Whole in one: the rise and rise of one-stop shops

By on 05/09/2018 | Updated on 07/08/2019
The rise of the on-stop shop for public services in Kazakhstan (Image courtesy of State Corporation/Government for Citizens, Kazakhstan).

Rising on the back of interdepartmental integration and digital services, ‘one-stop shops’ are growing in popularity around the world. Gavin O’Toole tracks the expansion of integrated service delivery counters, and pulls out the key lessons learned to date

“It’s a new form of social contract,” says Giorgi Vashakidze. In Soviet times the Georgian state was “very rigid and very authoritarian,” he adds, but democracy has raised public expectations – and the government has responded. “Now the administration has to design public services in a manner that citizens are satisfied with,” he says.

In particular, says Vashakidze – a research fellow with the University of Lausanne’s Graduate School of Public Administration – the government’s introduction of “one-stop shops” has helped to transform an unwieldy Soviet-era bureaucracy into a modern “customer-centric” public service.

Vashakidze helped introduce one-stop shops and believes that they are nothing short of revolutionary, noting that in his country they were a product of the 2003 “Rose Revolution” – in which mass protests swept away the Soviet-era leadership.

“The Soviet administration completely neglected the citizens, and as a result they distrusted the state and public administration,” he comments. “But this new model eradicated that.”

A tool for all nations

That is not to say, though, that one-stop shops are only associated with emerging democracies. Another former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan, is far less democratic than Georgia – ranking 141st out of 167 in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Democracy Index, against Georgia’s 79th spot – but here too, one-stop shops have improved service delivery.

“It’s a revolution,” says Saltanat Janenova, assistant professor in the graduate school of public policy at Nazarbayev University in Astana. “The citizens of Kazakhstan are now much more satisfied with public services and, as their quality is improving, their demands are increasing.”

The goal of one-stop shops is to create more customer-centric public services, offering a single contact point through which citizens can manage all kinds of interactions with the state – often at local and regional as well as national levels. They can help to improve convenience, minimise waiting times and reduce red tape. And in some countries, they have proved useful in supporting efforts to tackle petty corruption – removing the ability of public servants to demand bribes when citizens apply for documents. More than 80 countries now offer some form of one-stop shop, including Brazil, India, Canada, Australia, Sweden, and many South-East Asian nations.

Last year, one-stop shops were the subject of Re-inventing Service Delivery: an international workshop held in Singapore and Malaysia to examine best practice, with the support of the UN Development Programme, World Bank Group and Regional Hub of Civil Service in Astana. In part, says consultant Aziza Umarova – who helped organise the event – the goal was to examine the “myriad different models” in use around the world, and to explore nations’ experiences and the lessons they’d learned. In this article, we’ll look in more depth at two of those nations.

The Kazakh experience

In Kazakhstan, civil service reform after the break up of the Soviet Union included pilot projects of one-stop shops in Astana and Almaty in 2005; and these schemes were then rolled out nationally. Today, the country has 353 “Public Service Centres” which, based on models used in Canada and Australia, offer 548 government services. And in 2016 a single agency – the State Corporation – was established to coordinate their work nationally.

“The aims of the one-stop shop policy are twofold: to improve the quality of public services, and to reduce the level of corruption,” says Janenova. “Kazakhstan, similar to other post-Soviet states, had extensive administrative corruption at the level of public service delivery, so the government wanted to reduce personal contact between customers and government officials. One-stop shops provided this opportunity.”

Kazakhstan has 353 Public Service Centres, based on models used in Canada and Australia (Image courtesy: State Corporation/Government for Citizens, Kazakhstan).

Janenova says a key lesson of Kazakhstan’s experience is that the creation of one-stop shops should form part of wider civil service reforms that transform the culture of government. “One-stop shops were initially viewed by the government as a panacea for corruption, for poor quality of public services,” she comments. “But such expectations are too high, and they should be seen as only one component of a broader, wider public-sector reform. There need to be changes in the culture of government officials, in their ways of thinking, their behaviour, and their attitudes towards serving citizens.”

The Georgian experience

In Georgia, the roots of public service reform lie in the “Rose Revolution” that brought to power a new generation of western-oriented politicians.

A new model of public administration was envisaged to sweep away the Soviet past, and monolithic ministries were broken up to create new agencies with their own management, structures and finances. Broader modernisation introduced ICT systems, raised the salaries of personnel, and strengthened institutional procedures.

Successive developments after 2006 consolidated a system of new front offices to deliver services. Today these are called the ‘Public Service Halls’, and offer about 360 services at 19 locations across the country.

One lesson from public service reform in Kazakhstan is that the creation of one-stop shops should be accompanied by a change in the culture of government (Image courtesy: State Corporation/Government for Citizens, Kazakhstan).

The results were impressive, says Giorgi Vashakidze: “The relationship between the citizen and the administration drastically changed because state institutions started behaving in a manner aimed at satisfying the customers, which was unprecedented for former Soviet citizens.

“That resulted in mental as well as behavioural changes in both the administration and the citizen; and as soon as the citizens felt that administration respected them, expressed empathy towards their needs, they did not oppose paying certain fees for the services.”

Setting a strategy

A number of lessons emerge from Re-inventing Service Delivery and the experiences of countries such as Kazakhstan and Georgia.

First, reforming governments should identify clearly the main problem that they want one-stop shops to resolve – whether it be tackling corruption, improving access to services in rural areas, or improving administrative efficiency. This will influence the sequence by which one-stop shops are introduced, and which state agencies participate in them.

Feasibility studies should then be conducted, considering factors such as the scope of services and how the new system will be financed.

In Kazakhstan the services provided by one-stop shops are free (Images courtesy: State Corporation/Government for Citizens, Kazakhstan).

This strategic driver is essential, says Aziza Umarova: Georgia has had a “fantastic experience with one-stop shops” because it’s generated a clear agenda and consistent political leadership on this issue.

“It really requires a lot of political will to change the way that government is seeing people and is operating services,” she comments. “You have to have in place a plan to change the way departments talk to each other – how they exchange data and information between themselves – and really cut down the red tape and paperwork, in order to make it a different experience for citizens.”

Linking front and back offices

A key issue governments face concerns the nature of the relationship between the front and back offices, which will be shaped by the overall scope of reforms.

Umarova says: “In some countries, they just really put up fancy buildings and ask their civil servants to provide services, but without any systemic work on the back offices – meaning that the duration of a service is not changing, there is no performance management, no feedback loop mechanisms. But in other countries they have really tried to streamline.”

In Georgia, for example, extensive work was undertaken with back office functions before the new front desks were created – bringing business owners in to help develop the new system, and reforming systems to create genuine integration between different services. “Just having leaders with the ambition to do this is not enough,” says Vashakidze. “You need to empower back offices in a manner that, even in the absence of a multifunctional front office, delivers services in a manner that is satisfactory to citizens.”

In Kazakhstan by contrast, a system of front offices was created first, then gradually consolidated under the control of one organisation. But this leaves officials managing a set of separate services, missing some of the opportunities afforded by integrated front desks.

One key to making this relationship work is IT integration in what Vashakidze calls the “public service delivery chain”: work to ensure the interoperability of databases has been a key feature of one-stop shops in both Georgia and Kazakhstan and is closely related to the expansion of e-government services. 

He says: “This interaction requires an immense amount of cooperation between the front office and back office agencies, because you need to design and build a public service delivery chain where there is almost instantaneous interaction between databases,” he says. “In Georgia, to make this system functional there is a data exchange agency that operates as a ‘back office of the back offices’.”

Funding and savings

Finally, financial issues are a crucial concern for governments planning one-stop shops, which can be costly to introduce and maintain.

Georgia’s system, for example, was designed to be as self-funding as possible, with fees introduced for many services. The Public Service Halls budget is determined in an annual negotiating round between front and back offices, and a contractual relationship is agreed under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice.

In Kazakhstan, by contrast, most services are provided free – at considerable cost to the state. But this has constrained funding for the recruitment and training of front desk staff, limiting service quality.

By reducing duplication at the front desk and – where services are truly integrated – in the back office, one-stop shops clearly have the potential to cut service delivery costs. But these savings will only be realised where existing departmental front desks are slimmed down, and by taking the opportunity to cut transactional costs across departments.

As yet, there is little clear data on the savings that one-stop shops can produce across government. But Janenova believes that while the State Corporation in Kazakhstan was not created primarily to save money, the integration of individual government agencies that has resulted implies an indirect saving.

“It is difficult to say with confidence if there have been savings from one stop shops, because there is limited evidence,” Jenenova concludes. “But given the increased number of public services which are delegated to them, and a tendency to cut the number of government officials, there is definitely cost-effectiveness.”

Ultimately, much depends on the value that is placed by citizens on effective public services, and the wider benefits that these provide society. “If you look at it from a historical perspective, such reform usually is quite pricey, says Vashakidze. “But when you look at it from the perspective of what customers say in terms of satisfaction and the reduction in corruption, it is certainly very beneficial – both for the state and citizens.”

About Gavin O’Toole

Gavin O’Toole is a freelance writer and editor in London. He has written for leading newspapers, magazines, wire services and business schools about financial markets, business and regulation around the world. He has a particular interest in international relations, and a specialism in Latin American affairs. He has conducted research on this region’s political economy and has also published a number of books about its politics and natural environment. His latest title, Environmental Security in Latin America, will be published by Routledge in September 2017.

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