Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

E-Government Slow to Take Off in Azerbaijan

Even when ministry websites invite online questions, they often fail to answer them.
By Durna Safarli

Back in 2005, Azerbaijan proclaimed an ambitious programme to bring all its state institutions online, but six years on, the authorities are still woefully bad at responding to enquiries.

The e-government strategy was supposed to allow anyone open access to information about state institutions, public services and utilities, education and so on.

At present, though, just four services are available online – tax returns, entrance forms for university, utilities payments, and a system for complaining about state institutions.

The interior ministry’s website provides an online form that is supposed to go to the minister himself and three other top officials. But IWPR has yet to receive an answer to a message sent using the system in April, Ministry spokesman Orkhan Manurzade was unable to explain the lack of response.

The Azerbaijani customs service’s website invites users to contact its head Aydin Aliyev. But clicking on the button leads to a warning that the link is “not trustworthy”. IWPR repeatedly called the institution to find out why the site was not working, only to be told that all the staff authorised to talk to the press were in a meeting.

Seymur Teymurov described what happened when he accessed President Ilham Aliyev’s website to complain about the activities of a construction company.

“I wrote a letter, but didn’t receive an answer. I don’t know whether my letter got there or not. The site confirmed receipt of the letter,” he said. “Since this is an electronic letter, I can’t say that they have refused to reply – maybe the letter didn’t get there. I rang the phone numbers on the website and tried to find out about my letter. Sadly, no one answered either of the numbers given.”

IWPR’s attempt to find out what happened to Teymurov’s complaint also failed, as no one picked up the phone for the numbers listed on the presidential website in the course of an entire day. IWPR wrote to the email address on the site on October 7 but has yet to receive a reply.

Shahla Abusattar is an investigative journalist who has long despaired of finding usable information on government websites – with one honourable exception, the State Statistics Committee.

“Our state institutions aren’t used to working with the internet. The concept of responding to an electronic request just doesn’t exist,” she said. “A website is no more than a magazine with colour photographs.”

She added, “It must be possible to obtain the requisite information. Enough money is assigned from the budget to achieve this.”

IWPR emailed 26 ministries and other state institutions in April, asking how much money was being spent on their online presence, and to date has received only five responses.

The statistics agency was the quickest to respond, taking just one day to outline the costs of its site, which has been going for nine years. The others that replied with information about staff and funding for their websites included the State Oil Fund, the environment ministry and the foreign ministry.

The rest – the ministries of education, justice, youth and sport, transport, health and agriculture, as well as the cabinet office, the Baku municipal administration and others – have not responded in six months.

Ilgar Mirza, one of the organisers of the Blogosphere project which unites young bloggers, said IWPR’s attempts to gain information about e-government confirmed the failure to deliver promised information.

As an example, he pointed out that it was impossible to register a website with an Azerbaijani domain name by going online.

“It’s a disgrace. I can buy domain names for Lichtenstein, Britain, even Zimbabwe. But in Azerbaijan it’s impossible to pay for a domain or change its configuration online. To do so, there’s just one office which you have to visit during working hours,” he said. “This one issue, buying domains, ironically illustrates how the entire internet is here.”

Azerbaijan’s Centre for Multimedia Information Systems and Technologies regularly publishes findings from its surveys of state websites. Its most recent ranking, based on the six months to June 2011, measured their transparency against a checklist set out in the 2005 e-government strategy, such as whether they provide information about the given organisation’s history, functions, top officials, and contact details including any online format.

The tax ministry came top with a 68 per cent rating, but over half of state institutions scored under 50 per cent, with the lowest points awarded to the labour and welfare ministry, whose site was not working, and the defence ministry, which does not have a website at all.

The multimedia centre’s director Osman Gunduz said the findings reflected an overall failure to adapt to the internet.

“The law lays down a series of conditions which the websites of state institutions have to meet. Our monitoring makes it clear that the sites of 57 different state institutions don’t meet even half of these conditions,” he said.

Durna Safarli is a reporter for Radio Azadliq, the Azerbaijani service of RFE/RL.

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