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Reforming the Nigerian Civil Service: My struggles, my pain, my triumphs - Part 6.
Dr. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary.
When I entered the Nigerian Civil Service in the eighties, it was clearly a decade plus after the administrative pioneers left, but the bureaucratic culture had fully taken hold; the civil service system was already in a free fall. John Galbraith, the famous US economist, was right when he noted that ‘It’s much easier to point out the problem than it is to say just how it should be solved.’ We can also adapt this by saying that it is easier to lament the predicament of the civil service system than to get into the trench of fabricating the solution to it. Euclid, the Greek mathematician once remarked that “there is no “royal road” to geometry.’ There is equally no such royal road to reforming the civil service system in Nigeria. The decision to commit to administrative reform did not come easy; the rot and decline had been there before I even made the decision to go to school. But my curiosity got the best of me, and I wondered: What led to the present situation of a civil service that was adjudged one of the best in the Commonwealth in the late 60s and the early 70s?
When I eventually decided on researching the civil service in Nigeria, I knew that I was not just an intellectual motivated by an abstract situation; I was also a practitioner. Thus, as a civil servant-intellectual, I had the unique opportunity to confront theory with troubled practice. Hence, there was no way I could be an idealist with his eyes in the starry sky. I had my feet on the trembling ground of bureaucratic malfunction. My research focus was therefore motivated by a statement of Marie Curie, the French physicist: ‘One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.’
So, seeing that the civil service system in Nigeria has become what it has become, what is to be done? This is one of the most difficult questions in the whole of history? V. I. Lenin seemed to be the first to ask the question in relation to the Russian Revolution he led in the 19th century. Within the context of administrative reform in Nigeria, this question cuts into two complementary questions-Where is the civil service headed? How can it get to where it is headed? One of the commendable contributions of the last three Nigerian governments to reform thinking in Nigeria is the formulation of the National Strategy on Public Service Reform (NSPSR), a reformulation of the public service reform strategy put together in 2003. I consider this document an irreducible reform blueprint for a simple reason: it has the weight of historical reform hindsight behind it. The vision behind the NSPSR’s framework of reform is beautifully simple: A world-class public service delivering government policies and programmes with professionalism, excellence and passion.
I have been too long in the civil service not to however understand that this vision misses out on an antecedent but fundamental goal-the urgent need for a sustainable paradigm shift in productivity. The challenge of productivity in Nigeria brings to the fore the glaring absence of a national productivity paradigm around which Nigeria’s governance trajectory can be computed as a strategy for mitigating a nascent culture of institutionalised waste in human resource management. Good governance should really be premised on the capacity of the Nigerian state to efficiently and effectively provide adequate goods and services that will constitute the dividends of democracy for Nigerians. But then the task of governance itself has a subtle way of undermining the possibility of an effectively calibrated national productivity framework that affects governance.
What are the challenges of national productivity that Nigeria faces? Let us outline just three indicators: a) the challenge that Nigeria faces as a resource dependent mono-cultural economy is one of harnessing resource efficiency to accelerate growth in the economy; b) the average output of the Nigerian workforce reflects, unarguably, low marginal productivity of labour even as national productivity is much more than just labour productivity; and c) given the relationship between productivity, performance and service delivery on the one hand, and the fact that government consumes considerable tax resources as perhaps the single largest employer of labour and provider of services in the economy on the other, Nigeria will hardly advance beyond the capability and productivity of its public service.
The summary of the predicament is that the cost of governance undermines the efficiency of national productivity. And this unbridled cost automatically generates institutional waste of such enormity that it multiplies and invades every aspect of the Nigerian administrative institutions and processes. If the vision of a world class public service is necessarily subordinated to that of instigating a national productivity paradigm shift, then the next question jumps at us: How can the civil service system be reformed to achieve such a critical national goal? Twenty seven years in the civil service is too long for me not to generate an understanding of what the trajectory of reform should look like. For Theobald Smith, ‘Research is fundamentally a state of mind involving continual re-examination of the doctrines and axioms upon which current thought and action are based. It is, therefore, critical of existing practices.’ Thus, my first research conviction is that the reform of the civil service system cannot be backward looking; it cannot be directed towards regaining the status of the service in the 60s and the 70s.
On the contrary, the civil service system must be reformed to becoming a new public service characterised as (a) fast moving, intelligent, professional, information-rich, flexible, adaptable and entrepreneurial; (b) less employee-focused and rule-driven, deliver quality service; (c) performance-focused, accountable and inspired to uphold the vision of a transformed Nigeria; (d) capable of creating the policy climate that will unlock the energy of the private sector and other sectors and to install a new productivity paradigm in the national economy; and (e) operated by multidisciplinary team of new generation public managers and project teams. The new Nigerian public service would be backstopped by a four-point reform agenda.
The first is the urgent assemblage of a new generation of public managers dedicated to the agenda of a new productivity paradigm. This becomes important because the new public service requires those who understands what it means and can strategically drive it to excellence and efficiency. The ‘new professionals’ therefore must be leaders, rather than mere administrators, with all the emotional, intellectual and cultural capital required by such a complex system as the Nigerian public service. The new public managers would not work in the capacity of transactional leadership which is essentially a problem-solver; thermostat for regulating the administrative temperature, especially when standards are not met. Rather, the leadership would be based on a shared transformative capacity which is necessary within the governance network that the 21st century reform must conform to.
The second point on the reform agenda is even more critical. It involves reengineering the MDAs management system into performance-oriented, technology-enabled and social compact or accountable business model. This becomes the institutional model that the new public service professional must work with to deliver on the productivity objective. This implies that there is a need to rethink the ways and manners in which government business is carried out if the MDAs are to become more strategic and less bureaucratic in service delivery. As they are presently, we made the point earlier in part five that the MDAs are operating simultaneously under two contradictory business models, the Weberian and the neoliberal. The challenge is to streamline the business model into a neo-Weberian framework that creatively takes the best of the new managerialism and the old Weberian models.
The third point of reform involves reorienting the public service into a rebranded and ethically-focused profession. At the heart of this rebranded public service are ethical standards like integrity, honesty, accountability, transparency, and the sense of responsibility that ensures that there is a readiness to explain how decisions are made. This could be achieved by taking serious the imperative of re-professionalization. This implies a change in the culture of doing things which cannot occur simply by changing regulations, structures, processes and technology, but by changing the orientation of public servants through a robust competency-driven, competitive, people-centred re-professionalization scheme. This re-professionalization process constitutes a prominent dimension of the performance management system. This process involves, for instance, the need to evolve a new career management system leading to the acquisition of officers with capacities and skills in specialised fields of knowledge.
The final point requires, as a specific performance issue, strengthening and leveraging Public-Private Partnership to facilitate and deepen effective and efficient service delivery. This is predicated on the fact that (a) government does not have the capacity to do everything that will make the citizens’ lives worth living; and (b) government cannot afford to achieve the little it could by being rule-bound, unresponsive and inefficient; it requires a fundamental change that will make it lean, decentralised, effective, creative and responsive; and there are little resources available to government to do anything. The way out is to explore the possibility of a functional division of labour that brings the private sector into the development agenda of the government.
Every serious agenda deserves attention, and a reform agenda all the more so because reforming the civil service system in Nigeria is the first condition for national development. Nigeria has had three governments since the inauguration of the democratic dispensation in 1999. The PMB administration is the fourth, and is more suitably positioned, and more favoured by administrative history, to oversee the required overhauling of the Nigerian public service. the change agenda of the new administration has the specifics of its tasks and responsibilities cut out for it.
Dr. Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary