Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Dr. Joe Abah's Interview by Punch Newspaper.

Director-General, Bureau of Public Service Reforms, Dr. Joe Abah,

The Director-General, Bureau of Public Service Reforms, Dr. Joe Abah, in this interview with IFEAYI ONUBA speaks on plans to reform the civil service, budget planning and execution, among other issues

Why was the Bureau of Public Service reforms set up and what are its roles?
It was set up essentially to coordinate the reform of public services going on in Nigeria. It was set up in 2004 although the presidential approval for its set up was given in 2003, by the former President Olusegun Obasanjo. And its main roles are to initiate, coordinate, monitor and evaluate the reform efforts going on in the country.
So, it is meant to be the engine room of public reforms, to look for examples of good practices, disseminate those examples so that the public services can be made to work better; monitor what people said they are going to do, whether they are actually working or not; and essentially help the public service to improve its performance.

To what extent has the bureau carried out its operations?
Let me say that public service reforms is an ongoing thing. It is not something you do once and you are successful. It doesn’t work like that and that’s why even the developed economies are still engaged in public sector reforms, including the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. They are still trying to improve their public service and so it’s not a one-off activity that you just do and you are successful and you can go home.
The measure of success is the extent to which the citizens experience better public services. I see improved facilities in our airports, I see efforts to improve our roads and I see our trains running again for the first time in 40 years and I see more investments coming into the country. All of those things affect the ordinary Nigerians and the effects of the reforms of public services that we have. So, in a nutshell, a few things are getting better and a few more things are still needed to be done.

The public service is seen by many people as being slow in carrying out out programmes owing to bureaucracies unlike the private sector.  Why is this so? What is being done to address this?
Let me correct a misconception. There is a difference between the private sector and the public sector. The success of the private sector is determined by only one variable-profit and that’s the only thing. If you want to measure a successful private sector organisation, you look at the amount of profit they make and the returns they make for the shareholders.
The public sector is very different. In the public sector, you have to consider a million and one things. It’s not just profit, you consider social cohesion, you consider issues of conflict, federal character and make sure that the county doesn’t collapse because of friction, you consider the rules that are in place to make sure things work in a particular way. So, there are so many things that make the work we do different from where you just sell, make a profit and you go home happy.
A strict comparison between the public and private sector is unfair because the private sector doesn’t consider all of the things that the public sector has to consider. But this is not to say we can’t do things more quickly. And some of the constraints to effective and efficient service delivery are issues such as corruption. The public service should be predictable. You don’t have to know anybody or bribe anybody before getting the service you we supposed to get and when you are supposed to get it.
The difference between the public and private sector is what you all call bureaucracy and that is the system of government. Bureaucracy isn’t a bad thing but what is bad is unnecessary bureaucracy and what we are doing now is to make sure we improve these processes and make people to commit to time-line in the delivery of public services.

What have been the achievements of the bureau?
The bureau itself is a bureau under the Presidency; it doesn’t go off the way to do things on its own. The bureau implements government reforms and policies. So there is an element of that and there is an element of the initiatives that the bureau itself has started. One of the key ones is the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System and the implementation was done by the bureau before it was handed over to the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation. And what this has done is that it has saved the government billions in wages for ghost workers, also for other frauds in the system. The fraud in the system is not only ghost workers, it also has to do with people collecting multiple salaries; with people who have taken loans and have not paid back and these are some of the things that the IPPIS system has been able to do.
The bureau has also championed the development of the National Strategy for Public Service reforms which has underpinned the macro economic reforms that have happened in the Ministry of Finance and the OAGF, the Office of the Auditor General, the Office of the Head of Service of the Federation which has undergone a number of reforms, the restructuring of ministries, and a lot of the work that the national planning has done as regards the Vision 2020 and the monitoring of the Transformation Agenda. All of that flows from the national strategy on public service reforms that the bureau has developed and that strategy is being refreshed and updated at the moment.
We’ve also provided guidance on how to restructure ministries, departments and agencies and how to draw a closer link between planning and budgeting.

Many people say Nigeria has good plans but suffers from poor implementation. How do you respond to this?
This is not true. Our planning is weak. If the planning is good, you will also plan for the implementation with all the challenges of the implementation and you will plan to overcome them.
If I draw a plan now that the whole of Abuja streets would be paved with gold and people say I have a good plan, that plan is faulty because it is not implementable. We don’t have the gold.
So we need to improve on our planning and we need them to tie our money to our plans. So we need to draw this very close link between the money we have and what is in the budget and the plan which is what we want to do. So the bureau has provided a guide on how to do that which is disseminated to all MDAs. We have also provided guidance on job evaluation and classification and how to make sure everybody has a job description.
We hope to provide guidance early in the new year on how to reform parastatals because it is at the parastatal that Nigerians experience government. It’s not at the ministry. It’s at the Niger Delta Development Commission that the Niger Delta people will experience this, not at the ministry of the Niger Delta. So parastatals are very important in government public service delivery and we need to make sure that more of them are working.

What are the challenges facing the bureau and how are they being managed?
I can be opportunistic and tell you that just like everyone, we have the challenge of funding but everybody has that and we are not in a unique position in that regard.
One of the key elements of governance is that you never have enough money to do all the things that you want to do and that is just the fundamental truth all over the world. But I think for us the key challenge is cynicism. Nigerians don’t just believe anything can work. They tell you about the Nigerian factor; that certain things can’t work. Anything you want to do or improve, they will ask you how much you are making available and I don’t blame people because there have been a history of this kind of behaviour. But if we dwell too much on it, we can actually miss the good things happening around us. I think we need to earn the trust of Nigerians if they can just give us the chance to show that certain things actually work. So, that for me is the greatest challenge.

You are just resuming as the DG of this agency; what new initiatives are you bringing on board?
The first initiative is to reform the Bureau of Public Service Reforms itself because the bureau has lost momentum over the last few years. When it was first established in 2004, it was headed by a director-general who has that independence and could drive reforms under the direction of the President the way it deems fit. Since then it was brought to the OHCS and was headed by a permanent secretary and that is why you heard nothing about us.
But in August this year, the President felt he needed to bring someone from outside the service to give the bureau the impetus it deserves and to return it to its original mandate.
Beyond that, we have a national strategy for public service reforms and the bureau was instrumental in developing it and we are refreshing that strategy and updating it to make sure that it focuses on current realities. We are carrying out a perception survey across the county to find out what people feel about this reforms and what is working and not working. We are also doing an analysis to look at the reforms that have happened in the last five years; which ones have worked? Which ones have not worked? Why have they worked and why haven’t they worked? What can we learn about it and improved things? And what are the gaps? This is not a political thing; we are a technical bureau and we will use that to advise people on what has worked and hasn’t worked. We are also going to be doing an analysis about what is stopping service delivery in this country, what the impediments to service delivery in this country are? Is it corruption, due process, bureaucracy, capacity problems? We will also be looking at what can be done about these and that is a key task for this bureau to undertake in the coming months.

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