Kazakhstan’s digital government moment in the sun

By on 28/04/2024 | Updated on 28/04/2024
Nikolay Olkhovoy/Creative Commons

In a region known more for its natural resources than digital prowess, Kazakhstan’s leadership is making waves across central Asia, writes Luke Cavanaugh

In October last year, Kazakhstan’s International and Digital Development agencies signed a Statement of Intent to collaborate on advancing inclusive digital transformation, bolstering innovation and ensuring knowledge exchange across central Asia.

As might be expected, the agreement was lauded in Kazakhstan as the country’s digital coming of age, with Arken Arystanov – chair of the country’s Agency of International Development – citing the agreement as confirmation of his belief that “Kazakhstan can act as a regional catalyst for leveraging government digital solutions to drive change”, drawing on the country’s expertise and experience to stimulate peer-to-peer learning across the continent.

Fast forward six months, and an even more significant – albeit less formal – statement of intent has been delivered thanks to another UN body, with Kazakhstan’s capital Astana playing host to a GovStack regional conference co-organised by the UN International Telecommunications Union (ITU). By acting as a champion of GovStack, the UN’s attempt at establishing a global toolkit for the digitalisation of public sector infrastructure, Kazakhstan was able to set the agenda for a two-day regional forum sharing best practices, trends, opportunities and challenges across high-level sessions and working groups between the leading figures in the central Asian digital space.

To many this is quite the emergence for Kazakhstan on the international stage, a country known more for its oil and metals exports than necessarily for its digital ones. But behind the scenes, this represents the culmination of years of sustained digital government focus which has seen the country rise quietly to 28th globally on the UN E-Government Development Index (compared to neighbours Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan at 69th and 81st respectively), developing more than 1,000 digital services along the way.

The digital economy was again front and centre of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s State of the Nation address this year, setting the government the goal of doubling IT exports from US$500 million to US$ 1 billion by 2026. Discussing the transformation of Kazakhstan into an IT-centric knowledge-base economy, he declared digital transformation a “strategically important task”, laying the groundwork for strategic partnerships and cooperation with foreign IT companies.

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Fulfilling Kazakhstan’s Digital Government ambitions

In many ways then, 2024 is set to be Kazakhstan’s moment in the digital government sun. But its transformation is by no means a new phenomenon, and is already more than a decade in the making. Since 2017, the country has offered proactive government services built around “life events”. Many governments are now focusing on developing services around milestone events such as births of children and retirement, and Kazakhstan is among international leaders in the space such as Singapore and Ireland.

In December 2017, for example, the government in Astana launched a proactive childcare service, which allows a parent to register the birth of a child digitally, before placing them automatically in a queue for kindergarten and assigning them birth and childcare welfare allowances where appropriate. Prompts with updates on these services are automatically sent via text message and, since September 2018, Telegram.

Elsewhere, the country’s eGov website talks about entering the “fourth stage of electronic government”, which they label “transformational”. “The main aim now is provision of the services with maximum efficiency” – or taking those 1,000+ services and turning them into seamless and proactive engagements with citizens. The most recent services added to the country’s eGov Mobile App span everything from applying for flood assistance to restricting one’s access to betting websites.

This all brings with it the usual benefits for citizens who use strong digital government services: accountability, trust and simplified engagement between population and government. But as the country enters this “fourth stage” of digital government, the latest and most ambitious projects also look set to engage the private sector and feed into whole-of-society innovation efforts on a much broader level.

Read more from Luke Cavanaugh: How Romania is using digital government to engage its diaspora communities

Two key projects lead the way: the development of a national large language model (LLM) and the creation of a supercomputer. Kazakhstan’s Til-Qazyna National Scientific Center announced last December an initiative to adapt LLMs to the Kazakh language, providing the results to government agencies and industry players through open-source code. This model could unlock use cases like chatbots, internal knowledge-sharing and advanced analytics in the same vein as countries like Estonia, Singapore and the Netherlands. Not only will this directly boost Kazakhstan’s digital government, but it will also work in tandem with regional IT hubs and government-backed incubators and investment firms to catalyse the country’s entire tech sector.

Most recently, the government announced the development of a supercomputer, aimed foremost at integrating with existing e-government infrastructure, and boosting Kazakhstan’s international reputation for digital. The hope is that the supercomputer will “position Kazakhstan as a regional leader in central Asia in AI advancement and provide the opportunity to rent computing power to neighbouring countries”. Already, Kazakh exports to this end are beginning to benefit surrounding countries: stroke platform Cerebra, which offers automated stroke diagnosis at an accelerated pace, recently entered the Uzbekistan market after incubation and trials within Kazakhstan.

What Kazakhstan’s leadership means for the region

A new Kazakh impetus around digital government looks set to benefit central Asia far beyond isolated companies entering markets however, and the past year has seen increased collaboration at a bilateral and multilateral level, as well as by proxy from increased investments from non-regional players.

At a bilateral level, Kazakhstan last year signed an agreement with Tajikistan, a neighbouring central Asian country, promising to export to them the first components of e-government. Among the transferred solutions are a platform simplifying integration between the information systems of government agencies and the private sector, “Smart Bridge”, and data analytics platform “Smart Data Ukimet”. And Tajikistan is not the only country signing these agreements with Astana: Azerbaijan, for example, is also considering the same thing.

Cooperation on a multilateral level is somewhat more complicated, given regional tensions in central Asia. But the common history, shared language (albeit increasingly less frequently spoken), and – for some countries – lower trade tariffs and economic unions have laid strong foundations for potential cooperation. The Kazakh government’s cooperation with the ITU through the GovStack project may be set to realise this opportunity.

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Alongside the Regional Forum that they organised, the Kazakh government has pledged to host technical workshops alongside the ITU to accelerate international technical standards, identify and contribute open-source software to the initiative, and support countries in implementing GovStack specs. Elsewhere, Kazakhstan has also been appointed a UNICEF Pathfinder in the region, advancing the Digital Public Good agenda and validating identified products.

The advancement of open-source Digital Public Goods (DPG) provides potentially the greatest opportunity for the rest of central Asia. By adopting open-source, low-code and no-code solutions, the likes of Tajikistan will be able to dramatically improve their digital government capabilities. In 2021, Accessible Kazakhstan – an app which allows people with reduced mobility to plan accessible routes for themselves and see how accessible and safe locations are – was recognised as the first DPG in central Asia. If the example of Cerebra is anything to go by, we are set to see the likes of Accessible Kazakhstan make waves not just in the country, but across the entire region too.

As Kazakhstan gears up for its supercomputer project, its “fourth phase” transformation, and its “strategically important task”, the impact of these projects are far from certain. But the GovStack summit, the attention around it, and the discussions and partnerships formed in the bilaterals and working groups there might just be a turning point for digital government in central Asia, and a demonstration that the title of digital government leader ought not to be confined to Europe and southeast Asia.

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About Luke Cavanaugh

In exploring the intersection between GovTech and Foreign Policy, Luke is the co-author of Digital Government Substack interweave.gov, and currently sits as one of eight young people on an Advisory Board to the UN’s Technology Body (ITU). He has prior experience working in the UK Civil Service; at public purpose technology firm StateUp; and building open-source Digital Government at GovStack. He has been recently published by GovInsider, Global Government Forum, and The Diplomat.

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