo: president.uz

Another mechanism launched to serve as a permanent platform for communication between officials, journalists and the public, was creation of the International Press Club. It should be noted that not only national specialists, but also representatives of foreign diplomatic missions and international experts are invited to the Club meetings, which serve as a good case in terms of increasing visibility as well as the openness level of the political system.

The new approach to the public image of state agencies can be regarded as an attempt to build the bridge between the political elite and civil society that was absent until now.

Dialogue with the people is necessary in order to increase their confidence in officials, which could eliminate the potential for social unrest.
It also allows officials to involve civil society into political life of the country, thereby increasing their legitimacy in the eyes of the people and their active participation in decision-making. In addition, the leadership understands that it is necessary to justify the credit of trust provided by the world community after the change of power in the country. It depends on this whether serious investments will be made in Uzbekistan.

The mechanisms launched by Mirziyoyev gave positive results. First, political activity emerged. The population began to recognize the officials and became interested in their lives. The state officials began to get out of the shadows, give comments and interviews, and clarify the goals of their decisions taken for the people. By means of increased feedback, society has started to influence the course of decisions made. For example, as a result of discussions around the draft law on the control of export prices, which was opposed both by representatives of the expert community and by entrepreneurs themselves, the document was removed from the agenda.

In addition, civil servants started to use the so-called “soft-power”. A vivid example of this is a series of events organized by the hokimiyat (mayor’s office – editor’s note) of Tashkent city during the days of Navruz celebration, which differed from the boring and standard concerts that were held before. Also, the authorities have intensified in social media networks. One of the latest cases is the recently launched “Book Challenge” project, during which high-rank officials gave books to schools and shared a list of written works (literature) that had most impacted their lives.

The Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Abdulla Aripov followed the initiative of the President and donated books from his personal library to school No. 9 of the Yunusabad district, Tashkent. Photo: xabar.uz

Agencies are new, prejudices are old

At the same time, the process of implementing reforms in this direction faces some difficulties.

First, the proactivity of the state bodies remains low. The same “book challenge” was launched after the order of Shavkat Mirziyoyev to develop a project towards improving the reading culture among the population. The state structures were again only the executors of the president’s initiative, which indicates the preservation of the top-down approach in decision making.

Instead of simplified mechanism of citizens’ access to political elite, the next bureaucratic system has emerged.
Secondly, after the primordial boom around the first period of virtual receptions’ work, their efficiency began to gradually decline, as most of the population made personal requests (such as buying an apartment, helping to find a wife, etc.). In addition, the fashion for virtual receivers led to the fact that they began to appear even where, as it seems, there is no need for them. Thus, instead of simplified mechanism of citizens’ access to the political elite, another bureaucratic system appeared (albeit online). Moreover, there was a situation in which complaints about an institution went down to the virtual reception of the same institution. Such a vicious circle led to a sharp decrease in the effectiveness of this mechanism.

Virtual reception of the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Screenshot from pm.gov.uz website

Third, those officials who are not used to communicate with people have no regard for the consequences of their behavior in public. Everyone remembers the video scandal with the nationalistic attacks of Sherzod Kudratkhodzhayev that spread across all social networks, where he demanded a Russian-speaking woman to speak in Uzbek language with him. Another example is the incident with Tashkent hokim (mayor), Jakhongir Artykkhojaev, who unsuccessfully laughed off at the request of a woman to allocate an apartment on the lower floor. Later, the woman herself complained about Artykkhojaev’s rude manner of communication (the video also shows how he responds, while smoking) and his entourage. The negative image of state officials affects the public image of the entire structure in which they work.

Fourth, the public interest in communicating with government agencies and increased demands on the quality of the provided services occurred due to the beginning of changes in the top ranks. Perhaps the society would have remained passive if Mirziyoyev had completely adopted Karimov’s administration style. As we see, a system in which any measures are taken due to the impulse coming from the top, is specific not only in the bureaucratic environment, but also in relations between the government and the people.

Therefore, the lack of initiative by state services’ consumers remains a big problem, as political institutions are still perceived by people only as a formality.
Thus, over the past three years, the political life of the country has noticeably revived, where the higher echelons of power have become more open to dialogue, and have begun to use modern communication channels. However, in order for dialogue with the people to take place in a positive way, the political elite must become more active in making decisions, be able to skillfully popularize them without damaging their public image, as well as adjust the work of press services and correctly build their PR strategy.

How to establish a dialogue?

Attempting to build a dialogue between the political elite and civil society, as well as strengthening the public image of state institutions will remain an attempt, if not to solve a number of problems, primarily related to personnel policy. Reforming the political system, in fact, will not happen unless its vicious circle is broken. In fact, in almost all government agencies, management remains in the hands of the old political guard with a stagnant mindset, and personnel reshuffling occur only by moving state officials from one post to another.

The effectiveness of measures taken to improve the public image of state institutions remains low, since there is no influx of non-system people who could take a fresh look at the domestic kitchen and offer a different recipe. In addition, government agencies, while communicating with the population use incomprehensive language, include sophisticated words and produce an additional barrier between themselves and ordinary people, thus creating distrust.  

The press services of state bodies are not adapted to the new realities of communication with civil society, and the population has become more demanding on the content and quality of the provided information. Lack of clear understanding of the PR strategy makes their work inert and, rather, conventional, so the heads and staff of departments are not prepared to communicate neither with media nor the ordinary people, which leads to all sorts of incidents.

Success of the reforms on updating the department’s public image highly depends on what kinds of specialists lead their activity.
A change of generations will positively affect the methods of building relationships with civil society, but at the same time, it is necessary that the new personnel updates the management system, rather than adapt to it.

To date, there are several measures that would help government agencies to establish a dialogue with the people.

First, the involvement of young personnel in the government agencies will help to increase their openness, as they better understand the essence of the ongoing reforms. Young professionals are free from well-established rules of the game in the agencies and they will not be afraid to take the initiative and adapt their proposals to the modern realities of the world.

Secondly, the press services of state institutions should learn to use all kinds of media platforms, and develop their own so-called tone of voice. The use of modern methods of promoting public image will not only increase visibility, but also allow following the public response.

Third, while using current communication channels, one should not forget about feedback. Nowadays, civil society is waiting for explanations and comments from government agencies about the actions they have taken. Responding to public comments will demonstrate the openness of government agencies to dialogue, which is important for building a positive public image.

Fourthly, it is necessary that every government agency outlines its own PR strategy. Whereby, the press services should introduce the concept of political consulting into their activities, which will include instructions not only for employees but also for heads of departments, which will help institutions to develop according to the chosen strategy.

The information policy of state institutions should be built on the proper positioning: it is necessary that officials see civil society as a “client” who requires quality service. Ignoring the demands of society or responding inadequately to them will lead to final loss of public image and trust from citizens.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

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