Civil Service Reform in Kazakhstan: trajectory to the thirty most developed countries?

Civil Service Reform in Kazakhstan: trajectory to the thirty most developed countries?

Saltanat Janenova and Colin Knox

Graduate School of Public Policy Nazarbayev University

Kazakhstan has ambitious plans to become one of the top 30 developed countries in the world by 2050. A key pillar in this reform agenda is the development of a professional civil service. We consider whether civil service reforms to date and those envisaged under the new plan offer a trajectory to the 2050 stated goal. It finds that despite significant political endorsement at the highest level, reforms have focused on institutional, structural and legal changes without the necessary attention to how these will impact on the quality of public services provision. The research highlights the interdependence between civil service reforms and an outcomes based approach and adapts the OECD Better Life framework for Kazakhstan as a way of making this connection.

Since it is Kazakhstan’s strategic goal to join the top 30 developed countries what does it need to get there? We consider the latest metrics from the UNDP Human Development Index and Worldwide Governance Indicators. The human development index for countries from 26-30 are listed in table 1. Currently Kazakhstan ranks at number 50 but hopes to enter the top thirty countries. If we consider government effectiveness of those countries against which Kazakhstan is competing, it has some way to go (scoring 54.33 out of a possible 100). This measure of government effectiveness captures: perceptions of the quality of public services; the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures; the quality of policy formulation and implementation; and, the credibility of the government’s commitment to such policies.

Table 1: Kazakhstan and other developed countries


Human Development index Ranking (2019)

Government Effectiveness (scale of 0-100 in 2018) 

Czech Republic


















To effect the type of changes needed to lift Kazakhstan’s performance on ‘government effectiveness’ demands attention to the quality of public services that the modernized civil service provides. This is the absent link in the reforms agenda. So even though two (of the five) key pillars in the Plan for the Nation are civil service reform and the creation of a results-oriented state governance system, they are disconnected in the outworking of the plan and lack detail as to how this might be achieved. Reforming the civil service must be seen as a means to achieve an outcomes-based approach which promises better public services for the people of Kazakhstan. 

One approach, that offers potential here, is the OECD’s Better Life Initiative launched in 2011 which aims to measure people’s well-being across OECD countries. The OECD framework breaks down into two elements: current well-being, measured by material living conditions and quality of life; and future well-being, measured through economic, natural, human and social capital. The OECD highlights four important features of the model, it: focuses on people, their situation, and how they relate to others in the community; concentrates on well-being outcomes as opposed to inputs or outputs; it considers distribution of outcomes to address disparities (across age, gender, socio-economic backgrounds); and, looks at both objective and subjective measures of well-being.

The scale of the task for Kazakhstan is huge if it is to meet its declared objective of joining the top 30 developed countries by 2050, yet the prognosis of the constraints is fairly clear, both from the research literature, and the practical outworking of the reforms to date. Government effectiveness may improve only marginally if the focus of public sector reform is institutional or structural changes to the civil service, independent of a focus on a ‘results oriented governance system’ set out in the Plan for the Nation. A more professional civil service, in and of itself, will not lead to more efficient and effective government – it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. This speaks directly to the OECD (2014: 229) findings on Kazakhstan which suggested it adopt best practice from OECD countries ‘where there is a trend towards the identification of few core indicators oriented towards outcomes in areas that are considered to be strategic priorities’. 

Can civil service reform in Kazakhstan become a trajectory to the thirty most developed countries? We conclude that structural changes in isolation from outcomes-based accountability as a reform model will contribute little to the overall goal of the Plan for the Nation. Linking a civil service reform agenda which includes restructuring, objective selection and recruitment, ethical standards, anti-corruption measures, and performance appraisal to an outcomes based accountability framework (the details of which are examined in the full research paper) is more likely to improve the well-being of Kazakhstan’s citizens and, as a result, positively contribute to government effectiveness and its rightful place amongst the top thirty most developed countries.

Colin Knox (20th January 2020)

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